Chapter OneIn possibly the worst twenty-four hours of herlife, Stephanie Ludlow lost her lease, learned agood friend was getting married, and fell madly inlust with her potential new landlord. Not that anyone of these things was so bad by itself. (Well,except for losing her lease. That sucked.) Buttaken together, she was certain they added up toa disaster in the making. “You busy next Saturday?” These were thefirst words her friend and coworker JustinThibodeaux said to her after she clocked in thatMonday morning in late spring. The lanky blondhad worked alongside Stephanie for the past fouryears and was always good for a laugh or thelatest gossip. Stephanie slid into her desk chair and put on
her telephone headset as the phone rang.“Ludlow Heating and Air Conditioning. Howmay I help you? Oh, hello, Mrs. Grayson. Yes,Mark Greenlaw is scheduled to be there thismorning by ten o’clock. Yes ma’am. Noproblem. Thank you for calling.” “Saturday. What are you doing Saturday?”Justin rolled his chair closer to hers, the line fromhis own headset trailing behind him like a deepsea diver’s tether. “Just studying.” Since she’d decided to goback to school for her master’s degree inbusiness administration, studying had becomeStephanie’s life. She didn’t mind, really. Herdegree was going to open a lot of new doors andallow her to really make something of herself.“Other than that, I don’t have anything planned.Why?” She took a slug of her extra-large chai
latte. “I’m getting married. I want you to be there.” A fountain of honey-sweetened chai and milksprayed across the desktop, and Stephanie wasmomentarily overcome by a coughing fit. Justinpounded her back. “Are you okay? What’swrong?” She wiped at her mouth with a paper towel.“Married? Didn’t you just tell me last week thatyou weren’t ready to settle down?” He looked sheepish. “Yeah, well, that wasbefore I found out Ilsa’s going to be deported.” “Isn’t she here on some kind of work visa?” “Her visa’s expiring. She has to go back toRomania. But if we get married, she can get agreen card and stay.” Though Justin had dated the cute Romaniannurse longer than anyone in recent memory,
Stephanie hadn’t realized things were quite soserious between the two. Apparently hertalkative coworker didn’t tell her everything. “Agreen-card marriage. How romantic.” “Aww, don’t be like that. I really do love her.I just hadn’t planned on popping the questionyet.” “Saturday is a little soon for a wedding. Areyou sure you aren’t rushing things?” “We don’t have much choice. If we don’tmake it legal quickly, immigration will kick herout. So will you be there? Please?” “Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it.” “Good. Then will you do me a favor?” She narrowed her eyes at him, recalling pastfavors Justin had asked of her. Like the time he’dtalked her into going on a blind date with his ex-college roommate, who had turned out to be an
alcoholic who crooned Beatles tunes off-keyafter his third beer. Or the time he’d persuadedher to take snowboarding lessons with him, andshe’d broken her wrist the first day. “Itdepends.” “Would you be one of Ilsa’s bridesmaids? Shestill doesn’t know that many people here, and itwould mean a lot to me. And to her, too.” She stared at him. “Aren’t bridesmaids a littleformal for a rush job like this?” “Ilsa wants to do this right. She says she canpull it together. She’s already found a church.” Stephanie shook her head. “Sorry, but I don’tdo bridesmaid.” “You were a bridesmaid in Jackie Miller’swedding, weren’t you?” She made a face, remembering that particularnightmare. Between dealing with the neurotic
bride and stuffing herself into orange taffetaruffles, it had taken her weeks to recover. “Yes,and I’ve sworn off them since. Five weddings inugly dresses is enough. I’ve done my time.” “Please. It would mean so much to both ofus.” She was saved by the phone. “LudlowHeating and Air Conditioning.” “Stephanie? It’s Marge Carter.” “Oh, hi, Marge. Is something wrong?” Shehad remembered to mail this month’s rent check,hadn’t she? Why else would her landlord call herat work? “Listen, hon, I got a buyer for the house, soI’m going to have to ask you to clear out.” Stephanie’s stomach plummeted to knee level.The rental she was in had been on the market formore than a year—so long she’d decided it
would probably never sell. “Uh, wow. Howgreat.” She tried to sound cheerful. “When doyou need me to be out?” “Friday. I know it’s short notice, but the manand his wife are paying extra, and they want itright away. I can’t lose the chance to unload theplace after so long.” Stephanie bit back a scream of frustration.“Marge, I don’t know if I—” “You’re young and single. And it’s not likeyou have a ton of stuff. Couldn’t you stay withfriends? Or your dad? I’ll refund your depositand the rest of this month’s rent. Look, I have toget off the phone now. The buyer said he’d callback right away. I’ll tell him everything’s okay.All right?” Before she could squeeze out an answer, thedial tone sounded in her ear. She slumped and
punched off the phone. “What’s wrong?” Justin peered at her.“You’ve gone all white.” “I’ve been evicted.” Justin grinned. “All those wild parties, right?C’mon, what’s up, really?” “Marge sold the house. I have to be out byFriday.” She buried her head in her hands. “Whatam I going to do? I’ll never find a place by theend of the week.” Her father—and her boss—Jack Ludlow would let her crash at his place, noproblem. But the prospect made her shudder.Once she crossed the threshold of her dad’stownhome, she would be Daddy’s little girl again,with all the overprotective concern and loss ofprivacy that implied. “No problem,” Justin said. “You can move inwith me.”
She shook her head. “Thanks, but don’t youthink Ilsa might object?” She and Justin weregood friends, but that’s all they were—friends.What new bride-to-be would understand that? “No, really, one of my roommates moved outa few weeks ago, and the guy who owns thehouse has been looking for a replacement. It’s abig front bedroom with its own bath.” She remembered now that Justin shared ahouse on Bear Creek with a lot of other people.“Who else lives there?” “There’s Mike—it’s his house. Nicole—she’san accountant over at Baxter and Evans. Me.And Ilsa. She’s already moved in with me.” “Wait a minute. You’re still going to live thereafter you’re married?” “We can’t really afford our own place rightnow, and it’s a sweet setup. You’ve seen it—big
yard, game room, living room, everything.” Stephanie had vague memories from a partyshe’d attended at the house last year of soaringceilings, a stone fireplace, and a creek practicallyrunning past the front door. It was deluxe allright. “Rent’s five hundred a month. You won’t findanything close to that price that’s anywhere nearas nice.” No kidding. You couldn’t rent a toolshed inEvergreen, Colorado, for five hundred a month.She gave Justin a grateful look. “It sounds prettygood. Can you set it up for me to come by andtake a look?” He was already dialing. “Don’t worry. You’lllove it. And Mike’s going to love you. Well, asmuch as he loves any woman.” “What’s that supposed to mean? Is he gay?”
Justin shook his head. “Divorced. His ex-wifereally did a number on him, and I guess he’sbitter. But he’s a great guy.” “Whatever. I’m not interested in him as a man.Only as a landlord.” Her phone line rang, and she hurried to answerit. Dating was fine, but she was done with seriousrelationships. She’d proven to herself that shewas lousy at them. Every time, just when shethought it was going great and she started hearingdistant wedding bells, things would blow up inher face. It had happened with both of the guysshe’d gotten serious about, and she wasn’t up tomaking it three in a row. Besides, right now she needed to focus onschool. She didn’t have time for a love life. Betterto keep things casual. A houseful of roommatesmight be helpful with that. What kind of a
romance could you have with four or five otherpeople always around? …By the time Stephanie shut off her engine in thedriveway of Mike Brubaker’s house after work,she would have seriously considered tradingcertain nonessential body parts for the chance tolive there. Natural river rock and cedar timbersrose two stories amid hundred-year-old bluespruce and lodgepole pine. Expanses of tintedglass reflected the surrounding forest andmountains, and the silvery waters of Bear Creektumbled over rocks less than a hundred yardsfrom the front deck. She studied the windows and tried to decidewhich one belonged to the bedroom Justin hadmentioned. What would it be like to wake up to
this view every day? She only hoped some otherlucky sucker hadn’t rented the space out fromunder her. Using the rearview mirror, she freshened herlipstick, smoothed back her dark cap of hair, andtried for a not-too-eager expression. Ugh.Acting was not her strong suit. She got out of thecar and climbed the steps to the front door. “Yeah, yeah. Just a minute,” came the shoutedanswer to the doorbell’s summons. She heardshuffling, fumbling sounds from the other side ofthe door, and then it opened to reveal a broad-shouldered, flat-stomached man dressed in fadedpurple pajama pants—and nothing else.Stephanie stared at the light dusting of hair acrosshis chest and struggled to keep her gaze fromdropping to the single line of hair below his navel,disappearing into the low-slung pants.
Feelings she would have sworn were longdormant suddenly clamored for attention. Herheart pounded. She forced her gaze up to theman’s face. He had thick brown hair, tousled asif he’d just awakened; a strong jaw shadowedwith dark stubble; and piercing blue eyes. Sleepyeyes. Sexy eyes. “I, uh…I’m here about the bed.I mean the bedroom.” Fortunately, Mr. Gorgeous was distracted bysomething behind him. He looked back over hisshoulder. “Ryan, what are you doing in there?” “I’m lookin’ for the video, Dad.” “I’ll help you find it in a minute. Get back onthe couch.” A much smaller version of the man before her—without the chest hair, muscles, or beardstubble—came into the hallway. He, too, wasclad in flannel pajama pants, and he had his
father’s dark hair and blue eyes. “Who’s thelady?” he asked. The man turned back to Stephanie. “Who didyou say you were again?” “Stephanie Ludlow. Justin’s friend? I’m hereabout the room you have for rent.” He blinked and not-so-subtly checked her out.“When Justin said you were a friend from work, Iwasn’t expecting—” His gaze hovered over herchest, and she wished she hadn’t worn such atight T-shirt. “Well…” She folded her arms over her chest and triednot to sound as pissed off as she was beginningto feel. “You were expecting a man. Do you havea problem renting to a woman?” “What?” He dragged his gaze up to eye levelonce more. “No. You just caught me by surprise,that’s all. One of my other housemates, Nicole, is
a woman.” He held the door open wider andmotioned Stephanie in. “I guess you figured outby now, I’m Mike Brubaker. Sorry I’m notdressed for company. My son’s home sicktoday, and I stayed in to look after him. We weretaking a nap.” “Now we’re going to watch Spider-Man,” theboy said. “That’s a good movie,” she said. “I’m sorryyou’re not feeling well.” “I got a code.” He sniffled loudly. Mike put his hand on the boy’s shoulder andturned him back toward the living room. “You goback on the couch, sport, while I show Ms.Ludlow the room.” They watched Ryan shuffle back down thehall. “Cute kid,” Stephanie said. “He’s a great kid.” No mistaking the pride in
his voice. Mike might be bitter about women, buthe clearly had a soft spot for his son. “Does he live here with you?” “Not as much as I’d like. Is that a problem? Iknow some people don’t like having kidsaround.” “Oh, no!” She shook her head. “I love kids.” He rubbed his chin. The sound of his beardstubble rasping against his hand sent a quiverthrough her middle. Obviously it had been waytoo long since she’d been this close to a man. Atleast one wearing so few clothes…and who hadsuch an incredible body. “Ryan’s supposed to live here half the time.His mom and I share custody. But she has a wayof changing things around to suit her schedule,not mine.” “Oh. That’s…unfortunate.” And surprising,
too. Mike didn’t look like a man who let anyonetell him what to do. “But you didn’t come here to listen to myproblems. Come on. I’ll show you the room.” Heled her through a large formal living room to thespacious bedroom. “Almost three hundredsquare feet. Walk-in closet. Private bath with ashower. Overlooks the creek.” She bit back a cry of delight. It was perfect.Living here would be like living in some posh bedand breakfast. Except for the breakfast part. Andno maid service. But still… She tore her eyes away from the fantasticwalk-in closet and turned back to Mike. He hadhis hands on his hips and was staring out thewindow. Muscles bunched across his shouldersand upper arms, and that quiver went through hermiddle again. The view out the window wasn’t
the only great scenery around here. He turned and caught her staring at him. “Sowhat do you think?” I think you’re too gorgeous for me to livewith in the same house. She tore her gaze fromhim and looked at the room again. Who wouldn’twant to live in a place like this? She’d be acertifiable idiot if she passed up this chance.She’d never find anything nearly this wonderfuland this cheap again. “It’s beautiful. The wholehouse is beautiful.” “Thanks. I built it.” “Really?” She was impressed. “That’samazing.” He shrugged. “It’s what I do.” “It’s really a wonderful house.” “Thanks. The rent for this room is five hundreda month. You want it?”
“Yes!” she blurted. What was a little unrequited lust compared tothe chance to live in a place like this?
Chapter TwoStephanie put most of her furniture in storage andtalked Justin into moving the rest to Mike’s housein his truck. Marge, grateful for Stephanie’scooperation, refunded the entire month’s rent andthe deposit, which allowed Stephanie to payMike without emptying her savings account.Lucky break number two—number one beinglanding this place. That left only her father to deal with. Inanother life, she’d have moved without tellinghim, but since she needed to give her newaddress to the payroll department at work—whowas her aunt Judy, her father’s sister—keepingher new digs a secret wasn’t a possibility. “You’re moving into some stranger’s house?”Jack Ludlow, a stocky fireplug of a man in his
early fifties whose thick silver hair contrasted withhis heavy, dark brows, rose from his chair in theLudlow Heating and Air Conditioning office andleaned over the desk toward his daughter. “Witha bunch of people you don’t even know?” “I know Justin. And it’s not as if I’m moving inwith strangers. I have my own room. My ownsuite. It’s a really nice house, Dad.” She rushedto head off all her father’s potential objections.“And the rent is a real bargain. And it’s in a safeneighborhood.” “Why don’t you just move in with me? I’vegot a spare bedroom and bath. And I won’tcharge you any rent at all. You can help aroundthe house in exchange for the room.” Stephanie gripped the arms of the chair untilher knuckles ached. “Helping out around thehouse” was her dad’s code for cooking and
cleaning. She loved her father. She really did. Buthe was as old-fashioned as they came about theroles of men and women. Oh, he’d hire a womanto work for him without blinking, if she had theskills. But he pictured even the toughest techgoing home at the end of the day to don an apronand whip up dinner and vacuum the rugs. She could have dealt with all that, even. ButDad tended to be a little overprotective. Okay, alot overprotective. After her mom had walkedout when Stephanie was sixteen, her father hadthrown himself into the role of single parent. Hecouldn’t seem to stop trying to look after her andprovide for her every need. That was one more reason she’d decided togo back to school. Though she’d probablyeventually end up taking the reins at LudlowHeating and AC, she wanted to try her hand at
managing other businesses and to see some ofthe world on her own. “I need my own place, Dad. This is a greatopportunity for me.” “I’ll be the judge of that.” Which was why on moving day she followedher father’s truck up Bear Creek Road towardher new home. Her dad had insisted on loadingup her bedroom furniture himself—with Justin’shelp—while Stephanie stuffed her trunk and thebackseat of her car with boxes and draped mostof the contents of her bedroom closet across thepassenger seat. When they pulled up to the house on BearCreek, Ilsa was waiting for them. A buxom,round-faced woman with streaked blond hair andexpressive brown eyes, Ilsa reminded Stephanieof the St. Pauli Girl beer advertisements. All she
needed was a dirndl. Though the T-shirt Ilsawore clearly worked for Justin, who climbed outof the passenger seat of Stephanie’s dad’s truckand greeted his beloved with a passionate kiss.Less than twenty-four hours until the wedding,and it looked like they wanted to start thehoneymoon early. Stephanie cleared her throat to remind themshe was still there, and they managed to tearthemselves away from each other. Ilsa grinned atStephanie. “I came to help. I am very good atunpacking.” “Thanks. I need all the help I can get.” “Where’s this Mike fellow?” her fatherdemanded, glaring at the front door. “I have not seen him.” Ilsa shrugged. Shespoke with the carefully rounded vowels andavoidance of contractions of a skilled but non-
native English speaker. “Maybe he is working.” Of course. And it wasn’t as if any of her pastlandlords had helped her move in. Still, Stephaniewas disappointed she wouldn’t get to see him.The man was awfully easy on the eyes. “Come show me where you want this bed.”Her father shouldered past her with theheadboard to her grandmother’s cherry sleighbed. Stephanie followed him inside. He stoppedin the living room to survey the soaring ceilings,stone fireplace, and fabulous view. “Isn’t it great, Dad?” Stephanie asked. “Hmmph. Where’s your room?” She led him to the bedroom, which was just asspacious and inviting as she remembered, andshowed him how she wanted the bed placed inthe corner. Then she ran back out to help Ilsaunload the car.
The two women carried armloads of clothesinside and hung them in the closet while Justinand her father put the bed together. “Thank you for agreeing to be in ourwedding,” Ilsa said as they hung the last of theclothes. “I guess I am sentimental, but it isimportant to me to start our marriage off right,with our friends around us.” “I’m still amazed you were able to pulleverything together so quickly,” Stephanie said.“I know people who spend months planning awedding.” “I asked everyone I know to help me. Thechaplain at the hospital has a friend who let ususe her church, and one of my patients works ata hotel and told us about a cancellation for one oftheir banquet rooms, and other friends arehelping with the reception.” She smiled, deep
dimples forming on either side of her mouth. “Ibought my dress at a bridal shop sample sale,and when I told the owner of the shop what Iwas doing, she did the alterations right away.” “Everybody loves Ilsa.” Justin looked up fromfitting the pieces of the bed together. “People fallall over themselves to do stuff for her. I’ve neverseen anything like it.” Maybe it was the combination of dimples andbig brown eyes, or perhaps it was simply that Ilsawas genuinely nice. “It sounds like you’ve takencare of everything,” Stephanie said. She took adeep breath and steeled herself for the answer tothe question she’d been dreading. “Um, whatabout bridesmaids’ dresses?” “Oh, that is no problem.” Ilsa opened thecloset and began rifling through Stephanie’sdresses. She shoved a bunch of clothes aside and
pulled out an ankle-length column dress of blackcrepe. “Here. You can wear this.” She held thedress up to Stephanie. “I have a white lace scarffor around the shoulders, and so there.” Shenodded approvingly. “You will look beautiful.” Stephanie stared at her in amazement. “Wherehave you been for the other five weddings I’vebeen in?” At Ilsa’s look of confusion, Stephanie leanedover and moved clothes aside until she came tothe five brightly colored dresses grouped togetherat the back. Taffeta rustled like old newspaper asshe pulled out chartreuse, orange, raspberry,eggplant, and mustard yellow concoctions ofruffles and poufs. “I don’t know why I keepthem, except that I spent so much money on eachone, it seems wasteful to throw them out.” Ilsa’s face paled, and she put a hand to her
mouth. “They are hideous.” She shook her head,making a clucking noise with her tongue. “Iwould never do that to a friend.” She held up theblack dress again. “My wedding will be blackand white, with red roses. Simple.” Justin straightened and shoved a screwdriverinto the back pocket of his jeans. “That’s myIlsa.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “Is shea class act or what?” “Then how did she end up with you?” Herfather joined them and winked at Ilsa, whogiggled. Yes, Dad could be charming when hewanted to. She turned to look at the bed. The antiquewas made for a room like this. Once the mattressand box spring were in place, and hercomforter… “Justin, thanks for helping me withthis. I…”
Her voice trailed away as she turned and sawthat her thanks fell on deaf ears. Justin and Ilsawere lost in a kiss, tangled in each other’s arms. Stephanie sighed and tried to ignore a sharppang of envy. Not too long ago, she’d dreamedof sharing her antique bed with a love of her own,but things hadn’t worked out. She pushed awaythe thought. No moping, she silently scolded andheaded back to her car for another load. She was balancing a box of books on one hip,grappling with the doorknob, when a familiarvoice rumbled behind her. “Give me that beforeyou hurt yourself.” She turned as Mike strode up the steps andrelieved her of her burden. Tucking the heavybox under one arm like an empty suitcase, hemoved past her and opened the door. He wasdressed in a blue chambray work shirt, faded
jeans, and work boots. The jeans had been wornand washed until they were the texture of rawsilk, shaped to his thighs and butt like a secondskin. He’d rolled up the sleeves of the shirt,revealing muscled forearms. Stephanie wassuddenly conscious of her own dusty tank topand shorts. “Uh, thanks,” she managed tomumble, and combed a hand through herdisheveled hair. He hefted the box. “What’s in here? Bricks?” “Books.” She followed him into the house andacross the living room to her quarters. Justin, Ilsa, and her father were gone when sheand Mike reached the bedroom. He set the boxof books on the floor and walked over to thebed. “Nice.” He ran his hand along the smoothcurve of the footboard. She watched his hand follow the dip of the
curve the way he might trace the narrows andswells of a woman’s body. He had long,sensuous fingers. She felt hot and short of breath,trying to remember the last time a man hadtouched her with half the tenderness Mike nowlavished on her bed. “It was my grandmother’s,” she blurted at last.One her mother’s side. When Joy Ludlow hadwalked out, she hadn’t left much behind for herdaughter, but there had been a note. Give Stephthe bed. Not much of a legacy, but it wassomething. He looked up. “It’s a nice piece. It looks goodhere.” He took a step back from the bed, towardher. “Are you getting settled in okay?” “Yes, thank you. I know I’m going to love ithere.” She surveyed the growing stacks of boxes,
imagining how everything would look when shewas unpacked and she’d had time to arrange itall. “If you need anything, let me know.” She nodded and searched for something elseto say. She wasn’t ready for him to leave just yet.“How’s Ryan?” The smile he gave her transformed his features.The lines across his forehead softened, thoughthe ones around his eyes deepened. His teethwere white against his tan. “He’s doing great. Heinsisted on going back to school the next daybecause they had a field trip to the sciencemuseum.” “How old is he?” “Nine. He’s really into science.” So Mike wasn’t all bitterness and bravado.The mention of his son brought out this softer,
more likable side. “I’m looking forward to seeinghim again,” she said. “He’ll want to see you, too. He said you had anice smile.” Mike had a nice smile, too, though she hadn’tseen it nearly enough. They were still looking at each other, neither ofthem speaking, when her father entered theroom. He carried the rocking chair that had alsobeen her grandmother’s. “Are you the landlord?”he asked, using the tone of voice he usuallyreserved for apprentices who’d handed him thewrong tool. “I’m Mike Brubaker.” “Mike, this is my father, Jack Ludlow.”Stephanie tucked her hand into the crook of herfather’s arm as if that might keep him from sayinganything to embarrass her.
No such luck. “I just want you to know mydaughter is a good girl, and you should respectthat.” Jack glowered at Mike. “Dad!” Stephanie’s face burned, and shewished the floor would open up and swallow her.Or better yet, swallow her father so he couldn’tstand there and make things worse. “I’m only telling him the truth, right?” If her father wanted to believe she was still aninnocent virgin who never drank, cursed, or somuch as thought about sex, Stephanie wasn’tgoing to try to dissuade him. But she drew theline at him presenting this image of her to others.“Dad, Mike is renting me a room. He’s notinterested in my personal life.” “Right.” Mike backed toward the door, eyeingher father warily. “This is just a businessarrangement. Nothing personal.”
Justin and Ilsa came back into the room, theirarms full of boxes. “Hey, Mike, glad you’rehere.” Justin set his box on the floor. “Now Iknow we’ll get finished up in time for thebachelor party.” Ilsa looked at her fiancé, one eyebrow archedin question. “What is this bachelor party?” “It’s a tradition to take the groom out andmourn his last night of freedom.” Mike clappedJustin on the back. “I promise to see that hemakes it to the altar in one piece.” “Don’t listen to him.” Justin tried to reassureher. “We’re just going out for a few drinks.” Ilsa shook her head. “Fine. Go. But if youhave a headache at our wedding, I will have nosympathy. I will ask the DJ to play the musicextra loud, just for you.” “Then the least I can do is make sure he has a
headache,” Mike said. Justin laughed and pulled Ilsa into his arms.“Don’t listen to him. Remember, he doesn’t havetoo high an opinion of marriage.” He kissed herforehead. “But I’ve discovered the secret. Youjust have to find the right woman.” Mike rolled his eyes. “Is that where I wentwrong?” He glanced at Stephanie, and in thatmoment she glimpsed the pain behind hisbravado—a hurt that mirrored her own carefullyguarded emotions. She knew how tough it wassometimes to watch other people being happywhen that kind of bliss had eluded you. She andMike had more in common than he probablysuspected. One more reason to avoid any kind ofinvolvement with him. Everybody knew reboundrelationships were a bad idea. A double rebound
was nothing but a recipe for heartbreak. His expression hardened, the off-limits signflashing once more in his eyes. He turned hisattention back to the cooing couple. “I’d bettergo and get cleaned up.” He pushed past them,out the door. Ilsa looked after him. “Poor Mike. I think he isvery lonely.” Join the club. “Don’t waste your pity on Mike,” Justin said.“He’s got plenty of women who would be glad tokeep him company.” Stephanie tried to signal Justin that this was notthe subject she wanted discussed in front of herfather, but it was too late. “Are you saying thisMike guy is a playboy type?” Jack asked. Justin sent Stephanie a panicked look. “No! Imean, he’s no monk, but—”
Ilsa shook her head. “I think Mike is afraid tobe serious about anyone.” Jack turned to Stephanie. “You stay awayfrom him, Stephie. You don’t need a guy likethat.” “Mike’s a good guy,” Justin said. “Stephaniedoesn’t have to worry about him.” “You make sure she doesn’t.” Justin paled. “I’m sure Stephanie can takecare of herself. Besides, you’re not interested insettling down right now, are you, Stephanie?” She and Justin were going to have to have alittle talk about him and his big mouth. “I’msaving myself for the right man,” she said.“Besides, I have to focus on school.” The secondpart was true, at least. Her father smiled and nodded. “That’s mygirl.”
It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to settledown, just that she couldn’t afford to keepputting her heart out there to get trampled on. Awoman could only take so much. Time to change the subject. She turned to Ilsa.“What are you planning to do while Justin’s at hisbachelor party?” Ilsa shook her head. “Nothing. I will sit at myapartment and worry about him.” “You can’t do that.” Stephanie grinned. “Wehave to have a bachelorette party. Who else is inthe wedding?” Ilsa tilted her head to one side, thinking.“Nicole, who lives here, and my friend Alina fromwork. There are some other friends who arehelping with the reception.” “Let’s call them all.” She found her purse anddug out her cell phone. “We’ll go out and have a
great time.” She’d double up on her studies afterthe wedding. Her father patted her shoulder. “You do that.Have a good time. And if you need anything, youcall me.” “I will.” She kissed his cheek. “Thanks forhelping me move.” He looked around the room. “It’s a nice place.But you remember my spare bedroom is alwaysavailable.” “Thanks.” He left, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “Your father is very nice,” Ilsa said. “He is.” His hovering was sweet, really, whenit didn’t annoy her. “Come on, let’s get busyplanning your party. We have a lot to celebrate.”If nothing else, she could toast the fact that shedidn’t have to invest in yet another hideous
bridesmaid’s dress. …Mike sat at the bar, watching Justin and the othergroomsmen play pool while the jukebox blaredloud rock music in the background. For Justin’ssake, Mike was making an effort to at least looklike he was enjoying himself, but he knew he wasdoing a lousy job. Justin laughed about something and raised hispool cue like a staff. “Another round of drinksover here,” he called to the waitress. The man was half out of his mind withhappiness, crazy in love with Ilsa. Mike had beenlike that once, and look where it had gotten him. The groom-to-be bent back over the pooltable and promptly sank the cue ball. The menaround him jeered, but he let out a whoop.
Okay, so maybe Mike hadn’t been that giddy.Even in the early days, Kaye had made himuneasy sometimes, but he’d chalked that up toher being a woman. She’d wanted a fancy wedding, so he’d gonealong with it. She’d wanted a kid and a career,and he’d been happy to do whatever he could tomake that happen. She’d asked for her dreamhouse, and he’d given it to her. Then she’ddecided that he wasn’t the husband she’d wantedafter all and left him for some lawyer in a fancysuit. Maybe he should have seen the split coming.He hadn’t, though. So much for thinking he wassmart. Justin came over to him and clapped him onthe back. “Come on, let’s play some pool.” Mike shook his head. “I don’t want toembarrass you in front of all these people when I
clear the table before you get one shot.” Justin laughed—the loud, hearty chortling of aman no misery could reach. “Come on. Let’splay.” “Anything for the groom.” Mike pushed asidehis empty beer mug and followed Justin to thetable. The other groomsmen, Matt and Ed,moved aside. Mike broke, sending the balls spinning acrossthe green felt. The ten ball dropped into thepocket. He bent over the table and sighted alongthe cue, aiming for the six ball that teetered infront of the corner pocket. “Hey, thanks for renting to Stephanie,” Justinsaid. “You really helped her out of a jam.” The ball fell into the pocket, and Mike movedon to his next shot. “You could say she helpedme out of a jam, since I didn’t have to advertise
or waste time looking for another renter.” “Well, anyway, I appreciate it. She’s great.” “Then why don’t you introduce her to me?”Matt called from his perch on a bar stoolopposite the tables. “I could use a great woman.And since you’re taking yourself off the markettomorrow…” “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t introduce my worstenemy to a dog like you,” Justin shot back. Mike paused, an unnerving thought catchinghim off guard. He looked up at Justin. “Did youand Stephanie ever…?” Justin paled. “No! We’re just friends.” Heshook his head. “She’s more like my sister, youknow? Anyway, she’s not my type.” Mike thought of Stephanie—petite and dark-haired. Definitely very different from blond, curvyIlsa. The two ball bounced off the side of the
table and rolled back toward the center. “Stephanie’s just different, you know?” Justincontinued. “What do you mean?” “Yeah,” Matt said, “does she go shoppingwithout paying for things or have a weirdaversion to baths or engage in long conversationswith imaginary people?” “You actually know women like that?” Edasked. “No wonder you’re single.” “Look who’s talking,” Matt said. “You oncedated a woman who carried a can of disinfectantaround in her purse and sprayed it oneverything.” Ed shrugged. “Turns out she had a germphobia. I tried to kiss her, and she gave me alecture on all the bacteria living in my mouth.Made me want to go gargle with Listerine.”
Justin picked up his cue and moved in for hisshot. “Stephanie’s not like that. She’s prettynormal as far as I can tell. Maybe a little too…”He hit the side of the cue ball, sending it rollingharmlessly in the wrong direction. He shook hishead. “I don’t know. Independent. I guess I gofor women who are a little softer. Not soopinionated.” “Then you’re in for a rude surprise, dude,”Matt said. “Every woman has opinions, and I’msure Ilsa will be happy to share plenty of themwith you.” Justin frowned. “You know what I mean.Stephanie is one of those women who doesn’twant to depend on anyone for anything. Forinstance, she could be set for life, working for herdad, but instead she decided to go back toschool and get her master’s. I sometimes wonder
if women like that even need men.” “I don’t know.” Mike aimed for his next shot.“There’s something to be said for a woman whocan stand on her own two feet.” He’d gottenawfully tired of Kaye depending on him to makeher happy. At least when a woman like Stephaniewas interested in you, you could be reasonablysure she was interested in you, not just your bankaccount or what you could do for her. He sank the four ball. “I like a woman whostands on her own two feet, especially whenthose feet are attached to a pair of killer legs.” “Oh, no, you don’t.” Justin leaned over andclamped a hand on Mike’s shoulder. Mike shrugged out of his grasp. “Don’t what?” “Don’t go getting ideas about Stephanie. She’snot going to be one of your flavor-of-the-monthwomen.”
“Who said I had any ideas about her? She’san attractive woman, that’s all I said.” “You can have all the other attractive womenyou want, but leave her out of this. She’s hadenough men stomp on her heart without youdoing the same.” So Stephanie Ludlow had been unlucky inlove. Had she made bad choices, or did she havesome flaw in her he hadn’t yet seen? For the littlehe’d been around her, she’d seemed like a smart,classy woman with good taste. He rememberedthe books and her antique bed. It was a beautifulpiece, sensual. Like her. “Mike, I mean it. Stay away from Stephanie.” Mike glared at his friend. “I make onecomment about a woman’s legs, and the nextthing I know you’re accusing me of breaking her
heart.” “I know you. You date a woman just longenough for her to think you’re interested, thenyou drop her and move on to the next conquest.” “And there’s a problem with this?” Mattasked. Justin gave him a withering look, and thenfocused once more on Mike. “Fine by me if youwant to live that way, but you hurt Stephanie andyou’ll answer to me.” Justin made him sound like Jack the Ripper.He’d only been seriously involved with onewoman in the six months since his divorce. Hisaffair with Madeline—relationship was toodignified a word to describe it—had proven hewasn’t ready to get in over his head again. She’dbeen his roommate, living in the room that wasnow Stephanie’s, and Ryan had assumed she’d
be around for good. He’d been upset when sheleft in a huff. Mike had learned his lesson. He needed to bemore careful for Ryan’s sake, if not for his own.He’d vowed to himself that whatever personalsacrifices he had to make, he would provide hisson a stable home. Or as stable as a home couldbe when Ryan was only with him half the time. “Okay, okay.” He threw his hands up in mocksurrender. “I’ll stay away from Stephanie.” For now, anyway, he was staying away fromall women. “Are you two going to play pool or talk allnight?” Matt asked. “Yeah, I thought this was supposed to be abachelor party.” Ed thumped his empty beer mugdown on the bar. “I’ve been to more excitingoffice parties.”
“Don’t look now, but I think things are goingto get a lot more interesting.” Matt noddedtoward the door, and the others turned to look. Mike stared, not quite believing his eyes.Walking through the front doors was the femalecontingent of the wedding party. And leading theway in jeans and a figure-hugging red top wasStephanie herself. Their eyes met, and he wassure his blood pressure ratcheted up a notch.He’d just sworn to Justin he wouldn’t haveanything to do with Stephanie, and lord knew hedidn’t need some woman mucking up his life anyfurther. All of a sudden, none of that meant much. Blame it on alcohol or abstinence or plain old-fashioned attraction, but he had a feeling thingswere about to get very interesting indeed.
Chapter ThreeStephanie stared at the other end of the bar,where Mike and the other male members of thewedding party were gathered around the pooltables. Mike’s eyes caught and held hers, intenseand searching. A warm flush spread across herchest and up her neck. If he could do that to herwith one look, what would happen if he actuallytouched her? She might melt down right there infront of everybody. “What are they doing here?” Nicole Weller,her other new roommate and one of thebridesmaids, whispered into Stephanie’s ear. Stephanie shrugged. “I guess they had thesame idea we did for their party.” “Justin!” Ilsa had already spotted her fiancéand was hurtling toward him, arms outstretched.
The two bottles of champagne the women hadconsumed back at the house obviously hadn’tdone anything to dampen her ardor. “Hey girls, pull up a barstool.” Justin wavedthem over. Reluctantly, Stephanie followed the othersover. “So this is your wild bachelor party,” shesaid, sliding onto the barstool one of thegroomsmen had vacated for her. She lookedaround at the pool tables and the silent jukebox.“I thought guys usually went to strip joints.” “The night is young,” Mike said. “Yeah, we just stopped off here for a fewdrinks first,” Justin said. Ilsa put her hands on her hips and frowned athim. “You can’t drive anywhere if you’ve beendrinking.” “We tried to talk Mike into being our
designated driver,” a groomsman said. “But hesaid he had more reason to drink than any of us.” Mike raised his glass in a mock toast. “Onlybecause I let Justin talk me into this after I sworeI’d never put on a tux and stand up in front of apreacher again.” Did Stephanie imagine that his eyes were onher when he spoke? Fine. She got the message.What made him think she was interested in himthat way? What made him think she wasinterested in him at all? Except, of course, the heat that sizzledbetween them every time they were withinspitting distance of each other. For her dignity’ssake, she’d hoped Mike hadn’t noticed it. Nosuch luck. “Speaking of drinks,” Justin said, “what can Iget you ladies?”
“Champagne!” Ilsa giggled. “It is not good tomix drinks, is it?” “I’ll have vodka.” Alina shrugged. “I amRussian; what else?” The other women ordered, and then Justinturned to her. “What about you, Stephanie?” “Diet Coke for me.” “So you’re the designated driver,” Mike said. “No. We came in a cab.” She avoided hiseyes. She was drinking soda because she wantedher wits about her while he was around. The manmade it difficult for her to think straight as it was. Someone put money into the jukebox, and agroomsman dragged one of Ilsa’s coworkersonto the little dance floor. Stephanie sipped herdrink and watched Mike, who sat on theopposite side of the room—as far from thewomen as he could get. He pretended to be
watching the pool players, but Stephanie noticedhe kept glancing over at her, then looking away.He had his fingers wrapped around the neck of abeer bottle, and she thought again of how he’dstroked the bed. “If you’re going to keep staring at him likethat, you might as well ask him to dance,” Nicolesaid. Stephanie blinked and sat up straighter. “Iwasn’t staring.” “It looked like staring to me.” Nicole turned tothe other women. “What do you think?” “You were staring,” Alina said, and the othersnodded. “Ask Mike to dance,” Ilsa urged. “I think hewould like it.” “No. I don’t want to dance with him.” Shelooked back at him, just in time to see him look
away again. “Maybe you are afraid.” Alina grinned, herbrown eyes dancing with mischief. “That’s ridiculous.” Stephanie suddenly wishedshe’d ordered something stronger than soda. “Then why not ask him to dance?” Nicolesaid. “I hear he’s a good dancer.” “Then you ask him to dance,” Stephaniecountered. Nicole laughed. “I’m a terrible dancer.Besides, I’m not the one who keeps staring athim.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice.“And he’s staring back.” A new song started. “Go on, ask him.” Ilsanudged her shoulder. “Ask who what?” Justin set their drink orderon the table and put his arm around Ilsa. Some ofthe other men looked up from their game of pool,
obviously listening. Oh, no. They’d never let up now. Rather thanhave her personal business become a topic ofentertainment for the whole bar, Stephanie slidoff the barstool. “All right, I’ll ask him.” She avoided looking at Mike as she made herway toward him, but she could feel his eyes onher, hot and intense. Her steps slowed as sheexaggerated the movement of her hips. If he wasdetermined to seduce her with his gaze, she’dturn the tables and do a little tempting of her own.Not that she had any intention of letting this gotoo far. After all, neither of them wanted to getinvolved. They’d made that clear. She stopped in front of him. “Want to dance?” He shook his head. “Nope.” She curled her fingers against her palms.“Come on. Just one. I walked all the way over
here, and if you say no I’ll look like a fool.” “Sorry. I don’t dance.” She leaned closer, so close she could smell hiscologne and an underlying maleness that madeher stomach tighten. “Everyone’s watching us. Ifwe don’t dance, they’re going to spend the restof the night annoying us with their comments.” His eyes flicked past her, then jerked back.“You’re right.” He raised one eyebrow, a hint ofa smile at the corners of his mouth softening hisexpression, making him seem less forbidding.More…touchable. “Do you know how much Ihate to admit that?” She took his hand and tugged him off thestool. “Dance with me, and I’ll forgive you.” He led her onto the dance floor. She fit into hisarms, resisting the urge to close her eyes and layher head in the hollow of his shoulder. He held
her like a man who knew about women, not as ifshe were so fragile that she might break, and notso tightly that she couldn’t breathe. His right handrested at her waist, warm and heavy, and his leftwrapped around her fingers, strong and secure.She could feel the calluses on his palms, and shewondered how they would feel against moresensitive skin… “So what do you think of Ilsa and Justindeciding to get married?” His question pulled her mind away from herdangerous thoughts. She glanced around andfound the happy couple had joined them on thedance floor. They were dancing very closetogether, lost in each other’s eyes. Had she everlooked at a man with such naked longing?Probably—before she learned to guard her heart.“I’m happy for them,” she said. “I think they’ll do
well together.” “Ilsa’s great, but I can’t help remembering thatjust last week Justin said he wasn’t ready tosettle down. Then the next thing I know, he’sasking me to be his best man.” “Maybe he had to face losing Ilsa to see howmuch he wanted to keep her.” “Maybe.” The word was weighted with regret.“I figure the odds are fifty-fifty they’ll staytogether. I hope for their sakes they’re one of thelucky ones.” “Justin will be a good husband to her.” Shewanted to believe this, but honestly, who knew? “Yeah, I think you’re right.” He shook hishead. “I don’t think I was ever very good at thewhole marriage thing.” The admission surprised her, and it begged thequestion. “What are you good at?”
A heated look stole into his eyes, and hepulled her closer. She could no longer hear themusic for the buzzing in her ears. He smiled, aheart-stopping look that made her heart pound.“Sex. I’m good at that.” I’ll bet you are, whispered a voice in herhead. She closed her eyes. Every nerve hummedwith awareness of him. “What about you, Stephanie? What are yougood at?” She used to think she was good at keeping herdistance. If you let people too close, they endedup leaving. She didn’t want to deal with the hurtanymore. But here in Mike’s arms, in the heat ofthe way he looked at her, she felt as if all herdefenses were stripped away. “It’s a secret,” shesaid. She mustered a flirtatious smile, determinedto regain control of the conversation…and of her
emotions. “Justin said you don’t have agirlfriend.” “That’s true. I’m not looking for one, either.” “I’m not applying for the position, believe me.But I’m surprised. You don’t strike me as themonk type—and you were the one who broughtup the subject of sex.” The faint lines across his forehead deepened.“I never said I was a monk. But right now I needto focus on being a dad.” “Dads can’t have sex?” “Kaye and I have been divorced less than ayear. Ryan needs stability. He doesn’t need tosee different women drifting in and out of mylife.” “That’s very admirable.” Mature, self-sacrificing, and far different from the bittermisogynist he’d seemed on first impression. The
man had depth, which made him that much moredangerous. “What about you?” he asked. “You seeingsomeone?” She shook her head. “Why not?” That assessing look again.“You’re a good-looking woman. You seemsmart. Not a flake.” “Thanks. I guess.” She shifted, putting a littlemore distance between them. “I’ve just startedgrad school, and it’s taking all my spare time.” “Graduate students can’t date?” “I’m taking a break. My last breakup was…difficult. I’m not ready to go through that again.” She waited for some flirtatious reply. Instead,he only said, “Yeah,” and squeezed her arm. Thesimple gesture of sympathy sent a tremor throughher. She made the mistake of looking up at him,
and when their eyes met, she felt the heatshimmer between them once more. “So nothing’s going to happen between us,” hesaid, his voice so low she wondered if he wastalking to himself. “No. Of course not.” “And the fact that I want to kiss you right nowdoesn’t mean anything.” She opened her mouth to protest that she hadno intention of kissing him. But of course shewanted nothing more. She leaned into him again,lips parted but words refusing to come. His lips covered hers, hot and insistent. Shefroze, balanced on the precipice between desireand caution. His warm arms encircled her, and hepulled her closer. Caution lost. With a soft moan,she slipped her arms around his neck and clungto him, need shuddering through her. He
caressed her mouth with his, teasing her withgentle brushes of his lips against hers, and thendeepened the kiss. She felt the scrape of hisbeard stubble against her cheek, and the mingledscents of cologne, beer, and man flooded hersenses. Damn, the man could kiss! All her mostsensitive places responded to his silent skill. Sheopened to him, and his tongue swept across hers,washing away the last vestiges of caution. Herhead buzzed from more than champagne now,and she ground against him, shameless. When he pulled away from her, she stumbledback, dazed. He held her at both sides of herwaist and squeezed gently, his face flushed, eyesfull of apology. “Didn’t mean to get so carriedaway.” The words came out as a growl, and shecould hear his ragged breathing. Looking up, she
was aware of the others watching them andwhispers rising around them. Her face burned, and she stared at the floor,wishing it would open up and swallow her. “Ithink maybe I had a little too much to drink,” shemumbled—though her last glass of champagnehad been more than an hour ago. “Yeah. Me, too.” Not looking at him, she moved off the dancefloor toward the bathroom. She needed to calmdown and think straight. The thing to do was geta grip and stay away from Mike for the rest ofthe night. It was that last expression of sympathy thathad been her undoing. She hadn’t expected himto be so understanding. A man who really gother like that could be more dangerous to herequilibrium than the physical attraction between
them. In the bathroom, she splashed cold water onher face and stared at her reflection in the mirror.Her cheeks were still flushed, her eyes slightlydilated. What a mess. “You and Mike certainly got along well outthere.” Nicole spoke from the doorway of thewomen’s room. Alina and Ilsa peered over hershoulder. Stephanie waved her hand as if dismissing awaiter and tore a paper towel from the dispenser.“We were putting on a show for you guys.” “And enjoying every minute of it, from thelooks of things.” Nicole came all the way into theroom and leaned against the counter next toStephanie, arms crossed. The others trailedbehind her. “For a guy who likes to pretend he
doesn’t trust women, Mike is definitely takenwith you.” “I told you, it was all show. Consider it part ofthe evening’s entertainment.” “Do you like Mike?” Ilsa asked. “As aboyfriend?” “I don’t even know Mike.” That much wastrue. They’d had the equivalent of two and a halfconversations and shared one truly sizzling kiss,but that was scarcely enough to build a firmopinion on. “He’s not interested in gettinginvolved with anyone right now, and neither amI.” “You’d never know it from that kiss,” Nicolesaid. “I told you, that was just an act.” And she wasa lousy liar. It was time to change the subject.“Did you know his wife?”
“Oh, yeah. His ex is a real piece of work.” “I met her once when she dropped Ryan off,”Ilsa said. “She’s the kind of woman who always lookspast you instead of at you,” Nicole said. “As ifshe’s searching for someone more worthy of herattention.” “Why did they divorce?” Stephanie asked. “She found someone better.” Nicole shrugged.“There’s probably more to it than that, but that’sthe gist of it. She’s got a rich boyfriend now.” “That’s so sad.” Ilsa’s brown eyes brimmedwith tears. “Yeah, sad,” Stephanie agreed. At least whenshe’d been dumped, it hadn’t been for anotherwoman. That kind of thing was enough to makeanyone bitter. She could sympathize with Mike,but that didn’t mean she wanted to get involved
with him. She might not be the sharpest pencil inthe box, but she was pretty sure two brokenhearts didn’t add up to a whole. …Mike retreated to the bar and ordered anotherbeer. Maybe it would stop his lips from tingling. What the hell had that been about? When he’dagreed to dance with Stephanie, he hadn’texpected to feel so drawn to her. He’d hopedgetting physical would scare her off a little. Eversince they’d met, she’d been sending out signalsthat she wanted to keep her distance. He’dfigured he would breach that boundary and she’drun the other way. No more worries about eitherof them acting on this crazy attraction betweenthem. Except the kiss had solved nothing. Whenhe’d pulled her close, she’d felt so soft and sweet
and sinful. She smelled like fresh cotton sheets,and he knew the minute their lips touched thathe’d made a big mistake. Thirty seconds into thekiss, he’d been ready to take her on the pooltable. Fortunately, his brain still had some controlover his hormones, and he’d sobered up enoughto realize how stupid he was being. He’d beenamazed she hadn’t slapped him when he pushedher away. Part of him wished she had. Thenmaybe he wouldn’t be sitting here now feeling sorotten. “What was that about?” Justin’s voice camefrom behind him. “What was what about?” “Come on, Mike. The whole bar saw youkissing Stephanie.” Justin leaned against the barbeside him. “I thought you were going to leaveher alone.”
“She asked me to dance.” “And you took that to mean you could maulher on the dance floor?” He glared at Justin. The man might be hisfriend, but Mike could only take so much. “Youdidn’t see her fighting me, did you?” “I told you—” Mike held up his hand. “Save the rest of thelecture. It was nothing. We both had a little toomuch to drink, that’s all. It won’t happen again.” “I just don’t want to see her hurt.” “You already made that clear, and I alreadytold you, it won’t happen again.” He picked uphis beer and shoved away from the bar. “Comeon. This is supposed to be a party, isn’t it?” Heraised his glass and his voice. “To Justin andIlsa.” “To Justin and Ilsa!” the others chorused. As
Mike drank, he saw Stephanie slip out of thebathroom and join Nicole and Alina at their table.Her face was still flushed, her hair mussed as ifshe’d just gotten out of bed. Or was ready to betaken there. He wondered if he ought to go to her, toapologize. But no. The best thing to do was tostay away from her. As far away as possible. But how could he dothat when the two of them lived in the samehouse?
Chapter FourEither Ilsa is the luckiest woman in the worldor she’s a witch, Stephanie thought as she stoodat the back of the church Saturday afternoon.How else had Justin’s bride put together such agorgeous wedding in only a few days? From herspot at the back of the church, Stephanie had aview of the sanctuary. Vases of red rosestrimmed with white satin bows filled the front ofthe church, and clusters of white candles cast aromantic glow over the scene. “I never thought of black and white for awedding before, but it’s beautiful.” Nicole leanedover Stephanie’s shoulder and spoke softly in herear. “I always thought if I got married, my colorswould be pale green and pink,” she added, hertone wistful.
“Mine were going to be cream and royalblue,” Stephanie said. “Were you engaged?” “No. But I thought I might be heading that waya couple times.” She smiled ruefully. At least shecould smile about it now. The first time—she’dbeen all of nineteen—she’d been so deadlyserious. Certain that Robert Millowski, the boyshe’d dated since tenth grade, would ask her tomarry him when he came home from college thatChristmas. Instead, he’d broken up with her,explaining how they needed time to grow up andexperience more of the world. Bob had been right, but it had taken Stephaniea while to realize her life wasn’t shattered. She’dthought because Bob was her first love, he’d bethe only one. Greg had been the next guy she’d thought was
“the one.” Two years ago, they’d met at a parkdistrict league softball game. He was handsomeand funny and smart—the perfect man. She’dfallen hard and fast, and they’d been inseparable.They’d had everything—physical, emotional, andintellectual compatibility. They’d moved intogether, and Stephanie had been sure they’d getmarried soon. And then they’d just drifted apart. They’dfallen out of love almost as quickly as they’dfallen into it. She didn’t know why it hadhappened, only that it hurt when it did. Howcould she have been so wrong? The crowd inside the church stirred, andJustin, looking pale and unfamiliar in his tux,walked to the altar, followed by his groomsmen.“He and Ilsa make such a great couple,” Nicolesaid. “I think he really does love her.”
Stephanie thought so, too, but who was she tojudge? Everything she’d known about true lovehad been written on an Etch A Sketch, erasedtoo many times now to be legible. Her gaze shifted to the best man. Mike wasturned so that his profile was to her, hisexpression somber, almost grim. Her lips tingled,remembering his kiss. What had come over herlast night, to react so powerfully to a stranger?Had he caught her at a particularly vulnerablemoment, or was he really that talented? Shewould have sworn the kiss had affected him, too,but maybe that had only been wishful thinkingand the aftereffects of the champagne she’ddrunk earlier. Her judgment about men wasn’texactly reliable. The organ began to play, something sweet andsoaring that Stephanie didn’t recognize—the
bridesmaids’ signal to make their way up theaisle. She settled her bouquet of red roses firmlyat her waist and began the stutter step up theaisle she could do in her sleep. Though shewasn’t the main attraction, at this moment everyeye was on her. In order not to give in to nerves,she’d taught herself to focus on something at thefront of the church—a goal it was her duty toreach. As she scanned the area around the altar for alikely target, her gaze landed on Mike once more—dark-haired, dark-eyed Mike, more gorgeousthan ever in his simple black tux, the jacket fittingacross his broad shoulders as if it were custom-made. He looked right at her, his gazesmoldering. She faltered a little in her step,wobbly at the knees from the force of that look.His expression was so intense—angry, even. At
her, or at the idea of a wedding? Maybe he’s just hung over. She found herrhythm again, though she couldn’t look awayfrom him. Her lips burned as if he’d kissed heronly moments, instead of hours, before. Her skintingled with the recollection of him holding her.How could one kiss with a man who waspractically a stranger be so firmly imprinted onher? She reached the altar and managed to tear hereyes away from him, turning instead to watchNicole and Alina follow her up the aisle. Then theorganist began the first notes of “The WeddingMarch,” and the crowd rose with a sound likecards being shuffled. Ilsa, an ivory doll in herwhite satin dress, moved gracefully up the aislealone, her gaze locked on Justin. Both bride andgroom were grinning ear to ear.
That did it for Stephanie. She’d promisedherself she wasn’t going to tear up at thiswedding. Six times as a bridesmaid ought to havebeen enough to accustom her to the vows. Butthe happiness on Ilsa’s and Justin’s glowing facesbrought a lump to her throat, and by the time theminister began reciting the vows, tears made saltytracks down her face. Nicole nudged her and handed her a tissue.Stephanie nodded her thanks. Blotting at hereyes, she silently repeated the vows along withthe bride and groom: for richer, for poorer; forbetter, for worse; in sickness and in health… By the time the minister pronounced them manand wife, Stephanie was choking back sobs. Shesniffed and searched for a dry spot on the tissuewhile everyone was focused on the bride andgroom kissing.
And then it was over. The organ trumpeted theprocessional, and Ilsa and Justin practicallyskipped up the aisle. Mike met Stephanie in frontof the altar and offered his arm. Shifting her rosesto the hand that held the tissue, she tucked thefingers of her free hand into the crook of hiselbow and let him lead her toward the back ofthe church. “Are you crying because another schmuck gotsuckered into marriage?” he asked out of thecorner of his mouth. The words should have made her angry, buthis movie-gangster delivery and the exaggeratedwiggle of his eyebrows made her laugh. “I’mweeping with happiness,” she said. “Happinessthat I didn’t have to wear another odd-coloredbridesmaid’s gown.” When they reached the back of the church, he
handed her a handkerchief. “Here. Yourmascara’s running.” “Thank you.” She looked at the square ofcrisp white linen. “I hate to ruin this.” He waved aside her protest. “Don’t worryabout it. My mother gives them to me by thegross for Christmas. She’s convinced the sign ofa true gentleman is always having a cleanhandkerchief.” She laughed. “Maybe she fears you’re leavinga trail of weeping women in your wake.” He returned the smile, and she forgot all aboutweeping. She wouldn’t be surprised if that smile,directed at the right person, could lower thecrime rate. The wedding party rode in a limo to thereception a few blocks away, trailing the car thatcarried the bride and groom, with its shoe-
polished announcement of “Just Married”scrawled across the back window. Mike satacross from Stephanie, facing backward. “Is mymascara still smeared?” she asked. “You look fine,” he said. “Great.” She looked away. It was a throwaway remarkfrom an accomplished flirt—she shouldn’t readanything into it. “I need a drink,” Nicole said as soon as theywere inside the hotel ballroom. She headedtoward the bar. Mike unknotted his tie, slid it off, and tucked itinto his pocket. “So what have you got againstbridesmaids’ dresses?” “Nothing. Except no one wears them except atweddings, and then after the wedding you’restuck with a dress that’s too expensive to tossand you can’t wear it anywhere. And they tend
to make bridesmaids look like some sherbetdessert or something.” He looked around the room, which was fastfilling up with wedding guests. The DJ hadalready started playing dance music. “I take ityou’ve done this before?” “Six times.” Stephanie parked her bouquet ona nearby table. The roses still looked surprisinglyfresh. “What about you?” He shook his head. “Once in college, I think.And then my own wedding, of course.” “What was your wedding like?” She tried toimagine him as a groom—but honestly, would helook much different than he did right now? Anymore handsome? He made a face, furrowing his brow andsquinching up his nose. It didn’t matter, shedecided. He still looked good. “It was bigger
than this. Too big. Eight bridesmaids, whichmeant I had to come up with eight groomsmen. Ihad to call in every favor I could think of toconvince eight guys to put on monkey suits andstand up at the front of a church. Her uncle gotsloppy drunk, one of the bridesmaids was allergicto the flowers… It was a disaster.” “Those are the kinds of stories that makeweddings memorable.” “I don’t remember anything about theceremony itself,” he said. “I was in a daze.” “Were you happy?” She half expected him to say he’d been toodumb to know better, or to make some similarlydismissive remark. Instead, he surprised her withhonesty. “Yeah. Then, I was. I believed all thatstuff about till death do us part.” He unbuttonedthe top button of his shirt. “But those vows don’t
mean what people think they mean.” “You’re cynical.” “I’m a realist. How can anybody make apromise like that and keep it?” “People do. My grandparents were marriedalmost sixty years.” “A few, but how do they know? I thought Iknew, and look what happened. They say love isblind, but really it makes you blind. It clouds yourjudgment.” “And when love dies, you doubt everythingyou ever believed about yourself.” The wordsslipped out—a thought spoken out loud. His gaze met hers, questioning. Analyzing?“Yeah. Yeah, it does. You said you weren’tmarried.” “No, but I’ve been in love. And it didn’t last.” “I think people were better off when they had
arranged marriages,” Mike said. “Everybodyknew up front what they were getting into.” “No messy emotions?” “Yeah.” She shook her head. “That seems so cold.” “But I bet the sex was hot.” No waggling eyebrows this time. Their eyesmet, and she felt the same liquid heat and light-headedness he’d induced with his kiss. “Youdon’t need marriage for sex,” she said in asurprisingly normal voice—surprising consideringhow unsteady she felt inside. “My point exactly.” She didn’t have time to think of a comebackfor that. Ilsa descended upon her, a cloud ofwhite satin and sweet perfume. “What are youtwo doing hiding over here in the corner?” Shegrabbed Mike’s hand. “You must dance with
me.” “And Stephanie needs to dance with me.”Justin, still immaculate in tie, cummerbund, andtuxedo jacket, pulled her toward the dance floor. Grateful for the reprieve from the intensity ofMike, Stephanie let him lead her into the dance.“Congratulations,” she said. “The ceremony wasbeautiful.” “It was, wasn’t it?” He wore the goofy,besotted grin of a man drunk on love. Stephaniehoped the photographers took plenty of picturesfor the couple to marvel at in the coming years. “Thanks for being here today, and for standingup with Ilsa.” He squeezed her hand. “I wouldn’t miss it. Ilsa is great. I really likeher.” “I hope you can find someone like her. Well,the male equivalent.”
“Blond and foreign?” “You know what I mean—someone who willgive you the kind of happiness Ilsa has given me.” “Of course. Who doesn’t want that?” Shetried for a teasing look, hiding the sadness thewords made her feel. When you were in love, theidea seemed so simple. But from where shestood, on the outside looking in, that giddy joywas impossible to hold on to. “What were you and Mike talking about?” This was the real reason he’d asked her todance, she suspected, but she’d play along. “Hethinks arranged marriages are better—no messyemotions.” “I told you he was a downer. Tell him thosemessy emotions make life worthwhile.” “Right.” But part of her was inclined to agreewith Mike. She was tired of the extreme highs
and miserable depths of love. Now all shewanted was someone who’d keep her on aneven keel. …“You and Stephanie spent a long time talking,”Ilsa observed as she settled into Mike’s arms onthe dance floor. “Don’t match make,” he said. “I am not matchmaking! I was merely makingan observation. I think Stephanie is very nice.” “She is very nice.” Too nice, really. He wantedto do naughty things with her, but he couldn’t riskit. Not until Ryan was more settled. Mike hadrushed into a new relationship with Madeline—just a stress-relieving fling, really—and Ryan hadreacted as if Madeline was going to be apermanent part of his life. When she and Mike
split, Ryan had been hurt the most. “She likes you, too. I can tell.” “Ilsa…” He gave her a warning look. She smiled, twin dimples on either side of hermouth. “Do not be such a scold. You are lonely,and you need a woman. She is lonely and needsa man. So…” She shrugged, as if the solutionwere obvious. “I can get a woman anytime I want,” he said.Maybe he was bragging a little, but honestly, didshe think he was pathetic and desperate? “In your bed, yes, but not in your heart.” “I don’t want anyone messing around in myheart.” She made a face at him but was wise enoughto change the subject. “Thank you for allowingme to move into your home,” she said. “I thinkJustin and I will be very happy there.”
“Just remember—no sex in the living room orthe kitchen.” She laughed. “I will remember. It is a beautifulhouse.” “My best work,” he said. “If the marketwasn’t so bad right now, I’d sell it. I don’t needsuch a big house.” “It is a big house even for you and your wifeand Ryan.” “We’d planned a big family. Kaye said that’swhat she’d always wanted, but obviously shelied.” “Not all women are such liars, despite whatyou might think.” “Right.” Ilsa had been telling the truth whenshe’d said her vows. Maybe Kaye had beentruthful when she’d promised to stick with him forlife. But the truth changed—what felt real one
day wasn’t so real the next. Stephanie and Justin danced close.Stephanie’s eyes met Mike’s, then slid away as ifshe didn’t trust herself to look at him too long.Welcome to the club. Any woman who coulddistract him the way Stephanie Ludlow did was awoman he needed to avoid. When guys startedthinking with their little head, they got into bigtrouble. “You don’t have to worry about Stephanieand me,” Mike said when he and Ilsa had dancedaway. “We understand each other.” “Oh?” “Yeah. She doesn’t want to get involved anymore than I do.” The hopeful look on Ilsa’s face faded. “Thenshe is as difficult as you are.” Difficult. Yeah. Like she was a tough puzzle to
figure out. No—he had her figured out. She’d beenburned by love the way he had, and she wasn’tready to try again. She was off limits. Something he needed to keep remindinghimself, in case he did something stupid like lethimself fall for her. …Stephanie’s father stopped her as she emergedfrom the bathroom. From the happy glow on hisface, he’d already had a few beers to go with theone in his hand. “I need your help,” he said. “What kind of help?” she asked warily. Whenher dad asked her for help, it usually meant hewanted a feminine perspective. Last Christmas,he’d asked her to choose between two sweatersfor her aunt Judy’s Christmas present. They were
both hideous, but she hadn’t wanted to tell himthat, so she chose the least offensive of the two,thinking Judy could return it. But Aunt Judydidn’t like to return things. Instead, she’d madethe whole office miserable for weeks afterChristmas, complaining about how her brotherand niece had no taste. “I need you to help me kidnap the bride.” “What?” Just how drunk was her father? “Not really kidnap,” he assured her. “I’ve justgot a little surprise planned for the happy couple,and I need your help getting Ilsa out to theparking lot.” “What kind of surprise?” “I know the kids can’t really afford ahoneymoon, so I booked them a long weekendat the beach in Florida. I hired a limo to takethem to the airport, and they’ve got a condo on
the beach and everything.” “Dad, that’s so sweet!” Her throat tightened,and tears stung her eyes. For all his gruffness, herfather had a soft spot a mile wide. And it was justlike him to keep this all to himself until the lastminute. He loved surprising people. He flushed. “Hey, I know a travel agent, andshe got me a good deal. But we need to get Ilsaout to the limo. I want it to be a real surprise. I’mgoing to tell them the limo is to take them back totheir house, but instead the driver will give themthe tickets and other information when they get tothe airport.” “So all I have to do is get Ilsa out to theparking lot?” That sounded simple enough. “That, and I need you to go back to the houseand pack a bag for her and Justin. You have yourcar here, don’t you?”
She nodded. “A bunch of us left our vehicleshere before the wedding so we’d have themlater.” “Good. I thought about just sending them off intheir wedding clothes and telling them to buy stuffwhen they got to Florida, but Judy said what ifthey’re taking medication or something? Plus, shesaid no woman wants to ruin her wedding gownsitting on a plane for hours.” “Judy is a very smart woman.” “That’s because she’s my sister. Brains run inthe family.” Her father grinned. “Anyway, youlive in the same house as the two of them, right?So you can pack a bag and get it back here.” “When do you need it?” “Right away. Their flight leaves in three and ahalf hours.” He checked his watch. “I figure, halfan hour to get the bag, another half hour to get to
the airport, and they’re good to go.” “All right.” It wasn’t as if anyone was going tomiss her anyway. They were all too busy dancingand drinking and telling stories about thenewlyweds. Her dad gave her a thumbs-up sign, then madehis way back to the bar. Stephanie fished herkeys from her purse and headed for the door. Mike intercepted her in the hall just outside theballroom. “Where are you going?” “I’m going home.” “Without even saying good-bye to the brideand groom? The party’s just getting started.”He’d taken off his jacket and rolled up thesleeves of his shirt, revealing muscular, bronzedforearms. Construction work definitely did nicethings for a man’s body. “Have you been dancing this whole time?” she
asked, forcing her gaze away from his arms. Shesettled for studying the arrangement of artificiallilies on the table behind him. He shrugged. “I like to dance.” Not what he’d told her at the party last night.“I’m coming back,” she said. “I just have to…todo a favor for a friend.” “What kind of favor?” “Are you always this nosy?” She couldn’t helplooking at him again. He was smirking. Even hissmirk was sexy. Ridiculous. “Yes.” He leaned closer, his voice low.Seductive. “What are you up to?” She ignored the flutter in her stomach andglanced around to make sure no one waslistening, but the hall was deserted. “My dad—Justin’s boss—has arranged a honeymoon inFlorida for Justin and Ilsa. It’s a surprise. He
hired a limo driver to take them to the airportstraight from the reception. I’m going back to thehouse to pack a bag for them.” “I’d better come with you.” He pulled his carkeys from the pocket of his pants. “You don’t have to do that.” “You need me to get you into their room.” Hedangled the keys. “The door’s locked.” “Fine. You can grab Justin’s things while I getIlsa’s.”
Chapter FiveStephanie followed Mike out to the parking lot toa black truck with BRUBAKER AND SON,BUILDERS stenciled on the side in white lettering. “Isn’t Ryan a little young to be in theconstruction business?” she asked. “It doesn’t hurt to start young.” He held openthe passenger-side door, and she hoisted herselfinside, conscious of the fact that there was nograceful way to climb into a truck while wearing atight dress and high heels. As if reading her mind, Mike said, “I’d giveyou a boost, but somehow I think you’d beoffended.” She said nothing, merely snapped her seat beltclosed. “We’re in a hurry here.” “I’ll drive fast.”
She’d never thought of riding in a car as aparticularly intimate act, but it felt like one now.Here she sat with Mike, sealed off from the restof the world, close enough to touch. So of courseall she could think about was touching him. It was all those make-out sessions in highschool and college. Americans probably hadalmost as much sex in cars as they did in beds.Her horniness right now was probably justcultural conditioning. She glanced at him, wondering if he wasthinking the same thing. He chose that moment totake his attention off the road, the look in his eyespinning her back against the seat. Even thoughhe’d turned up the air conditioner, heat washedover her. He shifted his gaze back to the road. “Ishouldn’t have kissed you last night.” “No, you shouldn’t have.” The heat of a blush
crept up her neck. Her face must have been asred as the rose in his boutonnière. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” hesaid. “I don’t get involved with my housemates.” “Good. Because I don’t get involved with mylandlords.” “Just so we understand each other.” What she understood was that Mike was themost confusing, infuriating, and fascinating manshe’d ever met. And he kept her constantly off-balance, like a woman who somehow foundherself standing on a wobbly high dive over apool she’d sworn she’d never dive into again. At the house, Mike unlocked the front door,then the door to Ilsa and Justin’s room. Itresembled Stephanie’s space, but the main roomopened onto a slightly smaller space next door.“Interesting floor plan,” she said.
“That was going to be a playroom,” he said. She winced. How did he live here, whereevery room represented a dream deferred?Maybe she’d be bitter, too, in the same situation. He pulled a duffel bag from the closet, andStephanie went to the dresser and began takingout bras and underwear, shorts and T-shirts, andwhat was possibly the world’s smallest stringbikini. “Nice,” Mike said, nodding to the bikini. She tossed it in the duffel and added a filmycover-up and a colorful sarong. “What do you think—condoms or no?” She turned and saw Mike holding up a box ofTrojans. Her face burned once more. She was sure shewas as red as the box of condoms. “Yes.” “Better put in two boxes,” he said. “After all,
it’s their honeymoon.” Shaking her head, she opened a seconddrawer and pulled out a pair of baby-dollpajamas. “Skip those.” Mike came up behind her. “Thelast thing she needs on her honeymoon is anightgown.” He had a point. She shoved the pajamas backin the drawer. “I’m going to check thebathroom.” She found an asthma inhaler with Ilsa’s nameon it and collected toothbrushes, a flat iron, and apink-handled razor. “Can you think of anythingelse they need?” she asked. “I just finished a mystery Justin said he wantedto read. I’ll get it.” While he was gone, Stephanie remembered tocheck the bedside table, thinking she might find
more medication, reading glasses, or somethingelse the couple might need. She opened thedrawer, and then quickly slammed it shut. Oops!Obviously, that was where they kept their sextoys. “Find anything?” Mike asked when hereturned with the book. “Nothing!” She jumped back from the drawer. Mike leaned around her and opened it. “Ohho! What have we here?” He pulled out a largepink vibrator and grinned. He switched it on, andit began to gyrate wildly. “Maybe we shouldpack this.” “Maybe we shouldn’t.” “Might make going through airport securityinteresting.” Still grinning, he replaced the vibratorin the drawer and took out a pair of handcuffs.“Naughty.” He dangled them in front of
Stephanie’s face. “Want to try them out?” “No!” He laughed. “You’re very cute when you’reembarrassed.” “Shut up. Did you get everything Justinneeds?” “T-shirt, swim trunks, shorts, and flip flops.Razor and sunglasses.” “No underwear?” “What for? I figure ninety percent of the timehe’s going to be either on the beach or in bed,naked.” She started to deny this, but after all, it was ahoneymoon. Mike was probably right. “Fine.Let’s get back to the reception. The limo’swaiting.” “Yeah, I guess we’d better get back.” Hemade no move to leave the room. In fact, he was
staring at her with a particularly…predatory lookin his eyes. But the only thing he made her fearwas losing her self-control. He took a steptoward her. “What are you doing?” She tried to take astep back, but the bed blocked her in. “I’m wondering if that kiss was a fluke,” hesaid. “Something in the alcohol.” “It could have been.” “Maybe we should test that theory.” He wasclose enough that she could see the pulse jumpingin his temple and the movement of his Adam’sapple as he swallowed. “Maybe we shouldn’t.” But he was already dipping his head towardher, and as if drawn by a magnet, she rose on hertiptoes to meet him, a tremor running through heras their lips met.
She’d expected the fierce passion and insistentpressure of the night before. Instead, his mouthexplored hers with exquisite tenderness, as if hewere hesitant to push too far or ask too much.All her reluctance fled at this gentle invitation. Sheleaned into him and sighed, surrendering to thepleasure of the moment. He brought one handaround to caress her back, pulling her tightagainst the hard plain of his chest. All she had to do was lean back, and shecould pull him onto the bed on top of her. Ifshe’d had a little more to drink, she might havegiven in to that impulse, forgetting Ilsa and Justinand Mike’s own previous cynicism. But that would be a bad idea. With thephysical attraction between them so strong, itwouldn’t take much for her to end up with heremotions involved as well. And she didn’t need
that kind of complication in her life. She slid her hands up between them andpressed against his chest, pushing him away fromher. “We need to stop.” He stared at her, eyes glazed. “Mike?” She poked him with a finger. “Mike,this is a bad idea.” He blinked, and his vision came back intofocus. “Yeah.” He licked his lips. “Yeah. Badidea.” He turned and walked out the door. Still shaky from the kiss, she shouldered theduffel and followed him to his truck. Without aword, he took the bag from her and stowed itbehind the cab, then climbed into the driver’sseat and started the engine. But instead of backing out of the driveway, hecleared his throat. “I’m usually not this much of ajerk,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re a jerk.” She wasn’t surewhat she thought of him, but “jerk” hadn’t cometo mind. “If I try to kiss you like that again, do us botha favor and slap some sense into me.” “Or maybe we should just make it a point notto be alone together.” “Right.” At last, he turned to look at her. “Ilike you, Stephanie. And obviously, we’rephysically attracted to each other. But I meant itwhen I said I didn’t want to get involved.” “I understand. You’re not going to ask me tomove out, are you?” “No. I really would be a jerk if I did that.Today—and last night, too—I’m sure it’s just allthe wedding stuff. It stirs up emotions andeverything.” “Yeah.” All that talk of love everlasting and
dreams coming true did make her feel a littleanxious. Desperate, even. Apparently Mike feltthat, too. “You’re not a jerk.” A little impulsive,maybe. Sexy as hell. “We’ll be okay now that thewedding is over. We’ll just…keep our distanceand give things a chance to cool off.” “Right.” He put the truck in gear. “Thanks forunderstanding.” “No problem.” She understood that gettinginvolved with a man like Mike—a man as afraidof commitment as she was—was a guarantee ofheartache. She’d miss those smoldering kisses,but they’d both be better off as friends instead oflovers. They drove in silence to the reception, whereJack met them in the parking lot and took theduffel from Mike. “I’ll put this in the trunk,” hesaid. “Judy was too excited to wait. She’s gone
to get the happy couple.” The side door from the hotel opened, andJudy emerged, towing Ilsa and Justin behind her.“Another limo!” Ilsa clapped her hands togetherand squealed. “Just a little wedding present,” Jack said. “Iwanted you kids to travel in style.” “I always wanted to ride in a limo,” Ilsa said.She put her hands on either side of Jack’s faceand kissed him on the lips. He grinned goofily. “Go on now,” he said.“Have fun.” After a few more minutes of hugs and kissesand excited good-byes, the couple climbed intothe back of the limo, and it glided out of theparking lot, tin cans clanking merrily behind. “It’s so romantic.” Nicole sighed. Mike made a growling noise. Nicole scowled
at him. “Men don’t understand romance.” “I’m just thinking about what he’s going to bedoing tonight that I’m not,” Mike said. “Walking on the beach?” Stephanie said withfeigned innocence. His eyes met hers and scorched her to thecore. Oh yeah. This guy was definitelydangerous. Sleeping with him would be likesleeping with lit dynamite—and just about asdestructive. …Since his divorce, Mike and his ex-wife, Kaye,had a relationship he thought of as strained butcivil. Their conversations centered on Ryan andall the details of making the transition from onehouse to the other as smooth as possible for theboy. Mike didn’t want to know about her
personal life, and he revealed as little as possibleto her about his. They would never be friends,and that was fine with him. He admired peoplewho could pal around with their exes after themarriage ended, but he wasn’t one of them. So when she called him to tell him school wasletting out early on Friday and he needed to pickup Ryan, he didn’t think anything of it. This wasthe kind of conversation they often had.“Apparently, they sent a note home about thislast week, but Ryan forgot to give it to me,” shesaid, as close to an apology as Kaye would evercome. “Another mother mentioned it to me thismorning.” “I have a meeting with a client Friday morning,but I’ll be done in plenty of time to pick him up,”Mike said. “Good.”
The silence on the other end of the line had aweight to it, as if she expected him to saysomething more. “Is there anything else?” “Todd and I have decided he should move inwith me.” Todd—the lawyer she’d left him for. “He’sgoing to be living in the same house with myson?” He ground out the words, struggling tokeep his temper even. “I want the two of them to get to know eachother better. Todd could be Ryan’s stepfatherone day.” The words were like a kick in the gut. “Ryanhas a father. He doesn’t need a stepfather.” “I knew you were going to act this way. Iwouldn’t have told you at all, except I figuredRyan would say something.” “Act what way? You think I should be happy
that sleazeball is moving in with my kid?” “Todd is not a sleazeball, and I’ll thank younot to refer to him that way in front of Ryan.” “Ryan and I don’t talk about Todd. At all.” “He’s a part of my life, and he’s going to be apart of Ryan’s life. You might as well get used tothe idea.” “I don’t think this is a good idea, Kaye. Whatif Ryan gets attached to the guy and the two ofyou break up?” “We’re not going to break up. Why are youso pessimistic?” I learned from you. “You need to think aboutthis more,” he said. “What this will do to Ryan.” “Ryan will be fine. Pick him up from school bynoon—he’ll be waiting up under the portico atthe bus entrance. And don’t forget, he needs hisear drops twice a day. And don’t let him eat a lot
of junk.” She issued orders like a general. In theearly days of their marriage, he’d admired herenergy and efficiency. Now her instructionsgrated. “I know how to take care of my own son.” Her silence made it clear she didn’t believehim, but he wasn’t going to waste his breathdefending himself. “Tell him I’ll be there.” He clicked off his phone. So Todd wasmoving in with Kaye—and into the role ofstepfather. Mike felt sick to his stomach. Itwasn’t that he believed Ryan would never haveother men in his life. He just hadn’t let himselfthink about it. Especially not Todd. And then there was the whole Madeline thing.When Mike split up with her, Ryan hadn’t takenthe news well. He’d accused Mike of being meanto Madeline, of sending away his friend. Mike
had felt like an ass. He’d worked hard to regainRyan’s trust. He left his office and wandered down the hallto Ryan’s room. When they’d moved in, Kayehad decorated the room with a border along theceiling of bears playing different sports and aDenver Broncos comforter. Sometimes whenRyan was at Kaye’s, Mike liked to come intothis room and sit, to feel close to his son. It wasthe only room in the house that remainedunchanged. The one that had stayed exactly likeit was supposed to. And when Ryan was home,Mike could easily imagine what life might havebeen like if things had worked out. But there was no sense moping about whathadn’t happened. Mike was making the best ofthings, and Ryan, resilient as kids always are,seemed to have adjusted to the whole back-and-
forth thing. Kaye and Mike had stayed civil,something he was secretly proud of. If he coulddo that after what Kaye had done to him,anything was possible. …Paul and Sandy Kellerman had “perfect family”written all over them. Mike could have guessedtheir history: high school sweethearts, marriedright after college, he the up-and-coming youngexecutive and she the business major who wasstaying home to raise their little girl, a blanket-swathed dumpling they referred to merely as“baby.” “We want baby’s room to adjoin the mastersuite,” Paul told Mike as they discussed the plansfor the couple’s new house, which they’d hiredMike to build.
“I can certainly do that,” Mike said. “But yourresale value will be higher if you make it aseparate bedroom, with its own bath.” “Oh, we aren’t worried about the resalevalue,” Sandy said. “We plan to stay in this housethe rest of our lives.” “My grandfather gave us the land for thishouse,” Paul said. “The property has been in myfamily for two hundred years. We’ll never sell.” “You say that now, but things change,” Miketold them. When he had designed the house hewas in now, he’d seen it the same way. He andKaye and Ryan hadn’t even spent a yeartogether in the place after it was completed. “Change is a part of life, right?” Paul said. “Butwe’re sure about this house.” “We plan to raise our children here and growold here together,” Sandy said.
Paul gave his wife an adoring look, and Mikefought hard to keep his face impassive. He’dprobably looked at Kaye that way, too.Somewhere, there were pictures to prove it.He’d been besotted. And blind. “I’ll buildwhatever kind of house you want,” he said. “It’sjust a good idea to start with a design that’sflexible. A house should meet your needs nowand in the future—and that way it meets theneeds of anyone else who might one day livethere.” Sandy laughed—an annoying titter. “We toldyou—no one else is going to live in this house.” “Paul might get transferred at work.” Paul shook his head. “I work in the familybusiness. No chance of that.” “There could be a death in the family. Or adivorce.” Mike didn’t know why he couldn’t
drop the subject. Something in him wanted toshake up these two naive kids—make them seethat the world wasn’t always as perfect as theythought. That relationships weren’t alwaysperfect. Paul frowned. “I suppose anything’s possible,but I’m not going to plan my life around suchdoom and gloom.” He bent over the plans again.“About that bedroom…” “Right. We can put a door on the north wallhere to open into the master suite.” Give thecustomer what they want. “This in-floor heating system,” Paul said.“You’ve done that kind of work before?” “No, but I’ll find a good subcontractor whocan handle that for us.” “Well, all your references said you know whatyou’re doing, so I’ll take your word for it.”
They discussed a few other minor changes,and then the couple left. Mike sat back in hischair, surprised to find he was sweating, as ifhe’d just scaled a rock face instead of having asimple discussion about building plans. He wentto the window and opened it, then leaned againstthe wall next to it. The Kellermans exhausted him—all that lovey-dovey optimism. Exactly the wayhe’d been once. Their unshakeable happinesswas an unsettling reminder of all the ways he’dscrewed up his own life. The couple rounded the corner of the building,their voices drifting to him through the openwindow. “He didn’t have to be so rude,” Sandysaid. “So he’s a grouch,” Paul said. “Everyone Italked to said he’s the best builder in town. Andwe want the best.”
“Of course we do. I just don’t see why he hasto be so unpleasant. Death and divorce—what ahorrible thing to say.” “You just have to feel sorry for a guy like that,who has such a grim outlook on life.” Mike slammed the window shut and saggedback into his chair. Was that the way others sawhim—as grim? He was only being realistic.They’d learn soon enough that all the optimism inthe world couldn’t keep a marriage from fallingapart. It couldn’t make someone love you whenthey didn’t anymore. Still, Sandy’s words rankled. Was he really agrouch? Did Ryan see him that way? The lastthing he wanted was to pass his own cynicism onto his kid. He used to think he was good at hidinghis emotions—of blocking out the hurt.Somewhere along the way, he’d apparently lost
that skill, too. He certainly hadn’t done a good job of hidinghis feelings from Stephanie. Five minutes in aroom alone with her, and every bit ofresoluteness flew out the window. He couldn’texplain why she affected him that way, but hewas determined to get a grip. He had a son toraise and a business to run and no time fortangling with messy emotions. He took a deep breath. Time to focus onwork. It was the only way he knew to keep therest of his life from driving him crazy. TheKellermans wanted in-floor heat in this newhome, so he needed to find a subcontractor tohandle it. Didn’t Stephanie’s father do that kindof thing? He pulled out his phone and looked upthe number. “Ludlow Heating and Air Conditioning. How
may I help you?” The voice on the phone waslow and melodious. Sexy. “Stephanie, is that you?” “Mike?” “Yeah. You sound different on the phone.” She laughed, a low chuckle that did things tohis insides. Good things. Or bad, depending onyour point of view. “That’s my telephone voice.My work voice.” “I like it.” “What can I do for you, Mike?” She was allprofessional again. Smart woman. She’d playedit cool since moving in to the house. He mighthave even said she was avoiding him, but shehadn’t made it obvious. She had more class thanthat. And she’d had sense enough to put thebrakes on things the day of the wedding, too.Otherwise he’d have traded a few moments of
pleasure for big trouble. He forced his thoughts back to the business athand. “I wanted to talk to someone about doingthe heating system in this new house I’m building.They want in-floor radiant heat, and the companyI normally use doesn’t do much of that.” “We’ve done several radiant heat jobsrecently. What’s the address? I can havesomeone come out and talk to you this afternoon.He can work up a bid for you.” “That would be great.” He gave her theaddress, and they set a time for him to meet thetech. That should have been all there was to it,but he was reluctant to get off the phone. “How’sschool going?” he asked. “Fine. It’s a lot harder than I remembered, butI’ve been out five years, so I guess I’m out ofpractice.”
“What made you decide to go back? I mean,you work for your dad, right? Someday thebusiness will be yours?” “Yes. But just letting my dad hand over thebusiness to me one day feels too easy. I want toknow how other businesses are run. And I needto find out what I can do on my own. I’d like tospend time in other places, gaining experience—being challenged.” “Good thinking.” She wasn’t a woman whowanted everything handed to her. But that alsomeant she was probably going away after shegraduated. No long-term commitment for herright now. Good news for him. So why did hefeel so disappointed? “Listen, I have to go, Mike. I have another callcoming in.” “Sure. Uh, thanks.” He hung up the phone and
stood, head down, trying to clear his thoughts.He’d have been all right if she hadn’t had such asexy phone voice. Like her real voice, but softer,smoother. Sexier. He took a deep breath and dug his truck keysfrom his pocket. So she had a sexy phone voice.Everybody put on some kind of front in public.Even he did it—charming the difficult client,playing up to the pretty woman. Everybody did itwhen they were dating, on their best behavior forthe person they were trying to impress. It was no wonder so many marriages fellapart. Everybody was acting until they got to thealtar. Then, when they relaxed and started lettingtheir real personalities show…well, it was arecipe for disaster. He was being cynical again. Was that his real
personality now, or just a bad habit he’d falleninto—easier than making the effort to pull himselfout of his funk? He’d have to watch that,especially around Ryan. The last thing the kidneeded was a grump for a dad. Anyway, he’d handled himself okay on thephone just now. Totally cool. Never mind thefact that he was sweating. That had nothing to dowith her hot voice. After all, it was a really warmday. Right. And if he believed that, he might as wellstart replying to all those e-mails from Nigeriathat said he’d inherited a million dollars. …The rest of the week, Mike came home only tosleep or grab a change of clothes. Breakingground on a new house and all the myriad details
of getting a new project underway forced him towork long hours. Or that’s what he told himself during the day.It was tougher to lie to himself when he lay in bedat night fighting insomnia, every part of him awareof Stephanie’s presence in her own bed, justdown the hall. Every time he closed his eyes, his braintortured him with memories of her blushing overthe sex toy they’d found in Ilsa and Justin’sdrawer. Or holding up the filmy, lacy bit ofnightgown. It wasn’t a far stretch to imagine herin that gown. And their second kiss had proventhe first one hadn’t been a fluke. For whateverreason, she held a powerful physical attractionfor him. He couldn’t begin to explain it and didn’treally want to. He groaned. The woman had come into his life
at the exact wrong time. Justin and Ilsa’swedding had shaken up too many memories ofthe good times with Kaye, before the marriagewent south. Who knew organ music and flowerswould show him to be such a sentimental sap?He of all people knew what a sham all thatstarry-eyed optimism could be. But the fact thathe was lusting after a woman he scarcely knewproved he had poor judgment about these things. He turned his head to eye the glowing rednumerals of his bedside clock. Six minutes afterthree, and he had to be on the job site by eight.He’d never get any sleep unless he took mattersinto his own hands. Literally. He was sure somepsychologist would tell him it was a very bad ideato be jerking off to fantasies of his roommate, butthere were no psychologists in sight, and a manneeded his sleep. Sighing, he closed his eyes and
slid his hands into his shorts, imagining it wasStephanie who held him.
Chapter SixWhen Ilsa and Justin returned from theirhoneymoon, tanned and glowing, they insisted oncooking dinner for their housemates. “We want to thank you for all you did to helpwith the wedding,” Ilsa said. To the list of things she’d never expected tosee, Stephanie could add the sight of Justin,swathed in a ruffled apron and wielding a kitchenknife like a machete as he attacked a pile ofcarrots and celery. “Um, we came to see if youneeded any help.” She drew back a little as hegave a vicious whack at the vegetables. “Or maybe we should just stay out of yourway,” Nicole said from behind Stephanie in thekitchen doorway. Ilsa, barefoot and also wrapped in an apron,
looked up from the huge pot she was stirring onthe stove. “No, no, we don’t want your help.”She shooed them away with a wooden spoon.“Go! You will spoil the surprise.” The two women managed to hold in theirgiggles until they were safely on the other side ofthe kitchen door. “Can you believe Justin?”Nicole gasped. “That apron!” “I know for a fact the man can’t even boilwater,” Stephanie said. “His idea of a gourmetdinner is the more expensive box of frozenpizza.” “Ilsa looked like she had everything in hand.”Nicole helped herself to a handful of nuts fromthe bowl Ilsa had set out on the dining roomtable. “Of course, even I’d be a great cook inthat kitchen.” “I built that kitchen because I am a great
cook,” Mike said. He strode in from the hall,smelling of soap and shaving cream, the hair atthe nape of his neck damp and curling from hisshower. Stephanie had to look away, afraid her facemight betray the jolt of desire that rocked herback on her heels. What was it with her and thisguy? She wasn’t even sure she liked him, but herbody apparently had other ideas. “So you’ve been holding out on us,” Nicolesaid. “I haven’t had much time for cooking.” Hepopped a cashew into his mouth and chewed,crunching hard. “You should definitely make time to cook ameal for us.” Stephanie looked at him, herexpression cool, betraying nothing. She wasn’tgoing to let him get to her. “If for no other reason
than to prove you’re not just saying that.” “Why would I lie about something like that?” Why did men—and women—always lie?“Because you’re trying to impress us?” “Because you know the way to a single gal’sheart is really through her stomach.” “Right.” He shook his head. “You didn’t get the memo?” Nicole asked.“Cooking is sexy.” As if Mike needs anything to make himsexier, Stephanie thought. The man was alreadydamn near lethal, whether he could cook or not.She stole another glance at him. He looked tired.If she’d known him better, she’d tell him not towork so hard. But he’d probably take thecomment wrong and think it meant she’d missedhim. She had missed him, but she’d never admit it
to his face. She’d even wondered if he waspurposely avoiding her, then dismissed the idea.She knew better than to read too much into aman’s words or actions. And even if he was avoiding her, maybe hewas just being smart. “Speaking of sexy, did you see thehoneymoon pictures?” Nicole moved to the otherend of the table, where Justin had set up a laptopwith a slideshow of the photos. The three of themgathered around the computer and silently staredat the shots of Ilsa in her itty-bitty bikini splashingin the waves, sunning by the pool, and generallylooking adorable. In the photos of Justin, hegrinned goofily at the camera or hoisted anumbrella drink in salute. “Looks like they had a blast,” Stephanie said. “Yeah.” Mike scowled at the computer
screen. Stephanie told herself she should keep quiet,but apparently she didn’t have it in her. “What’sthe matter?” she asked. “You don’t like thebeach?” “I like the beach just fine.” He crunched morenuts, and then looked around the room. “Don’twe have anything to drink?” “I think a beach honeymoon is perfect,”Nicole said. “A great way to get away from itall.” “Where did you go on your honeymoon,Mike?” Stephanie felt like a kid poking an anthillwith a stick. Mike held that same forbiddenfascination for her. “We went to Jamaica.” His eyes met hers,telling her he was taking her dare and going onefurther. “I talked her into visiting a nude beach.”
“Oh?” She struggled to keep her expressioneven while her imagination conjured images ofMike, brawny and bronzed and without a stitchon. “What did she think?” “She liked it. That was back when she was stillfun.” Back when Mike had been fun, too,Stephanie thought. But she didn’t say it. She’dplayed with enough fire this evening. “You’d never catch me on a nude beach,”Nicole said. “Some parts of the body are justmeant to be covered up.” “What about you, Stephanie?” Mike obviouslywasn’t going to let her off the hook. “Would youtake it all off on a nude beach?” “I might.” She raised her chin and met hisgaze. “Under the right circumstances. With theright person.”
“Would you blush all over like that if youwent?” he asked. The comment only made her face flame more,but she held her ground. “Maybe.” “I’d like to see that.” The look he gave her was hot enough to melther fillings. She turned away, fighting the urge tofan herself. Where were the drinks? She coulddo with a very large glass of wine about now. “Soup’s on!” Justin emerged from the kitchenbearing a large platter, followed by Ilsa with a bigtureen. They’d shed their aprons and werewearing matching tropical print shirts. “Oh my gosh! What is all that stuff?” Nicoleasked, surveying the feast. Ilsa indicated the tureen. “Ciorbă—soursoup.” She pointed to half the platter.“Sărmăluţe cu mămăligă—cabbage rolls.”
Justin pointed to the other half of the platter.“Barbecue ribs. And we’ve got coleslaw, potatosalad, and some Romanian vegetable stuff.” “Ghiveci.” Ilsa motioned them toward thetable. “Eat. It’s all ready.” They fell on the food like starving castaways.“This is delicious,” Stephanie said between bitesof cabbage rolls dripping with sour cream. “You’d better watch it, Justin,” Mike said.“You’ll get fat.” “You don’t think I’m going to cook like thisevery night, do you?” Ilsa shook her head. “Toomuch work.” “Hey, I made half the food,” Justin protested.“Don’t give Ilsa all the credit.” “Then maybe I will be the one to get fat,” Ilsasaid. “While you cook for me every night.” “More to love,” Justin said, and he kissed her
cheek, leaving a smear of barbecue sauce. When they had all but picked the plattersclean, Mike pushed back from the table. “Let therest of us handle the cleanup,” he said. “That’s a great idea,” Nicole said. “Except Ihave to be somewhere.” Something in her guilty look caughtStephanie’s attention. “Oh? Where?” “I promised to meet this guy.” “What guy?” But Nicole dodged Ilsa’s question. “I really dohave to go. Thank you for the wonderful dinner.”And then she was gone, almost running out of theroom. “So Nicole has a mystery man.” Ilsa lookedpleased. “We will have to find out more.” “Stephanie, you can stay and help clean up,can’t you?” Mike asked.
“Sure.” No date for her except with the papershe needed to finish for her marketing class, butthat could wait another hour. “That would be great,” Justin said. “Ilsa and Iwill just, um, go rest.” “Is that what they’re calling it these days?”Mike asked. “Oh, you!” Ilsa threw her napkin at him, but itdropped to the table, a good foot shy of hittinghim. “Go on,” he said. “You worked hard doing allthis cooking. Have a good night.” “Thank you.” She stood, then leaned over andkissed him on the cheek. “You are a goodfriend.” He was looking a little flustered when Ilsa andJustin left the dining room. Maybe Mike didn’thave too many people paying him compliments—
or bestowing kisses. Stephanie helped him stack the dishes andcarry them into the kitchen. Nicole was right—the gleaming stainless steel appliances, cherrycabinets, and black granite counters would makeanyone feel like a professional chef, even if shewere only toasting Pop-Tarts. Mike squirted dish soap into the big farm sinkand turned on the hot water while Stephaniescraped the remnants of cabbage rolls into thetrash. “Do you want to wash or dry?” he asked. She scanned the gleaming kitchen. “Don’t youhave a dishwasher?” “Yeah, but there isn’t room for the pots andpans in there. We’ll have to hand wash them.” “Fine. I’ll wash.” She took her place at the sink and tested the
water. He began slipping pots beneath the suds.“We’ll let them soak while we load thedishwasher.” “Oh, yeah. Sure.” She didn’t even try toarrange anything in the dishwasher—a multi-drawer stainless affair that looked like somethingthat might vaporize food particles instead ofsimply washing them away. She handed overplates, cups, and silverware and he loaded themin the appliance’s drawers with careful, efficientmovements. Silence stretched between them, with only therattle of silverware and the clink of dishes fillingthe void. Stephanie began to feel uncomfortable.What was with this guy? He didn’t have to go outwith her, but he could at least be civil. “You think I’m an asshole, don’t you?” “What?” She stared, not sure she’d heard him
correctly. “I was out of line with that comment about thenude beach.” He continued to arrange dishes inthe dishwasher, not looking at her. “You’re myroommate. I should treat you with more respect.” “I just want you to treat me like a friend. I maybe female, but I’m not so bad, really.” “It’s just all this honeymoon talk put me in abad mood.” He slid the appliance drawer shut.“Lots of memories.” “Do you still love her?” That was, after all, themillion-dollar question. “Love who?” “Your wife. Your ex-wife.” “No.” He shook his head. “No.” “All right, then.” Her heart fluttered in a crazyrhythm. She wasn’t sure she believed him. He opened a drawer and took out a dish
towel before moving back to the sink. “Thisreally isn’t about her anymore,” he said. “It’s thatshe made it so that I can’t even trust my owninstincts. I like to think of myself as a smart guy—and yet I was so wrong about her. So whatelse am I wrong about?” “I know.” She plunged her hands into the hot,soapy water. Boy, did she know. “You do?” “I thought I’d found the guy I wanted to marryonce.” She couldn’t believe she was telling himthis. She’d never told any of the men she’d dated—and she wasn’t even dating Mike. But shewanted to tell him, maybe because he’d been sohonest with her. “When he broke up with me, Ithought, well, obviously I didn’t have any ideawhat love really felt like.” “Yeah.”
She ran water over a pot lid to rinse it andhanded it to him. “I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately,” hesaid. For a crazy half second, she was afraid he wasgoing to tell her he loved her—which wasabsurd, since he scarcely knew her. She grippeda saucepan under the water to keep her handsfrom shaking and tried to swallow down the lumpof panic in her throat. “Those kisses we shared. They were reallysomething,” he continued. “Yes.” Where was he going with this? “I can’t remember the last time I had suchstrong physical feelings for a woman.” It was a great line. Or it could be the truth.Those kisses had certainly rocked her world. He laid aside the dish towel and moved behind
her. “What are you doing?” she asked. “This.” His arms encircled her, his handscovering hers in the soapy water. Somethingtickled the back of her neck, and she realized hewas kissing her, feather brushes of his lips justabove her collar, sending hot shivers down herspine. “M-Mike?” she stammered. Though really,what she wanted to say was, Don’t. Stop. “Do you want me to stop?” “No.” He pressed against her, letting her feel hisdesire. She let go of the saucepan, and his fingerstwined in hers. She was having a lot of troublethinking, but she forced herself to do it anyway.She had to be smart, even if her body wanted herto play dumb. “Mike, where is this going?” sheasked, surprised at how calm she sounded.
He paused, his lips still against the back of herneck. “Where do you want it to go?” “Nowhere. I mean, you don’t want to getinvolved with anyone—do you?” “What do you mean by ‘involved’?” “I mean a relationship. An emotionalcommitment. You told me before you didn’t wantthat—that you wanted to concentrate on being afather.” He released her and stepped back. “You’reright. I can’t handle a commitment right now.” It was the answer she’d expected—theanswer she’d wanted, even. So why did she feelso disappointed? “Right. And I don’t, either.” Not withsomeone like Mike. Someone who had thepower to let her down. To hurt her. “Then we both know where we stand. We
don’t want commitment, but we still want eachother.” His smile was sleepy. Sexy. “Why notjust have fun? A fling?” A fling sounded painful. Like being shot from aslingshot. An activity guaranteed to get her hurt.“I’m not a fling kind of person.” “How do you know until you try it? Maybe it’slike a nude beach. Something you ought to tryonce.” She swirled her hand through the dishwater, asif the answer to her problems might liesomewhere beneath the suds. “What aboutRyan?” “He wouldn’t have to know. We’d have to bediscreet.” “So, what, we’d only fool around when hewasn’t here?” “Right.”
“I don’t think so.” Mike had already gottenunder her skin with his kisses. There was notelling what damage he’d do if she let him into herbed. He looked at the floor for a long moment. Shecould almost feel him struggling with his emotions,but when he looked at her again, his handsomeface was impassive. “So now you probably thinkI’m twice the jerk for hitting on you.” “No, I don’t think that.” She managed a halfsmile. “I just think we’d be better off stickingwith being roommates. And friends.” “Yeah.” He picked up the dish towel again.“You go on. I’ll finish up in here.” She didn’t argue. Any more slipperyencounters in the soapy water, and her resolvewas liable to melt away, and with it, any hope ofkeeping her dignity. Just because she was smart
enough to admit she didn’t know anything aboutlove, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t make themistake of falling—again—for the wrong guy.Mike, with his bad-boy charm and woundedheart, had “wrong guy” tattooed all over him.
Chapter SevenMike refused to brood over his confusing feelingsfor Stephanie. Such navel-gazing was a waste oftime. So he’d made a pass at her and she’d shuthim down. Time to move on. He had a businessto run and a son to raise. Right now, Ryan was the focus of his attention.And Ryan’s mother, who was testing hispatience. “I promised him I’d take him camping,”he repeated into the phone. He was calm.Mature. Not the hothead Kaye had oftenaccused him of being. She was the one who wasbeing unreasonable. “Then you’ll have to un-promise,” she said.“You should never have made plans like thatwithout checking with me first.” “If it’s my time to have him, I don’t see why I
need to clear our schedule with you.” “He has this project due Monday for school.”Her voice remained irritatingly calm. “He can’t gocamping and complete the project.” “He’s in fourth grade. What kind of projectcould he possibly have? And if you knew it wasdue, why didn’t you see that he got it done duringthe week?” “The project is building a volcano, and hewanted to wait and do it with you.” The words were an arrow to his heart, cuttingoff all his objections. “He wants me to help himbuild a volcano?” “The directions are in his science book. He’spretty excited about it.” Her voice softened.“Maybe when you’re done, you can camp in thebackyard. You can have a campfire and sleep inthe tent—that’s what he really likes about
camping, you know.” Okay, so maybe Kaye wasn’t the completewitch he liked to paint her as. “Right. But I stillwant to take him into the mountains.” “You can do that in the summer.” “Yeah.” He looked up at the ceiling, as if hemight find an extra supply of patience hoveringthere. “So you’ll work on the volcano with him thisweekend?” “Don’t worry. We’ll get it done.” “Good. And if it’s okay with you, I might askyou to keep him a couple of extra nights,depending on what happens this weekend.” Kaye usually wasn’t so deferential—or sovague. “What’s up?” he asked. “Nothing.” She laughed, a nervous flutter ofbreath. “It’s just that I think Todd might be
getting ready to pop the question.” “You think he’s going to propose?” “I hope so. He said he wanted to take me outfor a special dinner, and what else could he havein mind?” Mike could think of half a dozen things, but nopoint in mentioning them to Kaye. “Let me knowabout Ryan,” he said instead. He said good-byeand got off the phone before she decided toconfide in him some more. So Kaye thought Todd was going to propose.It wasn’t enough that he’d moved into the samehouse with Ryan—now he had to make hisconnection to Mike’s son a permanent one. Theidea made Mike sick to his stomach. But ofcourse he couldn’t do a damn thing about it. He left the office and met Stephanie comingdown the hallway, a package of printer paper in
her hand. “I was just borrowing this from Justin,”she said. “I thought you were at school.” “The class was canceled. The instructor hasthe flu or something, so I thought I’d use the timeto finish a paper.” “You’re really working hard.” “I have to, to keep up with all those youngerstudents who aren’t out of practice.” She smiledalmost shyly. “I got an A on the paper aboutmarketing I turned in last week.” “That’s terrific. Congratulations.” “Thanks.” She leaned against the wall,apparently in no hurry to move past him. “Youaren’t working today?” “Paperwork.” He nodded toward the smallden he used as an office. “So, things going okay?You settling in?”
“It’s going great.” “Room okay?” “It’s beautiful.” “Let me know if you need anything.” Me, inyour bed. “It’s okay if I use the kitchen sometime, right?” “Anytime.” Before their session washing dishesthe other night, he’d never thought of the kitchenas a particularly erotic location. Now he couldn’tget the memory of kissing the back of her neckwhile she stood at the sink out of his head. “I’m not a big cook, but sometimes I feel likebaking something.” “Go right ahead.” “I just don’t want to intrude on your privacy.It’s so nice and peaceful here.” Her very presence was making him feelanything but peaceful, but that didn’t mean he
wanted her to leave. “Don’t worry about it. Totell you the truth, one of the reasons I decided torent out the extra rooms is because the housegets kind of lonely with just me rattling around init.” “So who was in my room before?” He should have known this question wascoming, just as he knew she wasn’t going to likethe answer. “Her name was Madeline.” “What happened to her?” “She decided to move out.” Not one of hisfinest moments. There was still a dent in the livingroom wall where she’d thrown a high heel at himwhen he suggested things were getting too intensefor him. And then of course there was all thedamage her departure had done to hisrelationship with Ryan. “Why would she ever want to leave such a
great situation?” He thought about lying, but she only had toquestion Justin to learn the truth. He wassurprised Justin hadn’t told her the whole storyanyway. Maybe he’d kept his mouth shut out ofa sense of male solidarity. More likely, he hadn’t wanted to scareStephanie away. “She and I had been sort ofdating, and when we split up she decided itwould be better if she didn’t live here anymore.” Stephanie stared at him a long moment, as ifprocessing this information. When she finallyspoke, her voice held a chill. “You were sleepingtogether, and you dumped her.” He winced. “That’s a pretty harsh way to putit.” “Justin told me you were a jerk when it cameto women, but I didn’t believe him.”
“And I told you I’d learned my lesson aboutgetting involved with housemates.” She folded her arms under her breasts. Heknew it was supposed to be a defensive posture,but it drew his attention to her, um, assets. Heaverted his eyes. “So what was with that invitation to have alittle ‘fling’ the other night?” she asked. “That was probably not a good idea.” He’dbeen letting the lust do his thinking for him again—a problem he had around Stephanie. “No, it was not.” She looked down her noseat him like a disapproving schoolmarm. How sickwas it that he thought even that was sexy? “Why don’t we make an agreement? A pact.No fooling around while we’re under the sameroof.” “Why should I trust you?”
“Because I said I was sorry? Look, I’m reallytrying here. Give me a chance.” She uncrossed her arms, though herexpression remained stern. “So you won’tmention it again?” “Absolutely not.” “Good. Then I’m glad we had thisconversation.” “Yeah. Me, too.” He turned sideways to let her pass him, theherbal perfume of her shampoo teasing hisnostrils. He closed his eyes to marshal hiswillpower. No more. Madeline had been amistake, and Stephanie would be an even biggerone. From now on, he’d keep his pants zippedand stay out of trouble. …
Stephanie slept in Saturday morning, then took along bath, gave herself a facial, and painted hertoes. Dressed in soft leggings and her mostcomfortable T-shirt, she made her way to thekitchen, a box of brownie mix in one hand and aDiet Coke in the other. She was planning tomake the brownies, then settle in for a long studysession with no distractions. One hand on the kitchen door, she heard thelow rumble of a male voice and froze. She stifled an impulse to toss aside thebrownie mix, race back to her room, and buryher head under the covers. And then what? Waitfor whoever had broken in to find her there,cowering? The voice came again, indistinct but familiar.Her pulse sped up another notch, but not fromfear. She opened the door enough to peer into
the kitchen. A familiar dark head bent over thetable. Next to it, Ryan poked at a mass of clay.“I don’t think this is going to work, Dad.” She could go back to her room and leavethem alone. Fire up the laptop and focus on herclasses, as planned. But without brownies. She really wantedbrownies. Mike had said she could use thekitchen any time she wanted. Refusing to go injust because he was there was silly. Cowardly.After all, they had an agreement. And surely he’dbehave himself with his son home. She squared her shoulders and pushed openthe door. She was not a coward. And she really wanted brownies. “Hello, Mike. Ryan,” she said as she breezedpast them on the way to the oven. “I thought youtwo were going camping.”
“I have to build a volcano for science class,”Ryan said. He regarded the melting lump in frontof him with disgust. “I don’t think this isworking.” “I know how to build houses, not volcanoes,”Mike said. Stephanie regarded the dull gray lump. “That’spretty pathetic.” “And I suppose you could do better?” Mikesaid. “I think anybody could do better than this,Dad.” “I was the papier-mâché queen at myelementary school,” she said. “I once built amodel of Fort Bridger out of papier-mâché.” “Can you help me build a volcano?” Ryanasked. Stephanie glanced at Mike, expecting to find
him scowling at her interference. Instead, helooked relieved. “That would be great, if youcould help,” he said. She set the box aside. “Sure.” She couldalways study later. It wasn’t as if the books weregoing anywhere. “What we need is a bunch ofnewspapers, some flour and water, and a pieceof poster board.” Father and son hastened to assemble thesematerials, and soon the three of them were up totheir elbows in torn newspaper and flour-and-water paste. Stephanie showed Ryan how tomake a cone out of the poster board and use itas the base for his volcano. Then they beganlayering on the papier-mâché. “This stuff is pretty gross,” she said as shestrained the flour and water glop through herfingers.
“That’s why it’s fun,” Ryan said, and plungedhis hand into the bowl. Stephanie laughed at him. He really was a cutekid. This beat a chocolate overdose in front ofthe computer any day. “Dad, I think we need some more on the otherside,” Ryan directed. “Sure thing.” Mike smoothed a strip of soggypaper onto the volcano with all the care he mighthave taken in plastering the wall of a hundred-year-old home. “Is that okay?” “Yeah. It looks good.” Mike smiled, an expression full of so muchfatherly pride and love that Stephanie caught herbreath. This Mike—without the cynicism andbitterness he too often wore as a shield—wouldbe so easy to fall in love with. He eyed the growing shape as they layered on
more paper and glue. “It’s shaped like a volcano,but it doesn’t look much like one,” he said. “Itlooks like a cone-shaped glob of wetnewspaper.” “Use your imagination,” she scolded. “It has todry, and then we paint it.” “And we put plants and dinosaurs and stuffaround it,” Ryan added. “So it’s a prehistoric volcano?” Mike asked. Ryan gave his father a look that clearly said,Duh! “How long is this thing going to take to dry?”Mike asked. Stephanie eyed the wet lump. It had been afew years since she’d been the papier-mâchéqueen—and this thing looked pretty wet. “Itmight take a while.” “Maybe we can bake it,” Mike said. “Like in a
kiln.” “You mean in the oven?” Ryan asked. “Yeah, the oven. We’ll turn the heat downlow, and that’ll help get the moisture out.” “I guess that makes sense,” Stephanie said. They slid the volcano onto a cookie sheet, andMike set the oven at 250 degrees. “We’ll needto keep an eye on it,” Stephanie said. “I’m gonna look for plants to put around it,”Ryan said. “To make it look like a jungle.”Without waiting for their approval, he racedoutside. She turned to find Mike looking at her with anexpression she couldn’t read. Admiration,maybe. “You were great,” he said. “It was fun. He’s a great kid.” “My ex never had patience for this kind ofthing.”
She had no idea what to say to that. Herconfusion must have shown on her face. “Does itbother you when I talk about Kaye?” he asked. “No. I mean, she’s Ryan’s mother. A big partof your life. Of course you’d talk about her.” Shepressed her lips together. Stop rambling. “I don’t want you to think I’m one of thoseguys who’s obsessed with his ex-wife. BecauseI’m not.” “Of course not.” Though Kaye was clearly onhis mind a lot. “With a kid, you can never really break theties, you know?” He leaned back, gripping thecounter on either side of him. “I’m still trying tofigure out how to treat her. I try to be civil forRyan’s sake, but sometimes it’s damned hard.” She nodded. “You must be doing okay. Ryanseems like a well-adjusted kid.”
“He seems that way, yeah. But who reallyknows? What if this whole divorce thing hasreally messed him up?” “My parents divorced when I was sixteen. Itwas hard, but I don’t think it left any lastingscars.” “Are you still close to your mom? Does shelive around here?” “I don’t see her much. She’s in Vegas.” “Sometimes I think it would be easier if Kayemoved away, but I wouldn’t want her to takeRyan with her. And whatever else, she’s a goodmom.” “Ryan’s lucky, then. He has two goodparents.” “That’s what’s important, right? I want to dowhat’s best for him.” He picked up a dishrag andbegan wiping down the already clean counter.
“So, did your dad remarry?” “No. No, he didn’t.” She realized with a startthat she couldn’t remember her father even datinganyone since her mom had left them. She’d beenso wrapped up in her own personal life that shehadn’t given much thought to his. “He’s got the right idea, I think. Why make lifemore complicated?” “Yeah.” Relationships were complicated. Butweren’t the complications worth it—to havesomeone to share both the problems and thegood times? If only there were a way to becertain things would work out. “I think it’s confusing for the kids when youbring other people into the mix.” He tossed therag aside and leaned back against the counter,hands thrust in the pockets of his jeans. “Ryanreally liked Madeline, and the three of us did stuff
together a lot.” “Madeline—the woman who used to rent theroom I’m in now?” “Yeah. When she and I split, Ryan was reallyupset. He blamed me because she never cameback to see him.” His words gave Stephanie a clear picture of adejected Ryan, wondering why his friend hadabandoned him. “I would never do that to him.” “I like to think you wouldn’t, but I can’t takethat chance. Especially not now.” He straightenedand looked toward the back door, as if to makesure Ryan was still out of earshot. “Kaye thinksher boyfriend is going to propose this weekend.” “Have they been dating long?” He frowned. “You could say that. He’s one ofthe reasons we split.” “What does Ryan think about this?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to talkto him about it. I think Kaye’s making a mistake,but of course, she’s not going to listen to me.” Stephanie tried to read the mix of emotions onhis face—guilt, anger, worry. She was touchedthat he’d share his concerns with her. Or was he merely giving her one more warningabout why the two of them couldn’t act on theirobvious attraction? Maybe he really didn’t trusther. Or maybe he didn’t trust himself. “Dad, I’m getting hungry. What’s for lunch?” Mike turned to his son, all smiles. “Whilewe’re waiting for the volcano to cook, why don’tI get takeout?” They celebrated the success of the volcanoproject with wraps from the local deli and thebrownies Stephanie baked in the other half of thedouble oven. By late afternoon, Ryan was the
proud owner of a freshly painted volcano,complete with jungle plants and plastic dinosaurs. “Thanks for your help,” Mike said, taking herhand. “And thanks for listening.” “Sure. Anytime.” Maybe because of thepresence of his son, the Mike she’d been withtoday had been more relaxed. Less intense. Hehardly seemed related to the hostile Mike who’dconfessed to dumping his former roommate. Their eyes met, his clear and blue andfriendlier than they’d been before. Thatexpression, even more than the heated gaze he’ddirected at her before, was her undoing.Stephanie felt as if she was looking into themouth of her own personal volcano. One wrongmove and she would be toast. …
Stephanie met her father at the Greek restaurantSunday afternoon. As usual for these outings,he’d dressed up—nice slacks and a dress shirt,sans tie. He hugged her when she arrived, andshe smelled the lime-and-spice cologne that wasone of her first memories from her childhood.“You look nice,” she said. Like a man out on adate. On one hand, she was flattered that he’dwant this time with her to be special. On theother, her dad was only in his early fifties. Hewas healthy, active, good looking. He even stillhad all his hair. “Dad, do you ever date?” she asked, afterthey’d been seated at their table and placed theirorder. He set aside the glass of wine he’d been aboutto taste. “Do I what?” “Do you go out on dates? You know, with
women?” He shook his head. “I’m too busy to meetwomen.” “You are not. You meet plenty of women.What about Grace Hitchcock over at StateFilters? I’m pretty sure she’s single, and shealways gets a big smile on her face whenever Imention your name.” “Grace is a nice woman, but I’m not interestedin going out with her. I’m fine by myself.” Thefurrow between his eyebrows deepened, and heput a little too much emphasis on the word fine,as if he were trying to convince himself as muchas Stephanie. “It doesn’t have to be Grace.” She sippedfrom her own glass of wine, determined to forgeahead. “I’m sure there are a lot of women who’dbe interested in you. You’re good looking,
healthy, have your own business—I’m surprisedyou’re not having to fend them off with a stick.” She said this to make him smile, but hecontinued to frown at her. “Why are you sointerested in fixing me up all of a sudden?” “I just thought, well, you might be lonely.” He stiffened, drawing himself up evenstraighter in his chair. “Because I like to spendtime with my daughter, you think I’m lonely?” “No! Well, maybe a little. I just realized theother night that you haven’t been out with anyone—that I know of—since Mom left.” She waited,not breathing, for him to tell her he had a secretromantic life she’d never been privy to. Maybehe thought dating on the sly was a way ofprotecting her feelings or something, the wayMike wanted to protect Ryan. No such luck. “I do fine by myself.”
He was sending out plenty of signals that hedidn’t want to talk about it, but she plunged on.“I know what happened with Mom was hard onyou. It was hard on me, too. But all womenaren’t like that.” She hoped to God she wasn’tlike that. What made a woman with a goodhusband and a daughter to raise run off to Vegasat the age of forty to “find herself”? “I don’t want to talk about your mother.” Henever wanted to talk about her mother, who, asfar as Stephanie could gather from her owninfrequent communications with the woman, hadfound the fulfillment she’d been seeking bydealing blackjack and flirting with the men whoflocked to her table. Stephanie had seen hertwice in all that time—once at her high schoolgraduation and again when she’d traveled toVegas with friends. Both times, it had been like
visiting with a stranger. Her mother didn’t even look like her motheranymore—she’d had plastic surgery to reshapeher nose and enhance her breasts, and she’ddyed her hair flaming red. It was as if the womanwho’d raised her didn’t exist anymore. If herleaving had hurt Stephanie, how much worsemust it be for her father? “We don’t have to talk about her,” she said.“But I want to talk about you.” “What is this? After ten years, you decide Isuddenly need a woman in my life?” “I just don’t like to think of you alone all thetime. I’d like it if you found someone to be with.” Her father leaned across the table, his gazeboring into hers. “When was the last time youwent out on a date?” “It hasn’t been that long,” she lied.
“I’m not the one whose social life you shouldbe worrying about. At your age, you should begoing out all the time, meeting people. I don’twant to be a nag, but I’m not getting anyyounger, and I wouldn’t mind somegrandchildren before I die.” “You’re not going to die for a long time.” Herheart beat hard at the very idea. He shrugged. “You never know.” “I haven’t given up on dating,” she said. “Butit’s really important for me to focus on schoolright now. It’s important for both of us. Once Ihave my master’s and more experience workingwith other businesses, I can use that knowledgeto help you at Ludlow’s.” He wore the pinched look he always gotwhenever she talked about going away orworking at other businesses. “You can get all the
experience you need working with me,” he said.“And even if you are in school, you can still date.People do it all the time.” “People who are better students than I am.Grad school is hard. Besides, I’m in no rush toget involved with anyone. I want to take my timeand find the right person.” “Yeah, well, good luck with that. I thoughtyour mother was the right person until shedecided she wanted to be someone else.” “That wasn’t your fault, Dad. And all women—most women—aren’t like that.” He shrugged again. “So maybe that experiencehas put me off jumping back into a relationship.What’s your excuse?” She could have pointed out that waiting tenyears to go out on a date went way beyondavoiding “jumping into” anything. “I told you. I’m
waiting for the right guy. And I’m not saying youhave to get married again. I just think it would benice if you found someone to spend some timewith. There are a lot of nice women out there.” “So you say.” He drained his wine glass andset it down with a hard thump. “All right, honey.I’ll think about it. And you think about it, too.” The waiter delivered the platters of dolmasand souvlaki they’d ordered. Her father rubbedhis hands together and smiled at the food. “Thislooks good.” Stephanie poked at her grape leaves. “There issomeone I’m interested in,” she said. Mouth full, her father arched one eyebrow.“Who is he?” he asked when he’d swallowed. She shifted in her chair. Why had she evenbrought this up? She shouldn’t have, but shehadn’t wanted her father to think she was a
complete loser. “I don’t want to say. I mean, Idon’t know if he’s interested in me.” Notinterested in the right way. “How could he not be interested in you?You’re beautiful and smart and funny and hard-working and healthy and—” “Dad, please!” She laughed. He grinned and scooped up another forkfulfrom his overflowing plate. “So tell me about thisguy. What kind of work does he do?” “He has his own business.” “What kind of business?” “Um, construction.” Had she said too much?Would he remember that Mike owned his ownconstruction company? “He works with his hands. That’s good. Howold is he?” “Just a few years older than me. He’s
divorced, and he has a little boy.” She thought ofRyan, both hands plunged into a mass of papier-mâché, his father’s crooked grin and dimplesreplicated on his face. Adorable. Her father frowned. “It would be better if he’dnever been married, but I suppose at your agethat isn’t as likely.” “Thanks, Dad. You make me sound ancient.” “I didn’t mean it that way, honey. How didyou meet this guy?” “A friend introduced us.” Technically, that wastrue. If not for Justin, she’d probably never havemet Mike, much less moved in with him. “And you’ve been out?” “Only with a group of people.” Did abachelorette party and a wedding count? “Like Isaid, I’m not sure he’s really interested. Ishouldn’t have brought it up.” She didn’t know
why she had. She and Mike had an agreement.They wouldn’t fool around as long as they livedunder the same roof. It was a perfectly sensiblearrangement, but that didn’t stop her fromthinking about him. He really was the only manshe’d been attracted to in months. At least talkingabout her feelings for Mike, even obliquely likethis, with her dad helped clarify things a little. Shedidn’t like that she was falling for a guy when thetiming wasn’t right for a serious relationship, butat least her interest in Mike proved she could stillfeel something for a man. Her past badrelationships hadn’t completely ruined her. “I justwant to take it slowly, not rush into anything.”Not doing anything counted as “taking it slowly,”right? “That’s a good idea, sweetie. I don’t want tosee you hurt.”
Of course he didn’t. Her father always wantedthe best for her. And wasn’t he the master of“taking it slowly” when it came to relationships?Like father, like daughter, she realized with apang. She was as bad as he was, afraid to moveforward for fear of being hurt again. He chewed the last of his souvlaki. “So whenare you going to introduce me to this guy?” Her face burned. What would her dad say ifshe told him he already knew her crush? Heseemed to like Mike okay, but he was probablyold-fashioned enough that he’d stroke out overher sharing a house with a man she was attractedto. “I told you, I don’t even know if he likes me.I just think he’s…interesting. That’s all.” “So you’re going to moon over him from afar,like some silly schoolgirl?” That was exactly what she’d been planning. “I
wanted to let him make the first move,” she saidprimly. “Then you could be waiting a long time. I’ll tellyou a secret, sweetheart. Men are cowards, atleast when it comes to women. You want to goout with this guy, you ask him.” Did she want to go out with Mike? No—shewanted to stay in with him and have scorching-hot sex, breakfast in bed, and maybe more sexfor dessert. “You think I should ask him out on adate?” “Yes. This is the twenty-first century. Awoman can ask a man out on a date.” “So if Grace Hitchcock asked you out, you’dsay yes?” Was that a flush of red around his collar? Hetook a swig of water from his glass. “Gracewould never do that. She and I are of a different
generation.” “Now you’re making yourself sound old. Whydon’t we make a deal?” She took a deep breath.Anything to get her dad to at least try dating. “I’llpursue things with…with this guy I like, andyou’ll go on at least one date in this next month.It can be with Grace or with someone else.” “Honey, I really don’t think—” “Dad, please. If you don’t want to do this foryourself, do it for me. Maybe this is just what weboth need to get out of our ruts.” And whenMike turned her down flat, she’d be able to pickherself up and get back to focusing on school andher exciting plans for the future. That would beprogress, right? Her dad was still scowling, but he nodded.“All right. But I’m only doing this for you.” Their wine glasses were empty, so Stephanie
raised her water glass in a toast. “Torelationships.” “To happiness,” her dad countered. “Whetherwe’re single or partnered up, let’s focus onfinding a way to be happy.” They clinked glasses. “Sometimes I forget howsmart you are, Dad.” “I told you, it runs in the family.” He winked.“And if this guy has any smarts at all, he’ll jumpat the chance to go out with you. But if he givesyou any trouble, you just call me.” “And what, you’ll beat him up?” The idea ofher father facing off with muscular Mike wasalarming. “I don’t have to throw a punch to make his lifehell. I didn’t live this long without learning a fewdirty tricks.” “Dirty tricks? What’s gotten into you?”
“Just believe me when I say I’ll always lookafter my little girl. It’s what parents do, no matterhow old you are.” “Oh, Dad.” She swallowed down a knot ofemotion. Sometimes his overprotectiveness gotto her, but she was touched. “Everything will befine. You’ll see.” And if it wasn’t, she promised herself he’d bethe last to know.
Chapter EightThe elementary school gymnasium looked likethe prop room for a cut-rate science fiction film.Carrying Ryan’s homemade volcano, Mikesteered his son past a model of a rocket that wastaller than the kid who stood beside it. Theymaneuvered through a miniature solar systemconstructed of what might have been Nerf ballsand slipped past a jungle of bean plants in variousstages of decline. “My place is over here,” Ryansaid, tugging Mike toward a row of tables at theback of the room. “Here I am.” Ryan pointed to a piece ofmasking tape affixed to one corner of the table,where RYAN BRUBAKER was printed in blockletters with blue marker. “Great.” Mike slid the board that held the
volcano onto the table. It was amazing how mucha bunch of paper and paste could weigh. “One of the dinosaurs fell over.” Ryan busiedhimself setting his plastic landscape to rights oncemore. “Hi, Ryan.” Father and son turned to the little girl at thenext table. She stood behind a model of aTyrannosaurus, braces gleaming as she smiled. “Hey, Kristen.” Ryan grinned back with theslightly glazed expression of the clearly besotted.Mike covered his mouth with his hand to hide hissmile. Apparently even nine years old was nottoo young to fall under the spell of long blond hairand big blue eyes. “Your volcano looks cool,” Kristen said. “Thanks. So does that T-Rex.” An older girl approached and asked Kristen a
question. Ryan went back to fussing with hisdinosaurs. Mike nudged him. “She’s cute.” Ryan shrugged. “I guess.” But the tips of hisears flushed pink. Mike stifled a grin. His amusement faded when he looked up andsaw Kaye making her way toward him, followedby a stocky man in a sharp suit. “Hello, Mike,”his ex said, her gaze skimming over him beforeresting on Ryan. “Hello, Kaye. Todd.” Mike nodded to theman. What did Kaye think she was doing,bringing him here? As far as Mike knew, theanticipated marriage proposal hadn’t happenedyet. Kaye wasn’t sporting a ring on her hand. “Hello, Mike.” Todd kept his hands in hispockets, his expression neutral. The two men hadmanaged to meet half a dozen times, and so farMike hadn’t thrown any punches. Todd probably
figured he was safe, especially in a gym full ofpeople. “That’s a great-looking volcano you’vegot there, Ryan.” “Thanks.” “You did a really good job with this.” Kayefingered a small fern Ryan had planted at thebase of the volcano. “I’m impressed.” “Dad helped. And Stephanie showed us howto make the paper and glue stuff look like rocksand lava and stuff.” “Who’s Stephanie?” Kaye addressed thequestion to Mike, her expression sharp—assessing. “Stephanie is one of my housemates.” Kaye exchanged a look with Todd that Mikecouldn’t interpret. Was it It’s about time he hadanother woman in his life? or What kind offloozy is he hanging out with now? “How
many housemates do you have? And how manyof them are women?” “I don’t think that’s really any of yourbusiness.” He kept his expression pleasant,enjoying the way the line between her browsdeepened at this answer. Was it possible Kayewas jealous? “I’m not sure I like the idea of Ryan beingexposed to that kind of living situation,” she saidcrisply. “All these women you’re not married torunning around the house.” She made it sound a lot more fun than themundane reality. “Would you like it better if Imarried them? Maybe I could get my own realityTV show as a bigamist.” “That’s not funny.” Apparently nothing was to her anymore. Andhe could have pointed out that she was now
living with a man to whom she was not married,but he didn’t care to bring that up in front ofRyan. “So, Ryan, what happens now?” Todd asked,diplomatically steering the conversation to moreneutral territory. “The judges have to come around and look ateverybody’s stuff,” Ryan said. “Do they ask you questions about yourproject?” Kaye asked. “Do you know whatyou’re going to say to them?” “I guess I’ll just tell them about how I made itand stuff.” She leaned closer and frowned at the scenelaid out on the table. “Why do you havedinosaurs there? Was that part of theassignment?” “I just thought they would be cool.”
“Is that what you’re going to tell the judges?That you think dinosaurs are cool? Maybe youshould mention something about the climatewhere they lived, and volcanoes.” Todd put a hand on Kaye’s back. “I thinkRyan has everything under control,” he said.“Why don’t we walk around and look at some ofthe other exhibits?” “Oh, all right.” To Mike’s surprise, shestraightened and followed Todd across the gym.He was sure if he had suggested such a thing shewould have argued, even back when they weremarried and getting along. “Dad, you don’t have to stand here with me ifyou want to look at the other exhibits,” Ryansaid. Mike shoved his hands in his pockets and triedto read his son’s expression, but Ryan was as
tough to decipher as his mother. “Do you wantme to leave?” “Not really. I just thought this might be kind ofboring for you.” “I’m not bored. I like hanging out with you.”He resisted the urge to ruffle the boy’s hair. Agesture like that in public would be sure to drophis “cool dad” ranking several notches. Mike stood with his back to the table, handsshoved in his pockets, scanning the gymnasiumfull of people. He wished Stephanie were here.She was always fun to talk to. Being with hermade him feel relaxed…when he wasn’t lustingafter her. There was no sign of Kaye and Todd. At leasthe didn’t have to stand around making small talk,as if the man his wife had left him for was anycasual acquaintance. For the most part, he’d
stopped being angry with the guy months ago,but that didn’t mean he wanted to be friends withhim. And he didn’t like the idea of Toddbuddying up to Ryan. Ryan slumped in a chair behind his volcano.“This is kind of boring, isn’t it?” he said. “Waiting for anything usually isn’t veryexciting.” Mike spotted an empty folding chairand dragged it over beside his son and sat.“What do you think of Todd?” Ryan shrugged. “He’s okay.” “Everything working out with him living in thehouse with you and your mom?” “Yeah, I guess. It’s kind of weird having himthere all the time, but he’s okay.” Mike leaned forward, elbows on his knees,hoping he looked a lot more relaxed than he felt.“If he ever gives you any trouble, you let me
know.” Ryan’s eyes widened. “What kind of trouble?” “I don’t know.” What did he mean? It wasn’tas if he thought Todd was going to molest the kidor anything. But you never knew. You couldn’ttrust anyone these days. “Any kind. You let meknow, and I’ll take care of it.” “Will you beat him up?” Physical violence might be momentarilysatisfying, but it wouldn’t solve anything. “I’ll justtake care of it.” He could probably put the fearof God into the man without resorting to violence. “Why would you do that?” He straightened. “Because I’m your father. It’smy job.” He looked Ryan in the eye. “No matterhow old you get, I’ll be there for you.” He mighthave been a screwup at marriage, but he woulddo this fatherhood thing right. Forget women. His
most important relationship was with his son, andhe wouldn’t mess that up. …“Stephanie, I want you to know I’m keeping myend of our bargain.” Her father’s voice on thephone—sounding uncharacteristically cheerful—made Stephanie’s stomach ache. She’d spent thepast week trying very hard to forget the promiseshe’d made to her dad to pursue Mike. She’dbegun to hope it had slipped his mind. “That’s great, Dad.” “Have you asked out your guy yet?” “Not yet. I mean, I’ve been busy with schooland everything. And so has he. I mean, I haven’tseen him that much.” All true. Though one reasonshe hadn’t seen Mike was probably becauseshe’d successfully avoided him. She’d found
excuses to stay at the campus library studying orto hang out with friends, anything to avoid cominghome early enough to chance running into Mike.What could she possibly say to him? I agree weshouldn’t have sex, but would you like to gobowling? Considering the attraction betweenthem, they’d probably end up making out on thelanes. And where would going out with him lead, ifnot to his bed? He’d already made it clear hedidn’t want to get seriously involved with anyone.Even if she could change his mind about that, thelast thing she needed right now was anything totie her to Evergreen. She was going to take herdegree away from here, to gain experience andsee something of the world. Getting tangled upwith Mike would only complicate matters. “It’s the weekend, so you should be able to
track him down. I mean, he can’t work all thetime. You don’t want a workaholic, honey.” Said the man who practically lived at theoffice. “No, I don’t. So who did you ask out?Was it Grace?” “Grace and I are going to the Rockies gameon Sunday.” “Baseball? Dad, that isn’t very romantic.” “Grace told me she loves baseball. And agame is a perfect first date. There’s time to talkbetween innings, but you don’t have to focus oneach other a hundred percent of the time.” Stephanie tried to imagine petite, ladylikeGrace Hitchcock cheering at a baseball game. Itwas impossible. And none of her business. “Ihope you have a wonderful time.” “What about you? You need to hold up yourend of the bargain.”
Or what? Would he break his date withGrace? “If you don’t keep your promise, Stephanie,I’ll be very disappointed in you.” He had pulled out the ultimate guilt inducer.She could imagine the sad look on her father’sface as he said these words. Since childhood, hisdisappointment had wounded her more than anybeating. “I’ll get right on it, I promise. You have agood time with Grace.” “Maybe you want me to talk to this guy,” herfather said. “Give him a nudge in the rightdirection.” Stephanie could imagine nothing worse thanher father pimping her to some man—especiallyto Mike. “No! Thank you, but no. I can handlethis.” “You promise you’re going to ask this guy
out?” “Sure, Dad. I promise.” “Good girl.” She hung up the phone, fighting the sick feelingin her stomach. Why hadn’t she promised herdad she’d do something easy, like take upskydiving? At least then she’d have had a goodchance of keeping her promise with her dignityintact. She slid the phone into her pocket andstraightened. “You can do this,” she said. She’dexplain to Mike she had no intention of violatingtheir agreement. She was merely asking him outto get her father off her back. He’d turn herdown, and that would be that. And she’d do it now, before she lost hernerve. When she didn’t find Mike in the living room
or his office, she began to hope she’d been givena reprieve. She peeked into the kitchen. Justin satat the table, Ilsa in his lap. “Hi, Stephanie,” Ilsagreeted her. Reluctantly, Stephanie opened the door a littlewider. “Hey.” She scanned the kitchen, thoughshe didn’t know why she bothered. Did she thinkMike was hiding behind the refrigerator orsomething? “If you’re looking for Mike, he’s in thebackyard,” Justin said. She opened her mouth to deny she wantedanything to do with Mike, but then stoppedherself. She might as well get this over with.“Thanks.” Aware of them watching her, shecrossed the kitchen and opened the back door. The backyard was an expanse of woodedground that ended at the foot of rocky cliffs a
hundred yards in the distance. A neat post-and-wire fence marked the boundaries, and benches,a swing set, and picnic tables added to the park-like setting. Mike could have been anywhere inthat half acre, but Stephanie spotted himimmediately. He stood by the picnic table, bentover some piece of machinery. He had onnothing but a pair of well-worn, low-slung jeans.Stephanie faltered, staring at the perfect expanseof his back, broad shoulders tapering to a narrowwaist. He shifted, and muscles rippled beneathhis smooth skin. She bit off a moan. He turned at the sound. “Hey, Stephanie. Doyou need something?” Oxygen. She definitely had trouble breathingaround a half-naked Mike. Not that she hadn’tseen him without a shirt before—the first daythey met, he’d been scarcely dressed. But then
she hadn’t known him. She hadn’t known what itwas like to feel his lips on hers, his arms holdingher… She swallowed hard, and on legs that feltlike cooked spaghetti, she made her way over tohim. “You okay?” As she neared, he reached outand put a steadying hand on her arm. “You looka little pale.” Avoiding his eyes, she shifted her gaze andfocused on a single bead of sweat making its waydown his chest, sliding over his skin, glinting inthe light dusting of brown hair… She jerked hereyes back up to his face. “I just got off the phonewith my dad. He has a date—his first date in tenyears.” “And you’re upset about it?” He frowned. “Iguess it is kind of a shock, but—” “No. I’m happy for him. Really.” She forced a
tight smile. “Then why do you look upset?” She shifted her weight from one foot to theother. Was Mike going to think she was an idiot?“He and I sort of made a deal. We eachpromised to ask someone out.” The lines around his eyes deepened, and hisshoulders tensed. “So you have a date, too?” “Um, I haven’t exactly kept up my end of thebargain.” “Why not?” “Because the whole thing is ridiculous.” “You think dating is ridiculous?” “No.” She hugged her arms across herstomach and forced out the words. “I was hopingyou could help me keep my promise to my dad.” “So you want me to go out with you?” She shook her head. “I’ll ask you. You turn
me down, and I’ll tell Dad I struck out. Then hewon’t bug me about it anymore.” Mike wiped his hands on a rag. He had greathands, big and capable. Hands that knew how tohandle machinery—and her. “Why would I turnyou down?” “We made a deal. No fooling around whilewe’re living under the same roof.” “A date doesn’t have to mean fooling around.We could go do something together. In public.That ought to be safe enough.” “I don’t know, Mike.” She thought even inpublic, being alone with him might be too muchfor her weak willpower. “Come on. It’s Saturday. Ryan is with hismom. I don’t want to spend the whole weekendsitting around the house. Do you?” That was exactly what she’d planned on
doing, but she wasn’t about to admit it and comeoff sounding like a loser. “I have studying to do.” “The studying will wait for a few hours, won’tit? I know the perfect activity.” He tossed the ragon the picnic table. “Let me get cleaned up, andI’ll meet you out front in half an hour.” He tookher by the elbow and towed her toward thehouse. Ilsa and Justin met them at the back door,both grinning. Stephanie realized they’d probablywatched the whole exchange. “What are you two up to?” Justin asked. “Nothing,” Stephanie said, and she fled to herroom. She had thirty minutes to change clothes,do her hair and makeup, and somehow find thewillpower to spend the afternoon with Mikewithout making a fool of herself over him.
Chapter NineForty minutes later, Stephanie walked outside tofind Mike waiting by his truck. He’d changed intoclean jeans and a blue polo shirt, and he’dshaved, the scent of woodsy aftershave clingingto him. She fought the urge to run her hand overhis smooth jaw. “You look nice,” he said as heheld the truck door open for her. “Thanks.” She settled into the seat andreached for her seat belt. “Where are we going?” “What do you think of go-carts?” “Go-carts?” “There’s a track over at Heritage Park. Wecan race. It’s a great way to work offfrustrations.” “Then it sounds perfect.” The go-cart track at Heritage Park offered a
view of sun-drenched mountains; cars that wentjust fast enough to feel dangerous; and a twisting,turning track that forced Stephanie to keep hermind on her driving. For the next two hours, sheand Mike raced their vehicles around the course,revving engines, banking into turns, andscreaming down the straightaways. Stephanieshouted with delight as she passed Mike on acurve and laughed as he passed her in turn. When at last they pulled to a stop at the finishline, she felt weak from the adrenaline rush andmore relaxed than she had in weeks. “That was ablast,” she said as he helped her out of her car. “Didn’t I tell you?” He kept hold of her handas they left the track, and she didn’t try to pullaway. “Are you hungry?” “Starved.” They ate at a restaurant in the park, seated at
an outside table with a view of the mountains.“Who is your dad going out with?” Mike askedafter the waitress delivered their burgers andfries. “Her name’s Grace. She works at thecompany that supplies most of our filters. I thinkshe’s had a crush on Dad for years.” “And you’re okay with that?” The question surprised her. “Why wouldn’t Ibe?” Mike shrugged. “You’ve had your dad toyourself for ten years.” “Yes, and it’s past time he had something inlife to focus on besides me.” “Maybe he was waiting until you were grownand on your own before he started dating again.” “I haven’t lived at home for five years.” “So he’s slow.” Mike smiled, a slightly
crooked grin that made her heart feel a little toobig for her chest. “He told me men are cowards when it comesto women.” Mike nodded. “Your father is a wise man.” She couldn’t imagine Mike being afraid ofanything, least of all a woman. “Well, I want himto be a happy one. Ryan probably wants that foryou, too.” “Ryan is nine. His idea of happiness is an X-Men movie marathon and hot dogs for dinner.Girls—well, most girls—still have cooties.” She laughed. “He’s really smart and funny.” “Obviously he takes after his mother. At leastthe funny part.” “I don’t know about that. I think you have asense of humor.” She pointed a French fry athim. “It’s just hidden underneath that macho act
you’ve perfected.” “What makes you think it’s an act?” Theexaggerated waggle of his eyebrows let her knowhe was just kidding. “I see through you, tough guy.” She kept hertone light, teasing, but her heart felt heavy withthe weight of the truth of the words. She andMike were a lot alike, both hiding behindfacades, afraid to let their true feelings show.She’d perfected the role of female best friend,the gal pal who wasn’t interested in romance,while Mike kept others at a distance with a heavylayer of cynicism. They both avoided seriousrelationships, afraid of being hurt. “Don’t tell anyone my secret, okay?” For amoment, his eyes locked to hers, the teasinggone, replaced by a pain she recognized too well.At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to
reach for him—to pull him close and tell him hewas safe with her, that she wouldn’t let himdown. But she couldn’t find the words to say or thecourage to act on her impulse. Years of puttingup barriers couldn’t be forgotten in one instant oflonging. Mike shoved aside the remains of his meal andpushed back his chair. “Guess it’s time we headback home.” She said nothing, but she followed him to histruck, where they made the short ride home insilence. In the driveway, he shut off the engineand turned to her. “I had a good time,” he said. “Yeah. Me, too.” “I’d kiss you good night, but I’m thinking thatmight not be a good idea.” “Probably not.” She offered her hand.
“Friends?” He wrapped his hand around hers, warm andstrong. “Friends.” It wasn’t what she wanted, but it was betterthan being at odds with the man. She ought to behappy they’d spent the afternoon togetherwithout fighting or giving in to the lust that stillshimmered between them. Instead, she felt sadabout what might have been if either of them hadbeen a little braver. …Life would be much better if personalrelationships were as easy to handle as work ,Mike thought as he sat beside Ryan Friday night.A pizza box lay open on the coffee table in frontof them, and Ryan was beating him in a videogame that involved zombies fighting soldiers.
Mike wanted to do what was best for his son,but he was no longer sure what that might be.“What would you think if I started datingsomeone?” he asked. Even saying the words outloud felt risky after all his promises to himself thathe wasn’t going to get involved with anyone aslong as Ryan was young and vulnerable. Butsince spending the afternoon at the go-cart trackwith Stephanie, he’d questioned how reasonableor realistic such a vow could be. He’d had funwith her—more fun than he’d had with anyone ina long time. Later, when they’d talked overdinner, he’d felt a connection there, as if shereally understood him—maybe better than heunderstood himself. If he’d found the right woman to be with—ifStephanie was the right woman—couldn’t theywork things out so that Ryan didn’t get hurt and
they all had a chance at happiness? Was it wrongto try? “You mean a woman?” Mike made a face. “Yes, a woman.” “Why would you want to do that?” Because I’m lonely. Because I’ve foundsomeone I’d like to be with. Because it’s timeI stopped looking back and started lookingforward. “It’s something adults do,” he said. Ryan shrugged and turned his attention backto the monsters materializing on the video screen. “Your mom and Todd are dating. Are youokay with that?” “They’re not dating. They’re living together.Mom says they might get married.” “Does that upset you?” Mike watched his soncarefully. Ryan’s forehead creased inconcentration as his thumbs worked the game
controller. Mike was pretty sure Ryan had heardthe question but was deliberately not answering. “You have friends whose parents divorced,right?” he asked, trying another tack. “And someof their parents remarried, so now they havestepmoms and stepdads.” Ryan nodded, his gaze still locked to thescreen. “So it’s not unusual or weird or anything,”Mike continued. “It’s just the way things are insome families.” “I guess.” “If your mom and Todd decide to get married,he’ll be your stepfather.” Even saying the wordshurt, but this wasn’t about his feelings, this wasabout Ryan. Ryan lifted one shoulder in a half shrug butsaid nothing.
Mike touched Ryan’s arm, needing to makethat physical connection. “I wish you’d tell mewhat you’re thinking, son.” Ryan pressed the pause button and looked athim. “I like Todd okay. He tries too hardsometimes to get me to like him. It makes menervous.” “It’ll get better.” Again he shrugged. Did Ryan think this wasjust something adults said to placate kids? “Iknow before, with Madeline, you were reallyupset when she and I stopped seeing eachother.” “Yeah. I liked her.” “And she liked you. When she and I broke up,it had nothing to do with you.” He and Madelinehad split because he hadn’t been ready foranything serious. When she started hinting
otherwise, he’d panicked and broken things off.He wasn’t proud of how he’d behaved, but he’dhave been a bigger jerk if he’d led her on. Now,he thought he was in a different placeemotionally. Stephanie made him want to tryagain. “If I started dating someone else, we mightnot stay together forever,” he said. “It’s hard topredict.” Another reason the prospect of gettinginvolved with Stephanie was so daunting. “I know.” “So you’d be okay if I started datingsomeone?” Ryan’s face twisted, as if he were fightingtears. “I don’t see why you have to dateanyone.” “I’d just be going out with a friend. A femalefriend.” Mike put his hand on Ryan’s shoulder,but the boy shrugged it off.
“I don’t want you going out with anyone. Whycan’t it just be you and me, hanging out?” Guilt, like a big fist, grabbed hold of Mike andsqueezed. How many ways could he find toscrew up his son’s life? “We’d still hang out,” hesaid. “But when you aren’t here—” “No! I want it to be just you and me!” Ryantossed aside the game controller and shovedhimself off the couch. “Why do things alwayshave to change?” he wailed, and he ran out of theroom. Mike sat, numb, listening to his son’s feetpounding down the hall, followed by the slam ofthe bedroom door. He was an idiot. With all the upheaval Ryanhad in his life right now, with Todd moving in andKaye talking of marriage, Mike should haveknown the boy wouldn’t take well to any more
changes. As much as Mike liked Stephanie andwanted to be with her, he couldn’t put his owndesires ahead of his son’s stability. Right now,Ryan needed Mike more than Mike neededStephanie. Making sacrifices was part of being agood parent. …Saturday mornings, without class or work todistract her, Stephanie had a tough time keepingher thoughts from Mike. The afternoon at thepark had been a lot of fun, but she had no ideawhat it meant. Here it was, two weeks after that Saturdayafternoon, and she was no closer to an answer.She and Mike hadn’t been alone since then, andwhen they were with others he gave no indicationanything special had happened. She was
beginning to wonder if she’d dreamed the wholesense of connection she’d felt that afternoon. She sighed. There was no sense in mopingabout Mike. It was time to get out of the houseand do something to take her mind off hermorose personal life. Some classmates hadformed a study group that met at the campuslibrary. Maybe she’d drop in. She studied herface in the bathroom mirror. She looked fine.Maybe a little pale, but nothing a little blushwouldn’t take care of. She fumbled with hermakeup bag, tugging at the zipper until it shotopen, sending the contents cascading off the edgeof the sink. Straight into the toilet. “Noooooo!” She stared in horror as tubes oflipstick and mascara, compacts of eye shadowand blush, and various wands and brushes
bobbed in the toilet bowl, flotsam in a circularsea. Dropping to her knees, she tried to pull outthe items without actually plunging her hands intothe water. Of course it was clean water, but itwas toilet water. Yuck. She managed to pluck out everything but apackage of makeup sponges, transferring theitems from the toilet directly to the trash basket.Maybe she was being overly squeamish, butstill… She stared at the lone holdout. Some of thesponges had floated out of the package and werestarting to take on water. If only she had a pair oftongs or something. Or if she could get them tofloat up closer to the top. She jiggled the handle,thinking maybe she could—what? She didn’tknow what. But she was desperate. To her horror, the handle jerked down, and
the toilet flushed with a whoosh! “Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!” Shejumped back as water began to rise in the bowl,creeping toward the rim and disaster. Thesponges had disappeared but were clearly stucksomewhere. Argh. She needed a plunger. A quick checkunder the sink showed no sign of the plumber’shelper. If she’d still lived at home, she’d have calledher father. If she were still in an apartment, she’dhave summoned the landlord. Mike is my landlord, she reminded herself. Asmoking-hot landlord about whom she definitelyhad lustful thoughts, but still the landlord. Water began to spill over the sides of the bowllike a mini Niagara. She had to do something.She raced from the room and out into the hall.
“Have you seen Mike?” she asked Justin asshe passed him and Ilsa. The couple wassprawled on the sofa in the living room, watchinga baseball game on the big-screen TV. Justin waved toward the back of the house. “Ithink he’s over there somewhere,” he said. “What is that man doing now?” Ilsa squinted atthe television. “Why does he keep throwing theball to the first baseman instead of at the batter?” “He’s trying to catch the runner off the base,”Justin said. “They are like children, teasing each other.Really, this game is silly.” Stephanie left the room, headed toward theden. The door was open, and Mike sat at ascarred oak desk, bent over a laptop. Even insuch a mundane position, he looked good enoughto eat. It wasn’t fair. She knocked on the
doorframe. “Hey! Stephanie!” He looked up and almost—but not quite—smiled. She ignored the flock of butterflies that hadsuddenly taken flight in her chest and steppedinto the room. “Sorry to interrupt, but I need aplunger.” “Why do you need a plunger?” What kind of stupid question was that? Whydid anyone need a plunger? “I’ve got a problemwith the toilet in my room.” “Is it stopped up?” She made a face. “Uh, yeah.” He frowned. “Do you know what’s cloggingit? You didn’t put tampons down it, did you?Those things are hell on septic systems.” She blushed. “No. It’s not a tampon. It’s apacket of makeup sponges.”
“How did makeup sponges get in the toilet?” “Um, I dropped them, and they fell in.” “That’s why they make lids on toilets, youknow.” Good-looking or not, now he was just beingannoying. “I know. Give me the plunger, and I’lltake care of it.” “I’d better have a look.” He shoved back hischair. “You don’t have to do that. I can handle it.” “No. I was just going over some financialpapers my accountant sent over. Frankly, I’drather fix toilets than deal with that stuff.” She followed him back into the living room.Though the baseball game was still on, Ilsa andJustin weren’t paying attention to the action onthe screen. Instead, they were wrapped aroundeach other, lips locked. Mike cleared his throat.
“You know, you have a room for that.” Ilsa looked up, cheeks flushed pink. “Thegame was so boring, we decided to make it moreinteresting.” “Every time the Rockies get a hit, I get a kiss,”Justin said. “I like baseball much better now,” Ilsa said. “Now why didn’t I think of that?” Mikeasked. He led the way to Stephanie’s room. Shecringed as she realized what a mess the roomwas. The bed was unmade, and her last load oflaundry sat in a basket under the window. Booksand papers buried the desk in the corner. Mike didn’t seem to notice. He ran his handalong the footboard of the bed as he passed.“Beautiful bed,” he murmured. The bed was beautiful, but once again, the
way he touched it made her think of him touchingher, and from there her imagination could easilyrun away with itself. She followed him into the bathroom, and theycontemplated the overflowing toilet. “So youdropped the sponges into the toilet. Then what?” “Then I tried to jiggle the handle, and Iaccidentally flushed.” “Why did you jiggle the handle?” “That’s what my father told me to dowhenever the toilet doesn’t work properly.” “That’s for if the toilet’s running.” He touchedher shoulder. “I’ll be right back.” As soon as he’d left the room, she racedaround, pulling up the covers on the bed andtossing the basket of clothes in the closet. Shecouldn’t do anything about the desk. Maybe hewouldn’t notice. When Mike returned, she was
pink-faced and out of breath. “Are you okay?”he asked. “Of course! I’m fine!” He brandished a plunger like a club. “Thisshould take care of it.” “Thanks. I’ll handle it from here.” She reachedfor the plunger, but he held it away from her. “Allow me.” She started to protest, but honestly, howridiculous would it look to argue with the manover a toilet plunger? “Fine,” she said. “It’s yourhouse. You can unclog the toilet.” She stayed in the bedroom while he tackledthe clog. In less than five minutes, she heard thetoilet flush, then water running in the sink. He emerged, drying his hands on one of herbath towels. “All fixed. I had to use most of yourtowels to mop up the water. Next time,
remember that most toilets prefer not to wearmakeup.” “Very funny.” They stood facing each other, Stephanieacutely aware of the rumpled bed between them.She couldn’t hear the television in the next roomfor the pounding of her pulse in her ears.“Thanks,” she said. “I’m sorry I made such amess.” “No big deal. And I owe you, anyway.” “For what?” “Your help with Ryan’s volcano. He got thirdplace at the school science fair. He was prettypsyched.” “That’s great. Tell him congratulations for me.” “Yeah, well, I guess I need to be going.” Hemoved around the bed and past her, steppingcarefully as if determined not to touch her.
This is ridiculous, she thought. Why can’t Iact normal around him? He’s just a guy. But Mike was just a guy the way a wedge ofmocha almond fudge was just chocolate. He wasaltogether too tempting and definitely bad for her. He opened the door to leave the room, andthen quickly backed up. “What’s wrong?” Stephanie asked. “Justin and Ilsa are still on the couch. TheRockies must have hit a home run.”
Chapter TenStephanie stood on tiptoe and tried to look overMike’s shoulder. “What?” He shut the door. “They’re not wearing manyclothes.” Okay, maybe she didn’t want to see that—liveporn in her own living room. “I’m tempted to go out there and embarrassthem,” Mike said. “Except I have the feeling I’dbe the only one embarrassed. They’re oblivious.” “They’re in love.” “Yeah. Love does have a way of turning yourbrain to mush.” “It’s not love that does that,” she said. “It’shormones. The drive to further the species and allthat.” At least it was easier to blame her feelingsfor Mike on basic instinct than on messy emotion.
“Is that what it is?” He turned and his chestwas almost, but not quite, brushing hers. His eyesfixed on her, dark and dangerous. “Is that what’sgoing on between us?” His voice became a roughwhisper that scraped across her taut nerves. “N-no.” “Liar.” He slipped his arm around her waistand pulled her close, his lips covering hers. She closed her eyes, surrendering to the velvetheat of his mouth. The pressure of the kiss forcedher head back, and she slid her hands behind hisneck to steady herself, her fingers twining in hishair. His tongue stroked across her lips, and sheopened for him, desire burning through her likefire. When he broke the kiss, they clung to eachother, breathless. Some last semblance of reasonmade her try to push away from him. “What
about our pledge? You said we shouldn’t getinvolved while we were living under the sameroof.” “I never said I was good at keepingpromises.” “Mike, I don’t think—” “Maybe that’s the problem. Both of us arethinking too much.” He stroked her cheek withhis thumb. “We’re stuck here a while. Seems ashame to waste that beautiful bed.” She followed his gaze to the rumpled quilt andpiled pillows. “What about Ryan?” “Ryan isn’t here.” “I know. But you said—” “Forget what I said. It’s okay.” He kissed thecorner of her mouth. “Really. It’ll be fine.” She worried her lower lip between her teeth.Would she ever be able to rest in her own bed
again if she invited him into it? Or would she tossand turn with regret for the rest of her life if shedidn’t? “You’re right.” Anxious to go through with itbefore she lost her nerve, she took his hand andtugged him toward the bed, her other handfumbling with his belt buckle. “Hey, what’s the hurry?” He pulled her handaway and brought it up to kiss her fingers. Thesensation of his tongue sliding across herknuckles almost made her knees buckle. “We’vegot plenty of time.” The way he said the words, as if he lookedforward to taking his time, sent a fresh wave ofheat through her. She looked into his eyes andsaw the combination of emotional need andphysical desire in those blue depths. This wasn’tonly about lust. Mike wanted to be with her.
Here and now. He pushed her back until she was sitting on thebed, then knelt and slid both hands under her T-shirt while she twined her fingers through thethick silk of his hair. She needed to hold ontohim, to ground herself in the moment. He skimmed his palms over the thin fabric ofher bra, one finger of each hand tracing the curveof her breasts, stroking the swell of flesh abovethe lace trim. She made a whimpering sound, andhe smiled, then leaned forward and planted hislips over one breast, suckling her through thefabric. She moaned and felt him smile against her. Theknowledge that she pleased him made her feelbold again. She tugged hard at his shirt, sendingat least one button flying across the room. “Are you always so impatient?” he asked.
“You drive me crazy.” “I could say the same about you.” He pushedher back on the bed, and then pulled his half-unbuttoned shirt over his head. He shoved hispants and boxers down and stood over her,naked—and truly magnificent. Her fantasiesdefinitely had not done him justice. “Your turn,”he said, and reached for her T-shirt. With her eager cooperation, he divested her ofher clothes in a few seconds. He crawled ontothe bed beside her and pulled her close towhisper in her ear. “You’re even more beautifulthan I imagined.” It was the kind of thing any woman wouldwant to hear. The kind of thing a practicedplayboy would know to say. But Stephaniedidn’t think Mike was delivering a line. The wayhe brushed his hands over her, admiring, even
reverent, made her believe he meant the words. “You make me feel beautiful,” she said. “I’m glad.” He smoothed one hand down herbody, skimming across her stomach and comingto rest between her legs, cupping her. With hisgaze locked to her face, he slid one finger intoher, stroking in slow, torturous movements. She tightened around him. He smiled—a sexy,seductive curve of his mouth that sent hertemperature soaring. She ran her hands acrosshis shoulders and down his arms, reveling in thefeel of taut muscle beneath her fingers. “I’ve had dreams about you,” he said. “Y-you have?” She had a hard time getting thewords out as his fingers worked their magic. “Mmm-hmm.” He kissed the pulse at the baseof her throat. “About making love to you. Aboutbeing in you.”
“Yes.” She squirmed beneath him,telegraphing her impatience. “Are you ready?” he asked. “Yes.” “So am I. There’s just one thing.” “What?” “Do you have a condom?” The words cleared a little of the fog from herbrain. “Uh, yeah.” She leaned over and pulledopen the drawer of the bedside table. Half adozen foil packets in assorted colors spilled out.He regarded the bounty with raised eyebrows.“They’re a popular party favor at bacheloretteparties,” she explained. “When you’re abridesmaid as much as I’ve been, you go to a lotof bachelorette parties.” “Then we’re all set.” He knelt beside her and ripped open a foil
packet with his teeth, then rolled it on. That alonewas enough to send a jolt of pleasure throughher. She lay back on the pillows as he movedbetween her legs. His eyes met hers, and theunexpected tenderness there melted her lastreservations. She reached for him. “I want youinside me,” she said. He kept his gaze locked to hers as he movedover her, caressing her with his eyes as well ashis hands. Was he especially talented, or was sheright to feel more was happening here than justsex? She wanted him with her body, but hetouched her emotions, too, filling needs shehadn’t even realized she had. She cried out with pleasure at the sensation ofbeing filled by him, and when he began to moveinside her, she surrendered fully to the dizzying
joy of the moment. Her fingers dug into hisshoulders as desire wound a tight coil within her. He brushed the hair back from her foreheadtenderly, then reached down and began to fondleher. The wanting within her grew until she wasbalanced on the knife edge of frustration andpleasure. He continued stroking, teasing, until herorgasm rocketed through her in wave after waveof exquisite release, and he muffled her cries witha kiss. When she opened her eyes, Mike was smilingdown at her. He stroked her with a steadyrhythm. She studied his face, transfixed by thelook of both concentration and pleasure shefound there. His pace increased, and she closedher eyes once more, surrendering to the rhythmand the desire spiraling within her. Just as itpeaked, he drove hard into her with a cry of his
own and came with his face buried against hershoulder. They lay locked together for a long timebefore he moved off of her. As he slid down tolay beside her, he held her close, and he kepthold of her as he leaned over to dispose of thecondom in the trash basket beside the bed. Herested his head once more on her shoulder. “Thatwas pretty amazing,” she said. “Uh-huh.” She smiled, liking the idea that she’d left himinarticulate. She felt warm and tingly all over, andhappier than she could remember being. Soonenough, real life would intrude on the fantasy, butright now, she wanted to enjoy the dream. Shelet herself float and was almost asleep whensomeone called her name. “Stephanie! Stephanie!”
She and Mike stared at each other. “Thatsounds like Nicole,” she whispered. He nodded. “It would be awkward if she found us heretogether like this,” she said. “Yeah. Awkward.” “Stephanie? Are you in there?” Nicoleknocked on the door. “Maybe she’ll think you’re not here,” Mikesaid. “My car’s in the driveway. Where else wouldI be? Should I try to get rid of her?” “No. I’ll leave.” He slid out of bed and begancollecting his clothes. “What are you doing? You can’t just walk outthe door.” “I’ll climb out the window.” He pulled up hispants and reached for his shirt.
“Stephanie, are you okay in there? You’re notsick, are you?” “Just a minute, Nicole!” She began dressing, too. By the time she wasfinished, Mike had pushed open the window andflung one leg over the sill. He grinned at her. “I’venever had to climb out the window of a woman’sbedroom before.” She wanted to tell him he didn’t have to now.After all, they were both adults. They had nothingto be ashamed of. Those were the facts—butthings were a lot messier than that when youfigured in emotions. “See you later,” she said. “Yeah. Later.” …“What took you so long?” Nicole asked whenStephanie finally opened the door to her room.
“I was taking a nap.” Nicole glanced at the tangled sheets.Stephanie’s gaze zeroed in on a patch of darkblue near the foot of the bed. She was pretty sureit was Mike’s boxer shorts. He must have beenin a hurry to dress and left them behind. “Why are you napping at this time of day?”Nicole asked. “Are you sick or something?” “No.” She steered Nicole back toward thedoor. “Are Ilsa and Justin still out there?” “Out where?” “In the living room. They were watching a ballgame.” Sort of. “I don’t know where they are. Probably intheir room.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re luckyyour room is farther away. The carrying on thosetwo do…” “I get the idea. What can I do for you?”
“I was just wondering if you’d seen Mike.” “Mike? Why would I have seen Mike?” “There’s some guy out front who wants to talkto him. A client, I think. Mike’s truck is here, butthere’s no sign of him.” “I haven’t seen him, no.” Not in the last twominutes, anyway. “Maybe he’s out back.” “I looked there. Guess I’ll just tell the manMike isn’t home. Are you sure you’re all right?You look flushed.” “Yes. I’m fine.” Confused and lovesick, butfine. The front door opened. “Mike, is that you?”Nicole called. Footsteps approached, and then Mike joinedthem. His hair was a mess, and his shirt wasbuttoned crooked—maybe because some of thebuttons were missing. Stephanie fought the urge
to go to him and smooth back the mussed hairand straighten his shirt—mainly for the comfort oftouching him. She looked away, though shecontinued to watch him out of the corner of hereye. “There was a man out there looking for you,”Nicole said. “Paul Kellerman. I’m building a new house forhim and his wife.” “Then you talked to him?” “Yeah, I took care of it. How are you,Stephanie?” She couldn’t keep looking away from him, soshe carefully turned to face him, keeping herexpression neutral. “I’m fine. How are you?” No emotion showed on his face. He mighthave been greeting a casual acquaintance, not awoman he’d just made passionate love to. “I’m
good.” He was good, all right. The best. He seemedto have been pretty impressed with her, too, atleast while they were in bed together. You’dnever know he thought she was anything specialnow. Was this how it was going to be—they’dpretend nothing had happened whenever anyonewas nearby, and then sneak around the rest ofthe time? What had ever possessed her to think thatmaking love with Mike could be anything butcomplicated? “I’d better get back to my paperwork,” hesaid. “See you ladies later.” “See you,” Nicole said. They watched him ashe walked away—a tall, good-looking man whoapparently was wearing no underwear. “I think Mike is probably really lonely,” Nicole
said. “You do?” Mike was something of a loner,true, but she hadn’t thought of him as lonely. “Ialways thought of him as a guy who liked beingindependent. It’s not as if he doesn’t have lots offriends.” “Friends, yeah, but I don’t buy that whole ‘Idon’t need anybody’ act for one second.” “Everybody needs somebody, I guess.” Thequestion was, did Mike need her? “Right. I mean, look at this house.” Nicoleswept her hand to indicate the expansive livingroom and the bedrooms beyond. “He built thishouse for a family. And you’ve seen how he iswith his kid. No matter what kind of image hetries to project, Mike is a family man at heart.” “He has a family. Ryan is his family.” “A part-time kid is not the same as a full-time
wife and family. But instead of admitting that’swhat he really wants, he’s pretending he doesn’tcare. It’s sad.” “I don’t think he’s pretending.” Stephanie feltthe need to defend Mike, even if some of whatNicole said was true. “But when you’ve beenhurt before, it’s hard to open yourself up to thatkind of pain again.” “So being unhappy and safe is better thantaking a chance on real happiness?” “Sometimes it is.” Stephanie felt a familiar achein her chest—the pain of knowing what shewanted and being afraid to go after it. She andMike were alike that way—nursing old woundsand afraid to move forward—or toward eachother. They’d both thought giving in to their physicaldesires would be a way to satisfy that urge
without risking an emotional entanglement. A wayto be with someone while avoiding the pain ofreal commitment. Instead, Stephanie had gone and donesomething really stupid. She’d made herselfvulnerable to a man who wasn’t ready to handleit. She was falling in love with Mike, and sheknew the only thing that could come of that wastrouble.
Chapter Eleven“Dad, why is there a pair of boxer shorts on yourbedroom door?” Mike stared at the shorts—dark blue with alighter blue waistband, dangling from a single redthumbtack in the middle of his bedroom door.They were his, all right. He’d been in such ahurry to get out of Stephanie’s room before thetwo of them could be discovered, he’d forgottento put them on. “They must have gotten mixed up in someoneelse’s laundry.” He grabbed the shorts,thumbtack flying, tossed them into his room, andshut the door. Great. Now he could add lying tohis kid to his list of transgressions, right under“running away from Stephanie.” He continued down the hall to Ryan’s room.
Ryan was staying an extra day this week,because Kaye and Todd were at a retreat in themountains for Todd’s law firm. Todd was a realestate lawyer with one of the biggest firms in thestate. He and Kaye had met when his firm didsome work for the software company where sheworked, though she still kept to the polite fictionthat they’d only started dating after she and Mikehad officially separated. “What are we going to do today?” Ryanasked. “I’ve got a contractor stopping by in a littlewhile to pick up some plans, and then I thoughtwe’d take in a movie, maybe grab a pizza.” “That sounds good. What movie are we goingto see?” “How about the new Mole Men film? It’sshowing over at Colorado Mills.”
Ryan slumped onto the bed next to his duffelbag. “Um, I guess we could see that.” “You don’t sound so sure. I thought you lovedthose Mole Men comics.” “Yeah.” He tugged the zipper of the duffelback and forth. “But I saw it last weekend withTodd.” “Oh?” He stared at Ryan, numb. “Yeah, Mom had to work late, so he and Iwent to the movies.” Mike gripped the doorframe until his fingersached, whether to keep himself upright or tokeep from ripping the door off the hinges, hewasn’t certain. He felt as if he’d been punched inthe gut and wanted to lash out. What was Todddoing palling around with his kid? Yeah, heexpected the guy to be nice to Ryan—or Toddwould have to answer to him. But that didn’t
mean Todd had to act like a dad. That wasMike’s job. “Dad? You’re not mad at me, are you?” Another punch in the gut. Or maybe a littlelower. Mike shoved away from the door andpatted Ryan’s shoulder. “Of course I’m not madat you. Hey, we can see something else. Maybethat new Pixar movie or something.” “Sure. That’d be great.” Mike searched for the words to reassure hisson that everything really was all right—that nomatter what happened with Todd or any otherman who came into Kaye’s life, Mike wouldalways be there for him. Mike would always behis real dad. But what could he say that wouldn’tmake him sound desperate, as if he were askingRyan to choose sides in some undeclared war? The doorbell rang, chimes sounding loud in the
strained silence. “That’s probably the contractor.We’ll be in the office if you need me.” The chimes sounded again as he made his waydown the hall. “Be right there,” Mike called. “Hello, Mike,” Jack Ludlow said when Mikeopened the door. “This is my friend GraceHitchcock.” He indicated the attractive silver-haired woman who stood behind him. “Grace,this is Mike Brubaker. Grace and I are on ourway to lunch, so this won’t take long.” “Sure. Come on in.” Jack looked around the foyer as he steppedinside. “Is Stephanie here?” “I haven’t seen her today.” He hadn’t seen herat all since yesterday. But then, he hadn’t goneout of his way to seek her out. He’d told himselfhe was playing it smart, letting things cool offbetween them.
Coward. His emotions were in turmoil, a mix of guilt andanguish and self-recrimination. He was worriedabout Ryan, about Stephanie—and abouthimself. He’d wanted to do things right this time, totake things slowly, get to know each other better,make sure of his feelings before he made anycommitments. But from the moment he’d lookedinto Stephanie’s eyes as he slid into her, he’dbroken every single one of those promises tohimself. He’d wanted simple, and he’d gone andmade things a lot more complicated. The truth was, he’d fallen hard for Stephanie,and that worried him. Ryan had made it clear hedidn’t like the idea of his dad dating. Mikeneeded to handle this carefully, to not screw upthis time. Until he figured out the right way to do
that, it was better to keep his distance. “Come on into my office,” he said, and led theway to the den at the back of the house. From arack by the door, he pulled out the plans for theKellermans’ house. “I made a copy of theblueprints for you. We can take a look at themover here.” He unrolled the prints on thedraftsman’s table by the window. “Nice-size house,” Jack said as he studied theblueprints. “Not as big as this one, though.” “Do you see any problems with installing in-floor heat in this floor plan?” Mike asked. “No. Looks pretty straightforward to me.How long have you lived here?” “A little over two years.” “And you have a son?” How the hell did Jack know that? “Yeah.Now, how many zones do you think we should
have? At least one for each bedroom and themain living rooms, right?” “Yeah, that’s how we usually set it up. Soyour business is doing pretty good, huh?” Was Ludlow worried Mike was going to goout of business and stiff him his payment? “Don’tworry, I’m doing okay.” “And you and Stephanie get along good,right?” “Yeah, Stephanie and I get along.” Maybe toowell. Ludlow rolled up the plans and slipped arubber band around them. “I’ll look these overand let you know if I see any potential problems,but right now it seems like a prettystraightforward setup.” “Thanks,” Mike said. “Let me know if youhave any questions.”
“Has my daughter ever asked you out?” Mike stifled a groan. So that was what thiswas about—Stephanie’s promise to her dad toask a guy out. And Jack thought Mike was asuitable guy? That was a good thing, right?“Maybe you should talk to Stephanie,” he said. “If she did ask you out, would you go out withher?” Jack’s expression was pleasant enough,but his eyes held Mike’s, daring him to lookaway. “Why are you asking me this?” He wasn’tgoing to kiss and tell—not to Stephanie’s father. “Just wondering, that’s all. So what do youthink of Stephanie?” “I think she’s a very nice woman. Very smart.And pretty, and…” What was he supposed tosay? He couldn’t very well admit that Stephaniehad him so turned on he couldn’t think straight
when he was in the same room with her. Thatone smile from her almost melted his socks. Hecouldn’t think straight around her, and that meanthe might make a mistake with Ryan. He didn’twant to see his son hurt—and he didn’t want tohurt Stephanie, either. The fact that he wantedher so much scared him into running the otherway, sure that sooner or later, he’d do somethingto screw it up. “But are you attracted to her?” Jack pressed. “Mr. Ludlow, I really don’t think this issomething I want to discuss with you.” “But—” Grace, who hadn’t said a word so far, put ahand on Jack’s arm. “Time to let it go,” she said. Jack looked as if he might protest, thenrelaxed and patted her hand. He turned back toMike. “When you see Stephanie, tell her I
stopped by.” “I will.” Though he wasn’t sure how he’dexplain this conversation to Stephanie, or if heeven should. If Jack was trying to playmatchmaker, he had a strange way of goingabout it. …Tacking those boxers on Mike’s door had beena mistake, Stephanie decided by the time shearrived at work Friday morning. She’d taken thecoward’s way out when she should havereturned the shorts to Mike in person. She hadn’teven bothered to leave a note. She’d beenworried someone else in the house would walkby and read it, but she could have slid the noteunder the door, couldn’t she? Instead, she’d juststuck the shorts on the door and ran—as good
as throwing them back in his face. What would Mike think when he saw them?That she’d been too embarrassed to face him?Sort of true. That the casual way she’d returnedhis belongings was supposed to set the tone for acasual fling instead of something more serious?Not true. Or that she couldn’t face him becauseshe never wanted to see him again? Definitelynot true. The one message he wouldn’t get from theabandoned boxers was that she’d fallen too hardfor him, and for the sake of her own sanity shehad to stay away from him. One thing she knewfrom reading every advice column and women’smagazine since she was a teenager was that anywoman who clung and pushed for too much toosoon would send a guy running in the otherdirection—especially a guy as wary of
commitment as Mike. And she was a rottenactress. One look at her, and he’d know she’dfallen head over heels for him and was one stepaway from picking out flowers and weddingcolors. Of course that would scare him off. She couldn’t take it if he ran away. Better tolet him think she was a thoughtless coward thanto have him know he had the power to woundher so deeply. At least if she ended things now,she could always say he hadn’t rejected her. Besides, she had school to focus on. Herclasses took all her spare time. She was gettinggood grades, but that meant lots of studying. Shecouldn’t work and go to school and have arelationship, too. She wasn’t Superwoman. She stashed her purse in her desk at work andbooted up her computer, then headed to thebreak room in search of coffee. And maybe a
donut. Sugar was good for the brokenhearted,right? “Sweetie, good morning!” Her dad, looking far too cheerful for this timeof morning—or for any time of morning,considering his usual curmudgeonly disposition—greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. “Hey, Dad. You’re certainly in a good moodthis morning.” “I am. I spent the day with Grace yesterday.We had a very nice time.” To Stephanie’s horror,he actually winked. She held up one hand to ward off any furtherconfessions. “That’s great, Dad. Really good.” “You were right,” he said. “I should haveasked her out a long time ago. I don’t know whyI let myself get in such a rut after your mother left.Grace is nothing like her.”
No one Stephanie knew was like her mother.Mom wasn’t even like Mom from one year to thenext, considering all the times she’d reinventedherself, from earth mother to showgirl to cougar-on-the-prowl. “Grace is a very nice woman,”Stephanie said. She dumped two sugars and apacket of creamer in her coffee, hoping thecombination would jolt her out of the depressionshe could feel herself sliding into. “I saw Mike Brubaker yesterday,” her fathersaid. Stephanie sloshed coffee across the counter.“Where did you see Mike?” she asked as shehastily blotted up the spill. “Grace and I stopped by his house to pick upthe plans for the place he wants us to install an in-floor heating system in. Until he called me aboutthat job, I’d forgotten he’s a builder.”
She didn’t say anything, just kept mopping upcoffee. Her father crossed the room to standbeside her. “I guess living in the same house andall, you and he see a lot of each other.” “Not that much. We’re both busy working andeverything.” “So Mike isn’t the guy you’re interested in?The guy in construction with his own business?The divorced man with a son?” “Dad, what are you getting at?” “I’m not getting at anything. He seems like anokay guy. So why haven’t you asked him outyet?” Should she tell her father she had gone outwith Mike? That they’d hit it off and had a lot offun, and now she’d fallen for him and didn’tknow what to do? No. She had to hold on to at least some of her
dignity. And the idea of her father—who’davoided commitment even longer than she had—giving advice to the lovelorn was beyond absurd.“I changed my mind. I don’t think Mike is theright guy for me.” At least not right now. Maybeif she played it cool for a while, they could workup to things. Slowly. “Why not? You’re close to the same age. Heowns a nice house, a good business. Is it the kid?Are you worried about being a stepmom? Don’tbe. I bet you’d be great at it. And the boyprobably spends most of his time with his mom,anyway.” “Dad, stop.” She didn’t know whether tolaugh or cry—the whole situation was soridiculous. Her dad had gone from beingsuspicious of Mike to wanting her to marry him,and they’d had exactly one date. Sort of. And
one amazing afternoon in bed. Anyone with sensecould see that didn’t add up to love everlasting. But try telling that to her poor heart. “I reallydon’t have time to get involved with anyone rightnow. I need to focus on school.” “Oh, honey—did you already ask him and heturned you down?” “No!” Not exactly, anyway. Mike hadn’trejected her in so many words, but he hadn’tmade any move to keep their connection goingafter that afternoon in her bed. Did he sense shewanted too much from him? More than he wasready to give? She patted her father’s shoulder and offered asmile she hoped he’d accept as genuine. “Don’tworry about me. I’ll find the right guy. I just needa little more time.” More time to cool off andfigure out how she really felt about Mike.
“Well, sweetheart, you’re never going to findhim if you just sit around doing nothing. Believeme—I tried that route for ten years, and nobodycame knocking on my door.” “I’ll try to remember that.” Her father grunted something that might havebeen agreement and wandered back to his office.Stephanie returned to her desk. Justin looked upfrom the phone and nodded in greeting. She satin front of her computer, her dad’s words stillringing in her ears. Sitting around moping aboutMike wasn’t going to do any good. Wishing hewere different wouldn’t change him. Her dad was right. If she wanted her situationto change, she had to do something to change it.She’d start by finding a new place to live. Sheand Mike needed a little physical distance fromeach other if they were ever going to figure this
out. If she wasn’t around him all the time, maybeshe’d be able to assume the role of casual-girlfriend-working-toward-something-more-serious instead of the I-want-you-foreverintensity she was feeling now. Before her new resolve could fail, she pulledup the local rental listings on her computer. “Hey, Stephanie, how’s it going?” Justin slidhis chair over to her desk. He peered over hershoulder at the computer screen. “What are youdoing on Craigslist?” “I’m thinking of getting a new apartment.” Sheclicked down the row of rental listings androommates wanted. “A new apartment? Why?” He moved closer.“You’ve got such a sweet setup in Mike’s house.I thought you loved it.” “I just think it’s time for a change. I’d like
more privacy.” “Aww, this isn’t about me and Ilsa making outon the couch, is it? We just got a little carriedaway, is all. We’ll try not to let it happen again.” She almost laughed at the earnest puppy-dogexpression on his face. “It’s not that,” she said.“And the house is great. I just think I’d ratherhave a place of my own.” “Good luck finding anything you can afford—unless your dad gives you a big raise. Rentalprices are insane. Ilsa and I couldn’t find anythingeven remotely nice for what we could afford.” “Yeah. Some of these places are a little proudof themselves,” she said. “But I’m sure I’ll findsomething.” She’d have to. She couldn’t keepliving under the same roof as Mike, pretendingshe didn’t care about him when she sodesperately did.
Chapter TwelveSaturday morning, Mike waited for Stephanie tocome into the kitchen. “Thanks for returning theshorts,” he said as she headed for the coffee pot. “Oh. Yeah. Well, I didn’t really have any usefor them.” “Right. So, uh, how you been?” She filled a mug with coffee. “I’m okay. You?” Confused. But if he admitted that to her, didthat make him look weak? Women were alwaysso sure of themselves. “I’m okay,” he said. “Good.” “So, uh, you want to get together sometimesoon?” She met his gaze. Not a trace of mirth in hereyes. “You mean for sex?” He’d been about to suggest they take in a
movie or something. “Is that what you want?”The sex had been pretty terrific, but was thatreally all she was looking for from him? “I don’t think so.” She added sugar to thecoffee. “I mean, that afternoon was great. Reallyspecial. But everything happened so fast. I’m notsure we want the same things from arelationship.” How did she know they didn’t want the samethings? He had no idea what he wanted. Excepther. Lately, he’d been thinking he wanted her. Alot. They’d have to be careful not to look toocozy when Ryan was around, but they could dothat, couldn’t they? “I think we should back things up a bit,” shecontinued. “Slow down.” “Slow is good. I can do slow.” He relaxed alittle. She wasn’t dumping him—was she?
“I’m glad you understand. I’m thinking offinding another place to live.” “You’re moving out?” His chest hurt. “Youdon’t have to do that.” “I think it would just be easier if we weren’tliving together.” He had the unsettling sensation of being thrustback in time. Standing in this very kitchen, Kayesaying these same words. I’m moving out…itwill be easier…we’ll both be happier. He’dhad the same feeling of helplessness then—thatthere was nothing he could say to change hermind, because it was already made up. “I’d hate to see you go,” he said. It soundedlame. “I haven’t left yet. I still have to find a newplace. I’ll let you know.” “Yeah. Let me know.”
She left with her coffee, and he leaned backagainst the counter, arms folded across his chest.Yeah, he’d really handled that well. Just let herwalk out. What exactly had just happened here? Shehadn’t said they shouldn’t see each other, justthat they shouldn’t live together. Did that meanshe wanted to date? That they could still gettogether? But not for sex? He covered his eyeswith one hand and massaged his temples againsta growing headache. “Morning, Mike.” Justin breezed into thekitchen and helped himself to coffee. “Somebodyrun over your dog or something?” “What? I don’t have a dog.” “Then what do you look so down in the mouthabout? Another fight with the ex?” “No. Kaye and I are fine.”
“Something with the business, then?” Justintook a bagel from a bag on the counter andgrabbed a knife from the drawer. “Nothing’s wrong with the business.” “Woman trouble?” Mike wasn’t about to confide his worriesabout Stephanie to Justin. “Just because I’m notgrinning like an idiot doesn’t mean something’swrong.” “You probably wouldn’t be such a grouch ifyou got out more.” “I am not a grouch!” “Uh-huh.” He sliced the bagel and smeared itwith peanut butter. “Hey, there’s a big bashtonight over at Little Foot. A hot band anddancing. A bunch of us are getting together to goover there. You should come.” “Is Stephanie going?”
“Stephanie? I don’t think so. She’s not muchof a party girl—too busy hitting the books.Though she might come if you asked her.” Mike wouldn’t bet on that. “Thanks, but Idon’t feel much like going out.” “You’d rather sit home and mope?” Justinpunched him in the shoulder. “Come on. A drinkor two, some good music, a dance with abeautiful woman—you’ll feel like a new man.” The only woman he wanted to dance with waswalking out of his life. Amend that—she waswalking out of his house. But it felt just as bad,too much like Kaye leaving all over again. He’dtalk to Stephanie later and get this all straightenedout, but he didn’t have the nerve right now. Heneeded to get better control of his emotionsbefore he confronted her, or he’d risk making afool of himself. If he told Stephanie how crazy he
was about her, she’d probably run the other way.After all, she argued they scarcely knew eachother. But he knew she was sweet and kind andfunny, and she made him feel more alive thanhe’d felt since before his divorce. What more didhe need to know? Still, maybe Justin had a point. Sitting aroundthe house alone was only going to make himmore depressed. He should get out amongpeople. Focus his attention on something otherthan his own navel. “Okay, I’ll come,” he said. “Great. You can buy me a drink.” Justinsaluted him with the bagel and left the room,leaving a trail of crumbs and an empty coffee pot.Just like my life, Mike thought, then shookhimself. A man had to be in trouble when hestarted seeing metaphors for his life in otherpeople’s messes.
…The Little Foot Saloon offered cold beer, loudmusic, dim lighting, and a dance floor wornsmooth by years of shuffling feet. Wooden tablesand chairs with more scars than paint lined thewalls, and the bar featured a long brass rail andvintage spittoons. Mike followed Justin and Ilsainto the bar area and waited for his eyes to adjustto the darkness. At the far end of the room, aband blasted honky-tonk and rock and roll froma raised platform scarcely large enough to hold allthe instruments. “Let’s grab those empty tables back there,”Justin shouted to be heard over the band. They pushed their way through the crowd to atrio of tables along one wall. A waitressappeared as they sat down, and Mike ordered a
beer. The dance floor was hopping, but not socrowded that a few more people couldn’tsqueeze in, and the band wasn’t bad. How longhad it been since Mike had been out like this, justa bunch of friends getting together to have a goodtime? When he took a swig of his first cold beer,his shoulders relaxed, and he felt better than hehad in days. “This was a great idea,” he said toJustin. “Didn’t I tell you?” “Come on, let’s dance.” Ilsa grabbed Mike’shand and tugged him toward the dance floor.Laughing, he followed and blended in with thecrowd of gyrating bodies. There were definitelyworse ways to spend a Saturday night. Maybenext weekend, he’d bring Stephanie here on areal date, where they could talk and dance andget to know each other all she liked.
When the song ended, he left Ilsa at the tableand headed to the bar to buy a round. As hewaited for his drink order, he heard a woman’sfamiliar laughter. One glance told him he hadn’tbeen imagining it. Kaye stood a few feet awaywith Todd and a fellow contractor, CurtShipman. Mike and Curt had both worked forMike’s uncle back when they were still in highschool. They’d run into each other a few timesover the years, though they’d never been close. Curt looked up and caught Mike’s eye. “Hey,Mike!” He raised his hand in salute. “Come overhere a minute.” Reluctantly, Mike joined them. “Hey, Curt.” “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you, bud.Say, do you know Todd and Kaye?” “Yeah.” Mike nodded. No sense going intolong explanations about their shared history.
“They were just showing me pictures of theirkid,” Curt said. “Really cute boy.” Curt turned the iPhone in his hand to show apicture of Ryan, grinning from ear to ear andholding a ten-inch trout. “He caught that thismorning,” Todd said. Another picture appeared,this one of Todd and Ryan together, arm in arm. Mike stared at the picture, at the boy he lovedmost in the world, so happy with another man.That’s not his son! he wanted to shout. That’smy son. But the words remained stuck in histhroat, restrained by rage and a dragging despair. “Mike?” Kaye said something to him, but thebuzzing in his ears blocked out her voice. Blindly,he turned and pushed his way to the exit. If hestayed one second more, he’d punch that stupidgrin right off of Todd’s face. He didn’t careabout Kaye—the man was welcome to her. But
Mike would be damned if he’d let him haveRyan, too. …Stephanie sat straight up in bed, unsure of whathad awakened her. The house was dark andsilent. A check of the clock showed the time wasa little past midnight. Justin, Ilsa, and Mike hadgone dancing at the Little Foot, and Nicole wasout with the mystery boyfriend, a guy it turnedout she’d met at Justin and Ilsa’s wedding. Surelynone of them would be home so early. A board creaked, and she caught her breath.Was that a footstep? Had someone, thinkingeveryone was out for the evening, decided tobreak in? The noise came again, accompanied by a dooropening and closing. Whoever it was wasn’t even
trying to be quiet. Carefully, determined not to make a sound,she pushed back the covers and swung her feetto the floor. She tiptoed to the door and openedit a scant inch. Light glowed from the direction ofthe kitchen at the back of the house, and shethought she heard the refrigerator open andclose. Surely a burglar wasn’t stealing the eggs andmilk. It must be someone home early. Maybeeven Mike. The thought made her want to diveback under the covers. The last thing she neededwas to run into him alone at night—in herpajamas. All her vaunted intentions to “takethings slowly” were liable to fly right out thewindow. She closed her door again and went to thefront window, which looked out onto the
driveway. Her car sat next to Justin’s in theparking area. He and Ilsa had ridden with Mikein his truck. The rest of the spaces were empty. So who was in the kitchen? Would a burglarreally stop to make a snack? Cell phone in hand, finger poised to dial 9-1-1, she tiptoed into the hall and across the livingroom. Holding her breath, she pushed open thedoor to the kitchen and peered in. A familiar broad-shouldered figure stood infront of the coffee maker, hands braced on thecountertop, his back to her. What was Mikedoing home alone? And without his truck? Nevermind—she’d learn the answer soon enough, andthe last thing she needed right now was theintimacy of late-night conversation in anotherwise empty house. She started to retreat, but something in his
posture stopped her. He stood, head down,shoulders hunched as if warding off a blow. Achoking noise, like a muffled sob, tore at her, andbefore she could stop herself, she crossed theroom and put a hand on his back. He turned to her, his eyes shadowed with agrief that was painful to see. “What’s wrong?”she asked. He closed his eyes and straightened hisshoulders. She’d heard the expression “pullingyourself together,” but this was the first timeshe’d ever seen anyone really do it, collecting thepieces of a personality and fitting them back intoplace. “Rough night,” he said, his voice strained. “What happened? I thought you went out withIlsa and Justin. And where’s your truck?” “I hitched a ride from the saloon.” “You hitched a ride?”
He shrugged. “I figured if no one picked meup, the walk would do me good, help me clearmy head.” “Why did you leave early? Are you ill?” “Not physically, anyway.” He turned back tothe coffee maker. “Want some coffee?” “All right.” She ought to leave him alone andgo back to bed, but she couldn’t. He looked sobereft. Vulnerable in a way she’d never imaginedhe could be. He took a second mug from the cupboard andpoured two cups, then passed her the sugar bowland fetched a carton of half-and-half from therefrigerator. “Have some coffee with your creamand sugar,” he said. She almost smiled at the comment, touchedthat he’d made note of her coffee habits, but thehaunted look in his eyes stopped her. “What
happened?” she asked again. He sat at the table across from her and staredinto his cup. “I ran into my ex and her boyfriendat the bar.” “I guess that was a little uncomfortable.” “Yeah, well, that wasn’t what set me off.” She waited while he sipped his coffee,studying the contours of his face. He must haveshaved before he went out—his jaw showed noshadow of a beard. The lines around his eyeswere deeper than she remembered, making himlook older but no less handsome. The hands thatgripped the coffee mug were marked with oldscars, the nails clipped very short, no rings on hisfingers. She had a sudden memory of thosehands touching her, so gently, and she squeezedher legs together against the flood of desire. “Todd—that’s the boyfriend’s name—was
showing off pictures from a fishing trip he tookthis morning with Ryan. Ryan caught a big troutand was about bursting with pride.” He pinchedoff the last word and swallowed hard. “You wished you had been there.” “Yeah.” “I guess after that, you didn’t feel like hangingaround.” “There was another picture. One of Ryan andTodd standing together, arms around each other.Ryan looked as happy as I’ve ever seen him.” “Oh, Mike.” Her eyes burned with tears sherefused to let fall, imagining Mike, the proud dad,watching another man share a special momentwith his son. Mike swallowed again, clearlystruggling. No words would comfort him, so sheoffered the only thing she had. She leaned overand took his hand, holding on hard.
When he stood and pulled her to him, sheoffered no resistance. He hugged her close, andshe pressed her cheek against his chest, breathingin the clean, male scent of him, listening to thehard beating of his heart. “I’m afraid I’m losinghim,” he said, his voice ragged. “Some other guyis stepping into my place, and there’s nothing Ican do about it.” “You’ll always be his father,” she said. “Ryanknows that. He loves you.” “I’m only here for him half the time,” he said.“It’s not the same as being with him every day.” It wasn’t, and she’d be foolish to pretendotherwise, so she said nothing, merely held himand offered what comfort she could. “Stay with me tonight,” he said. “Please.” The please was her undoing—that, and thefeeling of safety and comfort in his arms. “Yes,”
she whispered. “I’ll stay.” He took her hand in his and led her to hisroom, to the king-size bed with the plain navyblue comforter and crisp white sheets. Heswitched on a bedside lamp that cast a softgolden spotlight over the pillows, and theyundressed each other slowly, wordlessly. Whenhe began to kiss his way down her body, fromthe soft hollow of her throat to the indentation ofher navel, new tears stung her eyes, she was somoved by his tenderness. His lips lingered on each swell and indentationof her form, awakening every nerve ending, as ifuntil this moment most of her body had beenmerely sleeping. She stroked her hands over andacross his back and shoulders, enjoying thesensation of smooth skin over taut muscle thatshifted at her touch.
When his lips came to rest on her sensitivecenter, she sighed, then gasped as his tongueteased her to new heights. Within seconds, he had her panting andwrithing beneath him. He rolled onto his backbeside her and pulled her on top of him. “I mightneed your help,” he said. “With what?” “Open that drawer there and find a condom.”He indicated the bedside table with a jerk of hishead. Doing so required stretching over him, herbreasts hanging in his face. She laughed, thensquealed as he lifted his head to draw her nippleinto his mouth. “Stop that!” she scolded. “Just taking advantage of the situation.” She retrieved the condom packet and offeredit to him. “Here you go.”
He held up his hands. “Oh, no. You do thehonors.” “All right.” She sounded confident, but herhands trembled as she opened the packet,anticipating the feel of him in her hands. Shereached down and grasped him, his heat adelicious thrill against her palm. She fit thecondom over the head and smoothed it downwith both hands, the pulse between her own legsjumping as his breath hissed through his clenchedteeth. “What now?” she asked. “You set the pace.” She released him, arched her back, andstretched, enjoying the feeling of his gaze burninginto her. Her whole body hummed with need andanticipation, yet she relished the thrill of savoringthese sensations a little longer, of drawing outtheir pleasure. “Are you ready?” she whispered.
“More than ready.” His voice was a low growlcutting through her, the words felt as much asheard. She slid onto him, slowly, oh so slowly, lettinghim fill every inch of her. His eyes darkened ashis pupils dilated, and his lips parted in a lowmoan that sent tremors through her. He graspedher hips and guided her into an erotic rhythm,slow and deep and as instinctive as breathing. They were as close as two people could be,and yet the connection went beyond the physical,to some inner depth that had been untouchedbefore. Her climax was more slow blossomingthan sudden storm, overwhelming her entirely, sothat when he joined her in his release, shecouldn’t stop the tears that streamed down herface to wet his chest. He pulled her close, one hand stroking the
back of her head. “Why are you crying?” “I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I don’tknow. I just—it’s so wonderful, what I’m feeling.I think I’m scared of the feeling going away. Thatit’s all a mirage.” “Love does feel like a mirage sometimes,” hesaid. “Impossible.” She pulled back until she could see his faceand look into his eyes. “Mike, this is more thanjust sex for me. I tried not to make it more, but Ican’t help it.” “I know. For me, too. That’s why it’s scary.My record when it comes to relationships isn’t sohot.” “Mine, either.” “So we’ll take it slow,” he said. “We won’trush into anything.” The words surprised a laugh from her.
He frowned. “What’s so funny?” “You call this taking it slow?” His mouth curved in a sexy grin that started theheat building within her again. “I guess we’ll justhave to keep trying until we get it right.” Heskimmed his palm over the side of her breast.“There’s something to be said for taking yourtime.” “In bed or out?” she asked. His answer was a kiss, equal parts passionand promise. It was the only answer he couldgive, she decided. She had to believe, startingnow, that their pasts weren’t accurate predictorsof the future. Anything else made a lie of herfeelings, and she refused to believe her feelingsfor Mike, and his for her, were anything but true.
Chapter ThirteenMike woke in the first light of morning to thesteady sigh of Stephanie’s breathing as she laycurled beside him. He turned his head justenough to watch her sleep. She lay on her side,one hand tucked beneath her cheek like a child,her skin so clear and translucent that he imaginedhe could almost see the blood racing through theblue vein at her temple. Every moment of thenight before had stayed with him, refusing to fadeeven in sleep. Yet all the anguish he’d feltstanding in the bar with Todd and Kaye hadgiven way to release. He was tired of fighting hisown emotions and fears. The future was amystery he didn’t want to solve. Her eyes opened, and she looked right at him.A smile curved her lips. “You’re still here.”
“Yeah.” He stretched out his arm, and shemoved into his embrace, nestling her head in thehollow of his shoulder. They were both nakedbeneath the sheet, her skin like heated satinagainst him. “I could get used to waking up likethis,” he said. “Mmm.” She kissed the side of his neck.“Don’t get too used to it. We’re taking it slow,remember?” “Which means?” “I think I’ll keep my own bedroom.” “So no more talk of moving out?” He didn’ttry to hide his relief. “No. But I’ll keep my own room. For now, atleast.” “You have to have some place to put yourclothes, I guess.” “It’s better for Ryan, too, when he’s here.”
“Ryan.” He closed his eyes and groaned.“What am I going to do about Ryan?” Thememory of his boy, smiling in the picture onTodd’s iPhone, was like a painful wound heshied away from touching. “You don’t have to do anything about Ryan.You’re a great dad, and he knows it.” “And I look like a jerk if I say anything aboutTodd.” “You’re smart enough to figure that out. Allyou can do is work on your own relationship withhim. You know there will probably be more thanone man in his life—teachers and coaches andwho knows who else?” “Yeah.” Though knowing didn’t make it anyeasier. All those strangers would influence his sonin ways he couldn’t control. “I guess all divorcedparents go through this kind of thing—wondering
if you’ve ruined your kid’s life because youcouldn’t make the marriage work.” “If you were still married, you’d find somethingelse to feel guilty about,” she said. “A friend ofmine once said that when they hand the kid toyou in the hospital, you get an invisible transfusionof worry and guilt.” “I guess you’re right. But Ryan’s had a lot todeal with since the divorce. He told me the otherday he’s tired of everything always changing. Hewants it to just be him and me, hanging out.” “No girls allowed.” She looked amused. “Something like that.” He pulled her closer. “Iwant to be with you, but we have to be carefularound Ryan. I don’t want to upset him.” “I understand. We’ll give him time to get usedto me before we let him know we’re more thanhousemates.”
“Thanks for being so understanding. Whenyour parents split up, what happened with yourrelationship with your mother?” “My situation was different. For one thing, Iwas sixteen by the time she left, and for another,she moved out of state. I only heard from her afew times a year and saw her even less.” “Why did she leave?” Stephanie was silent for so long, he wonderedif she’d fallen back asleep. “Did I ask the wrongquestion?” “No.” She settled her head more comfortablyagainst his shoulder. “I’m just trying to put intowords all the answers I’ve come up with over theyears. I think she was trying to leave herself, andbecause she’d been a wife and mother for solong, that meant leaving us, too. She wasunhappy with who she was, so she thought
making herself into someone different wouldhelp.” “Did it?” “I don’t think so. It’s something I still wonderabout.” “She didn’t have to hurt you in the process.”His fingers tightened on her shoulder, the intensityof his anger at this woman he’d never metsurprising him. “I survived. Though I think it’s why I have ahard time with people leaving.” “Your old boyfriends?” he guessed. She nodded. “It’s enough to give a person acomplex, though I’ve tried not to let it screw meup too badly.” “Everybody has their baggage, right?” “Right.” She snuggled closer. “So what are wegoing to tell the others?”
“The others?” he asked. “Nicole and Ilsa and Justin?” “What—you want to walk out of this roomtogether and make an announcement? ‘Stephanieand I are having sex now. Ignore any strangenoises coming from our bedrooms.’” “No!” She beat her fist against his chest. “I think we don’t say anything,” he said. “Butno more sneaking around, either. They’ll figurethings out sooner or later.” “Nicole will ask me what’s going on.” “What will you tell her?” “I’ll tell her you swept me off my feet.” Shekissed his cheek. “More like you bowled me over.” He rolledonto his side and kissed her lips. She was warmand sweet, mussed hair and all, and just beingwith her made him feel more energized. Awake.
As if he might have love figured out after all. …Nicole was not, as Stephanie had expected, thefirst person to confront her about her newromance with Mike. Monday morning, she’dscarcely slipped on her headset when Justinrolled his chair over to her desk. “What’s goingon with you and Mike?” he asked. “What makes you think anything’s going on?” “Do you really think nobody’s noticed that youspent most of yesterday and last night in hisbedroom? And from the looks on your faceswhen you did emerge, you weren’t doing yourtaxes.” She laughed. “No, we weren’t doing taxes.” “So what happened?” She tried for a coy look. “I’m not going to kiss
and tell.” “I’m not asking about your sex life. I want toknow how you got together in the first place.” “You don’t think Mike’s my type?” She saidthe words in a teasing tone, but she held herbreath, waiting for his answer. “I just figured you were looking for somethinga little more long-term.” “And you don’t think Mike’s interested inbeing with me long-term?” The words hurt tosay, like broken glass in her throat. Justin made a face. “You know how he talks.He’s been really down on relationships for aslong as I’ve known him.” “People can change,” she said. “You alwayssaid you weren’t ready to settle down until yousuddenly decided to marry Ilsa.” He had the grace to look sheepish. “You’re
right. But I didn’t have an ex-wife and kid to dealwith, either. Other people always make thingsmore complicated.” “We’re not rushing to the altar. We’re takingthings slowly.” She managed to say this withoutblushing. “Good. And I hope things work out. I reallydo.” “Work out with whom?” Her father,newspaper tucked under one arm, emerged fromthe men’s room. “Stephanie and Mike Brubaker are, um,dating,” Justin said. If looks could kill, hers would have felledJustin then and there. He held out his hands,palms up, as if to say, What’d I do wrong? “So Mike was the guy you were interested in.”Her father’s grin was equal parts relief and
vindication. “And he said yes when you askedhim out?” “Yes.” The answer was close enough to thetruth for her father. “Good. But if he gives you any trouble, you letme know.” “Thanks, Dad.” Never mind that she preferredto fight her own battles. He liked it when she lethim think she still needed him to look out for her.“How’s Grace?” He brightened. “Grace is wonderful. She madedinner for me last night. Pork chops. They weredelicious.” “Are you saying the way to your heart isthrough your stomach?” she teased. “I’m saying it’s been a long time since I had awoman cook for me. It’s nice.” She’d cooked for her father a time or two, but
she thought she knew what he meant. It was niceto have someone to care for you, to want tomake you comfortable and happy. Everybodyneeded that. “I’m really happy for you.” Both phone lines started ringing, and sheturned to start the workday. “Ludlow Heatingand Air Conditioning. How may I help you?” The morning was busy, but in between calls,her mind continually drifted back to the weekend.She and Mike had stayed in bed most of Sunday.Yeah, they’d had incredible sex, but theconversation had been equally as good. She’dreally talked to him in a way she’d never talkedto any other man. Maybe that was the real test oflove, when you found someone with whom youcould share your innermost feelings and fearswithout being afraid you were giving away toomuch.
For instance, she’d never talked with any ofher past boyfriends about her mother. Shecouldn’t remember any of them ever asking.Though Joy Ludlow hadn’t been a physical partof Stephanie’s life in ten years, she was aconstant presence in her head, the memory ofboth good times and bad combining to makeStephanie at times wistful and other timesresentful. When Stephanie was little, Joy hadbeen a good mother, a stay-at-home mom whomade brownies and dresses, kissed skinnedknees, told bedtime stories, and did all the thingsmothers were supposed to do. Stephanie wasn’tsure when things had changed, but apparentlyone day Joy had decided she didn’t want to be awife and mother anymore, so she’d stopped. Her leaving had created a big hole inStephanie’s life, but she didn’t have any patience
with people who blamed their parents foreverything that went wrong in their lives.Whatever ways mothers and fathers screwed up,she felt adults ought to be able to get past that. When the phones slowed down, she fished outher cell from her purse and found her mother’snumber. The phone buzzed three times before ahusky female voice answered. “Hello?” The electronic clang and beep of slotmachines mingled with the static of jumbledvoices filled Stephanie’s ear. “Mom? This isStephanie. Did I catch you at work?” “Yeah, I’m on the day shift this week.” Joylaughed. “Not that it matters in Vegas. The partygoes twenty-four hours here. How’s it going,honey?” “Good, Mom. It’s going good.” “So what’s the big news? Are you engaged?
Pregnant?” Stephanie winced. Apparently those were theonly kinds of things that warranted a phone callout of the blue. “No, neither. I’m back in school,remember?” “That’s right. How’s that going?” “Okay. Harder than I thought it would be, butI’m doing all right.” At least she had been untilshe’d blown off studying to spend the day in bedwith Mike. What had she been thinking? Gradschool was her chance to really make somethingof herself. She didn’t want to be stuck behind adesk at her father’s business when she was forty,never having tried to make more of her life. “Ijust wanted to call and talk to you. How are youdoing?” “I’m fine. Busy, you know.” “That’s good. Are you happy?”
Silence, except for the casino backgroundnoise. Had Joy dropped the phone? “Happy?”she said at last. “Well, nobody’s happy all thetime, and anyone who tells you different is a liar.” “No, but I hope you aren’t unhappy.” “Is that why you called? To ask if I washappy? Have you been smoking funny cigarettesthis early in the day or what?” “No, I just wanted to see how you weredoing.” “I do okay. That’s the best any of us canexpect. But listen, hon, I have to go now. I’vegot a whole convention of manufacturers’ repshere who are thirsty, and they’re great tippers.I’d better strike while the iron is hot, you know?” “Sure. It was good talking to you.” “Good talking to you, too, baby. You ought toplan a trip out to see me sometime.”
“You could come out here.” But Joy had already hung up. Stephanie turnedoff the phone. “Everything okay?” Justin asked. “What? Oh, yeah, sure.” “You just had a funny look on your face. Whowas that on the phone?” “My mother.” “Really? You never talk about her much.” “Yeah, well, there’s not much to say.” “It’s hard for me to imagine what your motheris like,” Justin said. “You’re so much like yourdad.” “You really think so?” He laughed. “Are you kidding?” “But Dad is always so…so sure of himself.”Her father had an opinion on everything andwasn’t afraid to express it.
“Then why did it take him so long to askGrace to go out with him?” Because my mom stomped on his heartwhen she walked out. And just like Stephanie,he’d avoided putting himself in a position whereothers could hurt him. “You know the way you wrinkle up your nosewhen you’re thinking really hard?” Justin said.“Your dad does that, too. You laugh the same.Neither one of you can pass a dog withoutstopping to pet it. You’re both alike. Exceptyou’re way prettier.” “Well, thank you for that.” But surely looksweren’t the only thing she’d inherited from hermother. She hoped Joy hadn’t passed on herrestlessness and selfishness. Only a self-centeredperson would have turned her back socompletely on all the people who loved her.
Though love scared Stephanie because of thepotential it had to wound, once she’d committedherself, she refused to let go. If you didn’t go intoa relationship believing you could hold onforever, what was the sense even starting? But was she ready for forever with Mike?Staying with him meant staying in Evergreen andnever proving herself somewhere else. Wouldshe be like her mother, waking up one morningten years from now, feeling she’d made a mistake—that she’d settled for what life handed herinstead of exploring all the possibilities? Thethought terrified her, but with it came a secondfear—that leaving to pursue some amorphousdream meant losing the one man she’d ever reallyloved. …
“Dad?” Ryan’s voice on the phone was soplaintive, Mike wasn’t sure who it was at first. “Ryan? Is something wrong?” “Can I stay with you starting Wednesdayinstead of Friday?” “Of course. You know you don’t even have toask. What’s up?” “Just a lot of stuff has been happening here,and I’d rather stay with you.” He sounded upset about something—notcrying exactly, but close. “What kind of stuff?” “Well…Mom and Todd have been fighting.He moved out.” Todd had left? “Let me talk to your mom.” “Okay.” He waited a moment, and Kaye came on thephone. “Hello?” “What’s going on?” he asked. “Ryan told me
Todd moved out.” “It’s really none of your business.” “It is if it upsets my son.” “Ryan will be fine. It’s not as if Todd and Iwere married or anything.” Her dismissive tone annoyed Mike. “He andRyan were obviously close,” he said. “At least itsounds as if they’d been spending a lot of timetogether.” “Yes. When he wasn’t off with his othergirlfriend.” Oh-ho. So that was the story. “Go ahead andgloat,” Kaye said after a moment’s silence. “Idon’t blame you.” “I won’t gloat.” What would be the point?“But maybe you should have thought of thisbefore you made him a part of Ryan’s life, too.” “Nobody expects the person they love to
leave.” “They don’t expect it, but it happens. Childrenneed stability. You can’t have men waltzing inand out of Ryan’s life. You need to be sure thingsare going to be long-term before you go involvinghim.” “Don’t tell me how to live my life.” “I don’t care how you live your life. But I careabout my son.” “Then…then let him stay with you for a fewextra days while…while I pull myself together.This hasn’t been easy.” The way her voice cracked touched somelong-forgotten tenderness he’d once had for her.“Hey, I’m sorry I was so rough on you,” he said.“You’ll get through this. And I’ll keep Ryan aslong as you want.” “Thanks.” She sniffed. “You always were a
good guy, Mike. Better than I deserved, at leastat the end.” “I’m sorry Todd walked out. Really.” For allshe’d hurt him, Kaye didn’t deserve this kind ofpain. “That means a lot.” Awkward silence stretched between them.Mike didn’t know what else to say. “So, I’ll pickRyan up from school?” “That would be good. I’ll make sure he has hisbag with him.” They exchanged brief good-byes, and Mikehung up the phone. He sat back, trying to absorbthe news. Ryan had sounded really upset. Maybehe shouldn’t blame Kaye, but had she thought atall about how her affair with Todd affected theirson? At least Stephanie had the sense to suggestshe and Mike keep things low-key around Ryan.
But how long would that last? Ryan had madeit clear he wasn’t ready to see his dad with asteady girlfriend. If Mike and Stephanie didn’tkeep their feelings under wraps, how muchworse would things be for Ryan, now that Toddwas gone? What did that kind of thing do to akid’s head? Was that how ax murderers gotstarted? …When Mike returned from picking up Ryan fromschool, Stephanie was waiting in the kitchen. Hestarted toward her to kiss her hello, thenstopped, aware of Ryan watching him. Now wasnot the time to introduce that particular wrinkleinto the kid’s life. For her part, Stephanie didn’t seem to notice.“Hey, Ryan,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay.” He pulled a chair out from the kitchentable and sagged into it. “I was getting ready to make some popcorn,”Stephanie said. “Do you want some?” “That’d be okay, I guess.” “What flavor do you want?” Ryan wrinkled up his nose. “You mean, likecaramel corn or something?” “I was thinking more of cheese or chipotle,though I’ve made cinnamon and sugar and evenchocolate before.” “How do you do that?” “You just make the regular popcorn, then youput different toppings on it. Come here, and I’llshow you.” For the next half hour, Mike was an amusedspectator as Ryan and Stephanie popped cornand concocted half a dozen bowls of exotic
flavors, from seasoned salt and chipotle tocinnamon-cocoa. The worried look disappearedfrom Ryan’s eyes, and he even laughed atStephanie’s attempt to catch kernels of poppedcorn in her mouth as he tossed them at her. When they were done, Mike sent Ryan to hisroom to wash his hands. Stephanie started tofollow, but he pulled her aside. “You’re just whathe needed this afternoon,” he said. “What weboth needed.” “He’s a fun kid.” She poked him in the ribs.“So are you.” He moved closer, watching out of the cornerof his eye to make sure Ryan didn’t return. “He’supset because his mom and Todd haveapparently split up,” he said, keeping his voicelow. “So I don’t want to muddy the watersexplaining what’s going on with you and me.”
“I understand. Don’t worry about it.” Sheturned away, fussing with the popcornseasonings. “To tell you the truth, it would be agood idea to cool things off a little between us.” Something in her voice made him wary. “Oh?” “Yeah. I, uh, I flunked a quiz in my economicsclass Monday. I was supposed to do the readingSunday and didn’t.” Because she’d spent the day in bed with him.Damn. “But you can make up the pointssomewhere else, right? It was just a quiz?” Her eyes met his, full of worry and sadness. “Idon’t think I can handle a relationship and workand school. It’s too much.” If he’d had the time, he was sure he couldcome up with half a dozen ways to reassure her,but with Ryan so close, Mike couldn’t focus onStephanie right now. He settled for rubbing her
back between her shoulder blades. “It’ll beokay,” he said. “We’ll figure something out.” “This weekend, I really have to study,” shesaid. “I have a big test coming up.” “I think I’m going to take him camping. It’ll begood to get away, take his mind off things.” She looked relieved. “He’ll like that. I’m goingto hit the books hard, then Saturday night I’mhaving dinner with Dad and Grace.” “Is this a special occasion?” “I think it might be. When my dad invited me,he looked like a little kid with a secret hecouldn’t wait to tell.” “So are you thinking an engagementannouncement?” “I hope so.” “Then you’re okay with that?” “I’m thrilled, and not just because Dad is so
happy. After all he went through with Mom, he’sready to get out there and try again. It gives mehope, you know?” “Yeah.” But he wasn’t feeling very hopeful atthe moment. Ryan would be happiest if Mikegave up on the idea of any kind of intimaterelationship with Stephanie, but he couldn’treconcile himself to that idea. His feelings for herwent too deep. He couldn’t simply abandon her.But how could he be with her and do right by hisson? There had to be a solution they could all livewith.
Chapter FourteenEven if Stephanie hadn’t known her father wasdating Grace, she might have guessed there wasa woman in his life by the subtle changes in hishouse. The shades—which usually stayed pulleddown, turning the living room into a dark cave—were up, and the windows looked freshlywashed. A philodendron flourished before onewindow, and new towels hung in the guestbathroom. “The house looks nice,” she said as heushered her into the dining room. “I couldn’t invite a woman over to a pigsty,”he grumbled. Stephanie might have pointed outthat she was a woman, and he hadn’t had anyproblem with her wading past piles of oldnewspapers in his cave, but she knew what hemeant. Her father had no need to impress her.
The aromas of rosemary and sage wafted fromthe kitchen, and Grace, wearing an old barbecueapron of Jack’s that said K ISS THE COOK,appeared in the doorway. “Hello, Stephanie,”she called. “Jack, would you slice the bread?Dinner’s almost ready.” “Is there anything I can do to help?” Stephanieasked. “That’s all right, dear,” Grace said. “Yourfather and I have it all in hand.” So Stephanie contented herself with leaningagainst the counter and watching her father andGrace work together to prepare the meal. Theymade a good team, she decided, and the frequenttender looks they exchanged sent a thrill ofhappiness through her. She also hadn’t missedthe impressive diamond solitaire on Grace’s lefthand.
When her father raised his glass of wine at thetable and said he had an announcement to make,Stephanie wasn’t surprised. “Congratulations,”she said afterward. “I’m very happy for youboth.” “I owe you a big thank-you,” Grace said. “Idon’t think Jack would have ever worked up thenerve to ask me out if you hadn’t persuadedhim.” “I like to think I’d have gotten around to iteventually,” her father said. “But you’re right. Wehave Stephanie to thank that I didn’t delay anylonger.” He looked at her over the top of hiswine glass as he drank. “And maybe you’ll havesome good news of your own soon? How’sMike?” “Mike is fine. But don’t expect anyannouncements anytime soon,” she said. “Neither
one of us is going to rush into anything. He’s busywith his son, and I need to get through school.” “You worry about school too much,” herfather said. “You were always a smart girl, andyou’re making good grades, right?” “I get good grades when I study,” she said.“With work and everything, it’s not always easyto find the time. Dating on top of all that is toomuch.” “Don’t think you have to become a hermit justto get through school,” her father said. “You livein the same house with the guy, so it’s not likeyou couldn’t find some time to see him. Youshould have brought him with you tonight.” “He’s camping in the mountains with his son.”She turned to Grace, determined to divert theconversation from any more talk of her still-fledgling relationship with Mike. “Are you sure
you’re going to be able to put up with this guy?”she asked. “We’ve been having the best time,” Gracesaid. “We’ve been hiking and to ballgames, andwe’re thinking of signing up for a French cookingclass.” “She even talked me into going to a play,” herfather said. “It was pretty good.” “You don’t have to worry,” Grace said. “I’mnot going to drag you to the opera or anythingtoo civilized.” “Who knows? With you along, I might like it.”He turned to Stephanie. “She’s been really goodfor me.” “I can see that’s true.” Her father looked tenyears younger, the tension eased from around hiseyes, his posture straighter. Love was a powerfulmedicine. Maybe the best.
After cake and coffee, Grace excused herselfto go home. Jack escorted her to her car, andStephanie resisted the urge to watch out thewindow as they said good-bye. She wasn’tready to see her father in a passionate clinch. “I’m really happy for you,” she said when hecame back inside. “Grace is a wonderfulwoman.” “You don’t think we’re rushing into marriage?”he asked. “I know we haven’t dated very long,but I feel like a fool for wasting so much time.” After ten years, she couldn’t consider thisrushing. “You and Grace seem right together.” “It feels that way to me, too. You want somemore coffee?” He moved past her toward thekitchen. “Coffee would be great.” “Of course,” he said as he filled two cups from
the coffee pot, “I thought things were right withyour mother, too.” “I don’t think Grace is like Mom,” Stephaniesaid. “She seems very steady.” “She is.” “I talked to Mom the other day.” “Oh?” He handed her the cup of coffee.“Cream and sugar’s on the counter. Did she callyou?” “No. I called her. She wanted to know if Iwas engaged or pregnant. I guess she figured Iwouldn’t call otherwise.” “Why did you call her?” “I’d been thinking about her and wanted tosee how she was doing.” She shrugged. “Everytime I talk to her, I guess I’m hoping to makesome kind of connection, but there’s just nothingthere.” Maybe she’d been hoping for some
advice about how she could avoid screwing upher life the way her mother had. “Joy was never a particularly deep person,” hesaid. “I guess I wasn’t, either, at least when I wasyounger. Maybe that was why the marriageworked, at least for the first twenty years.” As much as the breakup of her own briefromances had hurt, Stephanie couldn’t imaginehow awful it would be to lose someone aftertwenty years. And yet her father had recovered.He’d found love again. “I’m happy you foundGrace.” If her father could let love into his life againafter so much time, why couldn’t Stephanie makethings work with Mike? Justin had said she andher dad were a lot alike. Maybe she had enoughof her father in her to follow his example when itcame to taking a chance on love.
The ringtone of her phone sounded overly loudin the peaceful kitchen. Stephanie pulled thephone from her pocket. Her heart skipped a beatas she recognized Mike’s number. Had hemissed her up there in the mountains and wantedto hear the sound of her voice? “Hello?” she saidin her best sexy telephone voice. “Sorry to bother you, Stephanie, but we needyour help,” he said. “My truck broke down hereoutside of Fairplay, and we could use a ride backinto town.” Not exactly the romantic conversation she’dbeen expecting. “What’s wrong?” her father asked, perhapsreading the disappointment on her face. “Mike’s truck broke down, and he needs aride.” She put the phone back to her ear. “Tellme where you are, and I’ll get there as soon as I
can,” she said. “How’s Ryan?” “He’s okay. You got some paper? I’ll giveyou directions.” Her father handed her a notepad, and shescribbled the directions to Mike’s location andsaid good-bye. “I’ll go with you,” her father said. “We’ll takemy truck.” “That’s okay, Dad. I—” “You don’t need to be trying to find your wayon those dark mountain roads in the middle of thenight. Besides, maybe I can figure out what’swrong with the truck.” “Okay. Thanks.” Having her dad along on thedrive would at least distract her fromoveranalyzing her phone conversation with Mike.It wasn’t the romantic exchange she’d craved,but maybe the fact that he’d called her at all was
a different kind of declaration. Maybe, in thiscase, the person you loved was the one youcalled to give you a ride when your car brokedown. The one person you knew you coulddepend on not to say no. …Once the sun sank behind the mountains, thenight turned cool. Mike and Ryan put on theircoats and sat in the cab of the truck, eating trailmix and beef jerky while waiting for theirrescuers. The truck, one axle bent, was parkednose down, to the side of the boulder-strewnback road. The wrecker driver had informedMike it would be the next day before the towtruck could make it out to retrieve the vehicle.Alone, Mike probably would have spread hissleeping bag out in the truck bed and spent the
night, but Ryan hadn’t seemed too keen on theidea. “How you doing, son?” Mike asked, as hestared out the windshield at a landscape ofmoon-washed rock and juniper. “Okay.” “You want to talk about anything? Your momand Todd?” Mike doubted he could offer anyinsight, but at least he could listen to whateverRyan wanted to say. “Not really.” “That’s fine, too,” he said, relieved. Talkingout emotional issues was not one of his strongpoints. Ryan slumped down farther in the seat, his feetup on the dash. “Is Todd the reason you andMom split up?” So much for thinking he’d get through this
night with no uncomfortable conversations. “Whydo you say that?” “I’m not a baby, Dad. I watch TV.” Too much TV, apparently. “Your mom and Idivorced for a lot of reasons,” Mike said. Hecould see that now. Todd was just anopportunity that came along when Kaye waslooking for an excuse. Even the house—thedream home Mike had told himself they wouldlive in for the rest of their lives—had been hisattempt to hold together a marriage he’d known,at least subconsciously, was in trouble. “Do you think now that Todd’s gone, you andMom will get back together?” The question shocked him. He’d had no hintuntil now that Ryan was thinking along theselines. “Do you want us to get back together?” “You’re my parents. It would be nice to live
with both of you instead of going back andforth.” “Lots of kids have two families,” Mike said,recognizing the words as a quote from somebook they’d bought for Ryan in an attempt toexplain their divorce. “Yeah. I mean, whatever you do is okay withme.” But Mike didn’t miss the note of wistfulnessin his son’s voice. “Is this something you’ve been thinking aboutfor a while—your mom and me getting backtogether?” Mike asked. “Or did Todd’s leavingbring this on?” He looked away. “I asked Mom if she thoughtthe two of you could ever get married again, andshe said anything was possible.” He could hear Kaye, dismissing the boy withthat offhand comment. She didn’t realize how
much Ryan could take such things to heart. Buthow could Mike tell his son that he didn’t loveKaye anymore without Ryan worrying that Mikemight one day stop loving him? Headlights sliced through the darkness,accompanied by the roar of an engine in lowgear. “That must be Stephanie.” Mike sat upstraighter. They climbed out of the truck to meetStephanie and her father, who parked his vehiclealongside Mike’s disabled truck. Mikeintroduced Ryan to the older man, and the boysolemnly shook hands. Then Jack turned hisattention to the truck. “What happened here?” heasked. “Dad tried to go over a big boulder, and thetruck broke,” Ryan said. “I would have made it, but the rock shifted,”
Mike said. “The wrecker’s coming out tomorrowto haul it into Fairplay, but I thought I should getRyan home.” “No problem.” Jack reached into the back ofMike’s truck and picked up Ryan’s sleeping bag.“We can stow your gear in my truck and giveyou a ride back to your place.” “Have you been stranded long?” Stephanie,looking small and pale in the moonlight, spoke. “A while,” Ryan said. “It’s been prettyboring.” He glanced at Mike. “But before that wewere having fun.” “Sorry to interrupt your dinner,” Mike said. “That’s okay. We were through. Grace hadalready left.” She smiled. “She and Dad areengaged.” “Congratulations, Jack,” Mike said. “Thanks. Behave yourself, and I’ll send you an
invitation to the wedding.” They finished transferring the camping gearand luggage, and Stephanie started to climb intothe backseat of the truck. “I’ll ride back therewith Ryan,” Mike said, sliding past her. His position, squeezed in behind the driver’sseat, gave him a view of the back of Stephanie’shead and her face in profile. He wondered whatthoughts were going on beneath that sleek cap ofbrown hair. “Is Stephanie your girlfriend?” Though Ryan spoke in a whisper, his wordssounded loud in the small truck cab. Stephanie’sshoulders stiffened. Mike leaned toward his son,his voice low. “Stephanie’s a friend,” he said,hoping this would be enough to satisfy the boy. He looked up and met Stephanie’s gaze in therearview mirror. Did he imagine the hurt in her
eyes? Well, what did she expect him to say? Shehad to understand what a difficult position he wasin. That Sunday they’d spent in bed together,he’d told her about Ryan’s resistance to the ideaof him dating, and they’d agreed they’d handlethe situation delicately. They’d move slowly andgive the boy time to accept the idea of the two ofthem together. With her desire to focus on herstudies, she’d seemed okay with the idea. The rest of the ride home was silent. Ryan fellasleep, his head resting on Mike’s shoulder.Mike was reminded of nights when Ryan wasvery little, when he’d get up in the middle of thenight and crawl into bed with Kaye and Mike.Mike would wake, his arm dead from the weightof the sleeping child, but unwilling to move androuse the boy. “We ran Stephanie’s car by the house earlier,
so I’ll just drop you all off,” Jack said as heturned onto the road leading to Mike’s house. “That sounds good. And thanks again for thelift,” Mike said. “No problem.” He pulled into the drive, andthey spent the next few minutes unloading thecamping gear and luggage. Lastly, Mike liftedRyan from the backseat, and the exhausted boyscarcely stirred. “Good night,” Jack said as he climbed backinto the truck. “Good night, Dad,” Stephanie said. “Goodnight, Mike.” Did he imagine the chill in her voice, or wasthat only his own guilt coloring the situation? Sheturned and walked into the house. Mike followed and watched as she went toher room, never glancing back at him. He wanted
to go to her, to explain about his earlierconversation with Ryan and the need to reassurehis son. He didn’t like constantly having tochoose between her and Ryan, but what could hedo? His son needed him. Weighed down withregret over having to make these choices, heturned away with the sleeping boy in his arms. …Stephanie woke Sunday morning with Mike’swords to Ryan echoing in her head. He’d saidshe was “a friend.” Was that really all she was tohim? Another housemate, fun to pal around with,good for some no-strings-attached sex and theneverything was back to normal? Could she reallyhave been so wrong about his feelings for her? Maybe he’d only been giving the boy anexpedient answer to avoid the need for
explanation. He’d told her Ryan didn’t approveof his father dating, and she’d promised to treadcarefully. But what kind of grown man—even afather—let a nine-year-old dictate how hehandled personal relationships? She was not aparent, but wasn’t Mike taking his concern forhis son too far? Or was Ryan only an excuse to keep her at adistance? She wouldn’t let him get away with it. Theyneeded to talk. They were both adults, and it wastime for an adult conversation. He’d hurt her lastnight. She would let him know and see what hehad to say for himself. “Have you seen Mike this morning?” sheasked Ilsa when she went to the kitchen forcoffee. “He and Ryan left about half an hour ago to
see about Mike’s truck,” Justin said. He sat atthe kitchen table, the Sunday Denver Postspread out before him. “Oh.” If she’d been up, would Mike haveasked her to go with them? “Toilet stopped up again?” Justin asked, notlooking up from the paper. “No. I was just wondering.” “They’ll probably be gone for hours,” Ilsasaid. “Why don’t you come shopping with me?” “Shopping where?” “The mall. I need some new shoes.” Shefrowned at her blue platform sandals, whichlooked almost new to Stephanie. “Not more shoes,” Justin groaned. “I really have to study,” Stephanie said. Shesounded like a broken record, but honestly, thatwas her life these days—work, fret over Mike,
study. Wash, rinse, repeat. “Come with me.” Ilsa hooked her arm inStephanie’s. “Maybe I’ll buy a new dress, too.” “I really shouldn’t.” “Come with me, and later I will help youstudy. I can ask questions from your books orsomething.” Ilsa tugged at her arm. “All right.” She doubted she’d be able to focusmuch on her books, anyway. She’d waste thetime moping over Mike. Once they were settled in Justin’s car, Ilsaturned to Stephanie. “Now we have privacy forgirl talk. What is going on with you and Mike?” “I’m not sure.” Stephanie stared out thewindow, not really seeing the landscape rollingpast. “We’re still trying to figure that out.” “Pfft! What is to figure? Are you in love withhim or not? Is he in love with you or not? Answer
those questions, and everything falls into line.” “Sometimes it’s not that simple.” Especiallywhen other people were involved. “I think sometimes Americans like to makeeverything complicated.” What about love wasn’t complicated, nomatter your nationality? “What would you havedone if Justin hadn’t asked you to marry him?”she asked. “You think he asked me?” She laughed. “Iasked him.” “You did?” “I did. I told him I loved him, but if he did notmarry me he would lose me forever, because Iwould have to go back home to Romania, and Iwould probably end up marrying some fat, richRussian Mafioso like my older sister did.” “Would you really have done that—married
the Mafioso?” “Not a fat one. But my sister promised tointroduce me to her husband’s rich friends, sowho knows?” She shrugged. “But it does notmatter, because as soon as he realized he mightlose me, Justin was eager to marry. For somemen, that is what it takes.” If Mike thought he would lose her, would hemake a commitment? “It seems like a big risk totake.” “Some things are worth risking for.” “That’s what they say in all the movies,” shesaid. But all those stories had happy endings, andreal life wasn’t that way. At the mall, they parked near Macy’s. They’djust entered the store when Ilsa grabbedStephanie’s arm and pulled her back. “There isMike’s ex-wife,” she said.
“Where?” “Over there, by that rack of dresses.” Stephanie studied the strawberry blonde bythe rack of designer dresses and felt a little sickto her stomach. Kaye Brubaker was tall, slender,and absolutely gorgeous. The kind of womanwho turned heads wherever she went. “That’sMike’s ex?” Ilsa nodded. “I have seen her before withRyan. Her name is Kaye.” “She’s beautiful,” Stephanie said. “On the outside, yes.” Kaye moved toward the dressing room. “Let’ssee what she is buying,” Ilsa said. They sidled up to the display Kaye had beenperusing, and Stephanie read the price tag on adress similar to one Kaye had selected. Shesucked in her breath. “She must be doing pretty
well for herself.” “Or has a nice charge card,” Ilsa said. Theymoved on to a rack marked SALE. “Mike said she and her boyfriend broke up,”Stephanie said. “Ah.” Ilsa nodded. “Then maybe she isdressing to find a new boyfriend.” Stephanie didn’t need a new dress to captureMike’s attention. He was already attracted toher. The problem was, he couldn’t figure out howto combine a relationship with her with being adad. And she couldn’t handle being with Mikeand going to school. She loved Mike, but schoolwas important, too—something she had to do forherself. She didn’t want to be like her mother,waking up one day feeling as if she’d never doneanything with her life. But on the other hand, she didn’t want to walk
away from the people she cared about, the wayher mother had done, simply because leaving waseasier than staying around and working out herproblems. Leaving hadn’t made her mother anyhappier, and right now, even the idea of leavingMike was tearing Stephanie apart. What wouldall the degrees in the world matter if she werealone, without the man she loved? “You are so quiet,” Ilsa said. “Did somethinghappen with you and Mike? Did you have afight?” “Not a fight, exactly. I’m trying to figure outwhere we fit in each other’s lives. He’s in a toughplace. He feels like he has to put Ryan first. AndI’m struggling with school…” “So he is going to be a monk until Ryan isgrown? He is entitled to his own happiness. Andso are you.”
“I don’t know. My mother had that attitude,and it really hurt me and my father when she left.” “Life is not always about extremes. You cando the right thing and be happy without ruiningsomeone else’s life.” Was Ilsa right? Was there really a way for herand Mike to both get what they wanted and stillbe together? “Maybe I should have you talk toMike.” “No, I am going to buy shoes. You should,too. It will make you feel better.” She tookStephanie’s hand and tugged her in the directionof the shoe department. Stephanie had no faith in the ability of newshoes to solve her problems with Mike. But therewas something to be said for looking good whileyou suffered. And who knew? Maybe the rightpair of shoes would give her the courage to say
the things she needed to say to him. She neededto tell Mike she loved him. That she was willingto compromise—to stay in town instead of goingaway after graduation—if he could put aside hisfears for his son and let the three of them workout a relationship. Sure, Ryan might be upset atfirst, but he would get over that. Kids did. Mikecould have a woman in his life without losing hisson.
Chapter FifteenMike and Ryan stopped on the way home fromFairplay for hot dogs at a stand shaped like agiant hot dog. “What time is Mom picking meup?” Ryan asked as he licked ketchup and picklerelish from his fingers. “She said about four. Are you ready to goback?” “I guess so. Maybe Mom will feel better, too.” “Maybe she will. Just remember, if she is sad,it’s not your fault.” “Yeah, I know. But it still makes me feelfunny.” “That’s because you’re a good kid. You haveempathy.” “What’s empathy?” “It means it’s easy for you to imagine what
other people are feeling, and you feel thosethings, too.” “Do you have empathy?” “Sometimes.” He felt Ryan’s pain when theboy was upset. And he’d felt Stephanie’s hurtlast night. He’d have to find a way to make thatup to her, after Ryan went home. Kaye arrived a little before four. When Mikeanswered the door, he was surprised to find herin a feminine, flowing dress and heels. “You looknice,” he said. “Why so dressed up?” Did shehave a date with a new guy already? “I dressed up for you,” she said, walking pasthim into the house. “Hi, Mom. You look pretty.” Ryan huggedher. “Thank you. Did you have a nice time withyour dad?”
“Yeah. Except when we went camping, histruck broke down, and we had to come homeearly. But even that was kind of fun.” “Your bag packed?” “Uh-huh.” “Then why don’t you take it out to the carwhile I talk to your dad?” “Okay.” When he’d left them, Mike said, “I’m sorry Iwas so hard on you on the phone the other night.How are you doing?” Funny how it was easierfor him to be nice to Kaye now that he hadStephanie in his life, as if she were alreadysoftening his rough edges. “Better.” Her eyes met his, her gaze steady.“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past coupleof days. I’m the one who should be apologizingto you.”
“Oh? What for?” Something in her tone madehim wary. “I don’t think I realized before how much Ihurt you when I walked out. Not until Todd didthe same to me.” “Yeah, well, that’s all ancient history now.” “I’m glad you feel that way.” She took a stepforward and put a hand on his shoulder. Herperfume—something exotic and spicy—surrounded him. “Could you find it in your heartto give me another chance?” Had he heard her right? “Another chance atwhat?” “I think we should try again. For Ryan’s sake.I made a mistake. I’m big enough to admit it.” He stared at her, numb. At the same time,Ryan’s words from last night came back to him.Do you think now that Todd’s gone, you and
Mom will get back together?…I asked Mom ifshe thought the two of you could ever getmarried again, and she said anything waspossible. “You don’t have to answer me right now,”Kaye said. “But I want you to think about it.”She rose up on her toes and slipped her armsaround his neck. Then she was kissing him, herbody pressed to his. The sensation was familiarand yet strangely foreign, as if the self that hadonce returned her kisses was someone farremoved from the man he was today. He put his hands up, intending to push heraway, to tell her that this was not a good idea.He’d let her down gently, not make a scene withRyan liable to walk in any minute. A cry, like a startled bird, cut through thesilence. Mike opened his eyes, Kaye’s lips still
locked to his. Over her shoulder, standing in thefoyer with the door open behind her, stoodStephanie, hurt and anger painted clearly on herface. …Mike thrust Kaye away from him as the doorslammed, the sound like a hammer falling. “Who was that?” Kaye asked. She steppedback and smoothed her hair. That was the woman I love, running out ofmy life. Ryan came in the door Stephanie had justexited, the worried look back on his face. “Whydid Stephanie run out of here?” he asked. “Issomething wrong? She looked upset.” Of course she was upset. She’d seen Mikekissing Kaye. She probably thought he was
cheating on her with his now-single ex-wife. “So that was Stephanie.” Kaye pulled out acompact and was fixing her lipstick, a half smilehovering around her lips. For a woman who’drecently been dumped by the man she professedto love, she looked pretty pleased with herself. Ryan looked confused. He stood in the foyer,shoulders drooping, looking from one parent tothe other, as if for answers. Time for Mike to supply those answers.Maybe instead of worrying so much about whatRyan thought, he needed to take charge and tellthe boy how things were going to be. Not as adictator, but to provide the guidance Ryan soclearly craved. As long as Dad was in control, hisson would see that things would be okay. “Kaye, I need to talk to Ryan for a minute,”Mike said. “Alone.”
“All right, dear. I’ll wait in the car.” I’m not your dear, he wanted to say, but hebit off the words for Ryan’s sake. He’d deal withKaye later—let her know in no uncertain termsthat the kiss had been out of line and wouldn’thappen again. “Why is Mom all dressed up like that?” Ryanasked as they watched her leave. “Sometimes women like to dress up.” Kayewas beautiful, and she’d probably thought she’dturn his head with that outfit. But when he lookedat her now he felt…nothing. She was just awoman he’d once loved. The mother of his child.But not someone who had any kind of claim onhis heart. He sat on the sofa and motioned for Ryan tosit beside him. “You and I need to talk. Man toman.”
Ryan made a face. “You’re not going to try totell me about the birds and the bees, are you?” Mike blinked. “What do you know aboutbirds and bees?” “That it’s a pretty silly way to talk about sex.”He covered his mouth with his hand, stifling agiggle. And what do you know about sex? But nowwasn’t the time for that conversation, either. “No,we’re not going to talk about that. Look, youasked last night if Stephanie was my girlfriend.And I didn’t tell you the whole truth. I said shewas my friend, and that’s true. But she’s also mygirlfriend.” “I thought so.” The boy’s shoulders sagged. Mike put one hand on his son’s shoulder. “Iknow the other day when I talked to you aboutmy dating again, you didn’t like the idea. But my
dating Stephanie doesn’t mean I’ll have less timefor you or that you and I won’t still hang out. It’snormal for adults to want their own friends. Doyou understand?” Ryan shrugged. “I guess. So, are you, like, inlove with her or something?” “We are. In love, I mean.” He put his handover Ryan’s. “In a perfect world, your motherand I would have never split up. I know it wouldbe easier on you if we hadn’t, but life just doesn’twork out that way sometimes. Your mom and Iwon’t be getting back together. I hope thatdoesn’t disappoint you too much.” He shrugged again but made no comment.Mike felt a twinge of sympathy for all the timeswomen had tried to get him to talk about hisfeelings and got the same close-mouth treatment.“The important thing for you to remember is that
I love you,” he continued. “And your motherloves you. Got that?” “Yeah. I get it.” He looked toward the door.“Why did Stephanie leave just now?” “Last night I hurt her feelings when I told youshe was just a friend. Then she saw me with yourmother just now and thought maybe I wanted tobe with your mom instead of with her. I need togo to Stephanie now and apologize, and tell her Iwant to be with her. That I love her.” “So is Stephanie going to be my stepmom?” Mike took a deep breath. “Would you beokay with that?” “I guess. I mean, a stepmom is morepermanent than a girlfriend…and I like you whenyou’re with her. You seem happier.” How was it that this kid could always surprisehim? “You’re amazing,” he said.
“What did I do that was so amazing?” “Just that you’re smarter than your old mansometimes. So you think Stephanie and I shouldget married?” “You said you love her.” “Yeah.” He’d also said they’d take it slowly.Not make any rash decisions. But where had allthe tiptoeing around feelings and guarding hisemotions gotten him? He was like a swimmerwho needed to cross a river, but instead of divingin, he was waiting around for someone to comealong and build a bridge. “I need to go talk to Stephanie,” he said. “Willyou be okay with your mom?” “I’ll be okay. I love you, Dad.” “I love you, too, son.” Mike pulled the boyclose. For all the mistakes Mike had made in life,apparently he hadn’t screwed up Ryan too badly.
Now if he could just have the same kind of luckwith Stephanie. …Stephanie drove without thinking. Impulse and instinct had sent her fleeing to hercar. She didn’t know if Mike followed her, didn’tlook up to see. If he’d called after her, shecouldn’t have heard him for the roaring of bloodin her ears. She clutched the steering wheel andstared at the road straight ahead, though all shesaw was the image of Kaye, long golden curlscascading down her back, designer silk flowingover her curves, her lips locked to Mike’s, herarms around his neck. Maybe he didn’t start it , a small voice in theback of her mind said. Maybe she was kissinghim and not the other way around.
Maybe. But that didn’t really matter. This washis former wife. The mother of his child. Thewoman for whom Stephanie had alwayssuspected he was still carrying a torch. So what ifshe’d kissed him first? Kaye was letting himknow she was still available, and what was tostop Mike from taking advantage of that? Fromputting his family back together? She parked and ran up the walkway to herfather’s house, not bothering to knock. Tearsbegan to flow before she was through the door,so that she had only a dim impression of half-naked bodies scrambling for cover on the sofa. “Stephanie Ann Ludlow, didn’t I teach you toknock?” her father bellowed as he grabbed foran afghan and Grace raced down the hall. Stephanie covered her face with her hands andturned her back on the scene. “I’m sorry!” she
cried. “I was too upset. I wasn’t thinking.” From behind her came the rustle of clothingand the metallic hiss of a zipper. “You can turnaround now,” her father said, his voice gruff. “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure.” She turned, her face flaming. “I’m sorry,” shesaid again. “Do you want me to leave?” “You might as well stay now. Come on out,Grace. It’s all right.” Grace, wrapped in her father’s old bathrobe,her cheeks quite pink, came out of the bedroom.“Hello, Stephanie,” she said. “Is everything allright?” “No. Everything is not all right.” She sniffed. “Idon’t know what I’m going to do.” And then, asif she hadn’t already embarrassed herself enough,she burst into noisy, sloppy sobs.
Grace’s arm came around her, a comfortingembrace as she led Stephanie to the sofa.Motherly. Through a haze of tears, Stephaniewas aware of her father hovering, his own facecontorted with concern. “What happened?” hekept asking. “What’s wrong?” “I walked in on Mike kissing his ex-wife.” “Oh, dear,” Grace murmured, whileStephanie’s father uttered a much stronger curse. “What’s he doing with her if he’s supposed tobe in love with you?” her father growled. “That’s what I want to kn-know.” Stephaniehiccupped. “Are you sure of what you saw?” Graceasked. “Could you have been mistaken?” “They were kissing,” Stephanie said. “I don’tknow who started it.” “It could make a difference,” Grace said.
“I don’t know why,” Jack said. “Kissing iskissing, and he shouldn’t have been doing it.” “Maybe it wasn’t a romantic kiss,” Grace said.“After all, they do have a son together. Thatmeans they’ll always have a relationship.” “It looked pretty romantic to me.” Stephaniescrubbed at her eyes with a tissue Grace hadhanded her. “What if he’s still in love with her?” “Then I’ll pound him.” Her father punched hisfist into his palm. “Jack!” Grace frowned at him and shook herhead. “Even if he doesn’t love her, he might go backto her for the sake of his son,” Stephanie said.“Mike loves Ryan so much. Maybe it would bebetter for him if his parents got back together.” Her father sat beside her on the sofa andpatted her knee. “Let me tell you something,
sweetheart. If your mother had come crawlingback to me on her hands and knees, I wouldn’thave taken her back.” She blinked at him. “Not even for my sake?” “Especially not for your sake. What kind of amother does that—walks out on her daughterthat way?” The vehemence in his voice surprised her. Shewould have sworn her father would have madeany sacrifice for her sake, up to and includingremarrying her mother. “I never knew you feltthat way.” He nodded. “One thing I realized is that yourmother was always running away. Alwayslooking for some perfect situation that didn’texist. She’s still doing it out there in Vegas. Andthat’s no way to live.” Her father’s words stung, a barb that pierced
her right in the heart. “You think Mom has somefantasy of a perfect life?” “I’m no psychoanalyst, but that’s what I think.Instead of making the best of what life handedher, she keeps flitting from one situation toanother, trying to find something that doesn’teven exist.” Stephanie felt sick to her stomach. She wasmore like her mother than she’d ever thought.Instead of working on the relationship she hadwith Mike, she was waiting for everything to beperfect. For love to be safe—as if it ever couldbe. “I’ve been so stupid,” she said. “He’s the one who’s being stupid,” her fathergrowled. “No, I mean, I shouldn’t have run away whenI saw him and his ex kissing. I should have stayed
and told her to get her paws off my boyfriend.” “That certainly would have been one way tohandle things,” Grace said. “I love Mike,” Stephanie said. “He’s notperfect, but neither am I.” She stood up. “I needto go back. To talk to him.” The doorbell rang. They all stared at the door.“Jack, maybe you should answer that,” Graceprompted. Jack stood and tucked in his shirt as thechimes sounded again. “Hold your horses!” hecalled. Grace continued to pat Stephanie’sshoulder while Stephanie wondered where she’ddropped her car keys. “I need to speak to Stephanie.” She froze at the sound of Mike’s voice. Gracesqueezed her hand. “She doesn’t want to see you,” Jack said, and
he started to close the door. “Dad, wait.” Stephanie stood and startedtoward the door. Mike stepped past her father to face her. “Weneed to talk,” he said. “How did you find me?” “I called Justin. He said you’d probably behere.” “So talk.” “‘I can explain’ may sound like the lamest linein the book, but it’s true,” he said. She hugged her arms under her breasts. “I’mlistening.” “So am I,” her father said. “Jack.” Grace took his arm and tugged himtoward the hallway. In a moment, the bedroomdoor clicked shut behind them. “She kissed me,” Mike said. “Not the other
way around.” “Ilsa and I saw her at the mall. Ilsa said shewas probably shopping for clothes to attract anew boyfriend. I had no idea the boyfriend wasyou.” “She said she wanted to get back together.That she’d made a mistake when she left me.” Stephanie locked her knees, determined toremain upright no matter what. “And?” He took a step toward her. “I won’t lie to you.Last night, Ryan asked me if his mother and Iwould get back together now that Todd was outof the picture. I wondered if it wouldn’t be betterfor him if that happened.” She swallowed. “She is his mother. You twohave a history. And she’s very beautiful…” He took both of her hands in his. “That’s just it—what Kaye and I had is history. I can’t be that
naive guy who thought I’d found the only womanfor me and that was that. I’ve moved on fromthat, and I can’t go back.” She tried to pull her hands away, but he heldher tight. “What are you saying, Mike?” “I’m saying I’m through with letting whathappened with Kaye ruin the rest of my life. Sothat relationship didn’t work out—it doesn’tmean you and I can’t make things work. I at leastwant to try.” “Try what?” This was it. No more runningaway. No more looking for a perfect fantasy oflove that likely didn’t exist. “I’m tired of waitingand hoping and holding my breath. I don’t want afling or an experiment.” She took a deep breath.“And no more taking it slowly. I’m ready to jumpin with both feet.” He squeezed her hands. “So let’s jump.”
When she didn’t answer right away, he pulledher close. “I love you, Stephanie,” he said. “Ididn’t even think that was possible anymore, butI do.” “I love you, too, Mike.” Her voice shook, buthis arms around her had a steadying effect. “Then marry me,” he said. “Are you sure?” “As sure as I’ve ever been.” “What about Ryan?” “I’ve figured out he’s a pretty flexible kid. Andhe knows both his parents love him—that mattersa lot more than us being together. And I knowyou’re worried about school, but I’ve got thatfigured out.” “You do?” “Yes. If we get married, you can quit workand study full time. You can go back to work
after you graduate. Whatever you want.” She took a deep breath. This was a big step.A huge one. “Yes.” “Yes, what?” His eyes sparked with teasing. “Yes, I’ll marry you. On one condition.” “What’s that?” “We have to elope. I don’t want anything todo with bridesmaids anymore.” “It’s a deal.” When Jack and Grace came back into theroom, Stephanie and Mike were still kissing.Stephanie wrapped her arms around him andheld on for dear life, determined that this time shereally was never going to let go. This time, she’dfound the right man. He wasn’t perfect, but thenneither was she, and together they made a prettygood team. One strong enough to stand the testof all the challenges that lay ahead.
AcknowledgmentsI’d like to thank Lori Wilde; Alethea SpiridonHopson; my editor, Ruth Homrighaus; andeveryone at Entangled Publishing for making thisbook happen. About the AuthorCindi Myers became one of the most popularpeople in eighth grade when she and her bestfriend wrote a torrid historical romance andpassed the manuscript around among friends.Fame was short-lived, alas; the English teacherconfiscated the manuscript and suggested theyshould spend more time brushing up on grammar
and spelling. Cindi took the teacher’s advice to heart andhas gone on to write fifty published novels. Herhistorical and contemporary romances andwomen’s fiction have garnered praise fromreviewers and readers alike and made severalbest-seller lists. She is a former Rita nominee andwas the 2005 Rocky Mountain Fiction WritersWriter of the Year. When she’s not writing, Cindi enjoys skiing,hiking, camping, gardening, knitting, quilting, andof course reading. She lives in the mountains ofColorado with her husband and two spoileddogs. For more about Cindi, visit her website atwww.cindimyers.com.