She was beginning a new adventure, Jessica Schilling thought as she walked through the doors of Drake's, a nightclub in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, with her friends, Nicole and Emma. She was on the verge of something exciting; she just didn't know what that something was yet. But it had to be better than what had come before.
At twenty-seven, she'd lived through a lot in the past three years, the death of her husband, the kidnapping of her stepson, and a move to San Francisco after her son had been reunited with his twin brother, Brandon. It had been a crazy couple of months. She was definitely not living the life she'd ever imagined for herself, but she was going to try to keep rolling with the punches.
But tonight wasn't about the past; it was about fun and letting loose a little. She hadn't been to a club like this in four years, not since she'd gone from Vegas dancer to wife and stepmother. She hadn't ventured out on a Friday night to do something other than pick up pizza or take her kid to a movie in months, and she was looking forward to a night out with the girls.
She'd traded in her usual jeans and a t-shirt for a red mini-skirt, high-heeled black boots, and a lacy top under a short black jacket. She wore her long brown hair down, and it now danced around her shoulders in thick waves. She'd put on more make-up than she'd worn in years, and for the first time in a long time she felt young again, hopeful, maybe even a little reckless.
"It's packed in here," Emma Callaway shouted, as they walked through the crowded room.
Emma was a slender woman with short, silky blonde hair that angled off her face and highlighted her bright blue eyes. Emma wore skinny jeans with high heels and a silky sheer blouse over a black camisole. On the other side of Emma was Emma's older sister, Nicole, who had blond hair that was a little longer than
Emma's and eyes that were a lighter shade of blue. Nicole had upped her look tonight by trading in her usual conservative mom clothes for a short, clingy dress that showed off her legs and curves.
"I told you we should have come earlier," Nicole said with a frown. "Drake's is always packed on a Friday night."
"I couldn't get off work," Emma replied.
"You always use that excuse, Em."
"Because it's always true."
Jessica let their argument go on without her. She'd gotten to know Emma and Nicole pretty well the last few months, and she was used to their friendly bickering. She'd been an only child, so she was often fascinated by their sisterly interaction and wished she had a sibling to not only spar with but also share her life with. And Emma and Nicole didn't just have each other. They were part of the big Callaway family and had six other siblings, one of whom they'd come to see perform tonight. Her heart fluttered at that thought, knowing that the invitation of a night out with the girls had become much more exciting when Emma had told her they were going to see Sean's band perform.
She'd met Emma and Nicole's brother, Sean, three months ago during the kidnapping ordeal. Nicole's son, Brandon, had also been taken, and it was then that they'd discovered the six-year-old boys were identical twins that had been separated at birth.
During that terrible time, Jessica had found an instant connection with Sean, and she'd often wondered since then if they'd met under different circumstances or at a different time, if they would have acted on the attraction between them. But on the few occasions she'd seen Sean since she'd moved to San Francisco, he'd been stand-offish, making her wonder if she'd imagined the sparks, or if they'd only been on her side.
Not that it mattered. She wasn't looking to get involved with anyone, much less a musician. She had her hands full raising her son and sharing co-parenting duties with Nicole and her husband, Ryan. Since the boys had been reunited, they'd all agreed that it was important to keep them together as much as possible.
But she wasn't going to think about all that tonight. She was excited to see Sean perform, and there was a small, slightly vain, part of herself that thought it would be nice for him to see her at her best and not at her worst. Maybe it wouldn't be so easy for him to ignore her.
She should probably be careful what she wished for, because while Sean's disinterest bothered her, she didn't know what she would do if he were interested. Love had always scared her, and having lost her husband in an accident sixteen months earlier, she was all too aware that pain was often the flip side of love.
"I'm going to get drinks," Emma announced. "Find a spot by the stage, and I'll catch up with you."
"I feel old with all these twenty-somethings," Nicole muttered as they weaved their way through the crowd. Then she added quickly, "Sorry, Jessica. I sometimes forget that you're six years younger than me. You're so mature, and I mean that in a good way."
She'd always been mature, forced to grow up early. "No worries. I actually feel kind of old, too. I don't exactly have a clubbing kind of life anymore."
"Do you miss that life?" Nicole asked, a curious gleam in her blue eyes.
"I can see why you would. You're only twenty-seven. Most people your age are leading a clubbing kind of life."
"I don't really miss it. I wouldn't trade my life as Kyle's mom for anything, but lately I've been feeling a little…" She tried to come up with the right word to describe her mood. "Restless. I needed a night out."
"I know that feeling well. Let's make the most of it."
"The most of what?" Emma asked as she rejoined them.
"Our night," Nicole said.
"That's the right attitude," Emma said with an approving smile as she handed them their drinks.
"What's this?" Jessica gave the glass of amber-colored liquid a wary look.
"Fireball whiskey. It's not as dangerous as it sounds."
Jessica took a sip and immediately liked the cinnamon flavor. She had no idea how strong it was, but she didn't have to take care of anyone tonight. Kyle was spending the night at Nicole's house, under the supervision of Nicole's husband, Ryan, so she was a free woman, and she was going to enjoy herself.
"They're starting," Nicole said.
Jessica turned toward the stage as Sean and his band walked out. Sean wore faded jeans that hung low on his hips and a button-down light blue shirt that emphasized his broad shoulders. His brown hair was thick and a little on the longish side, curling around his collar. His deep blue eyes showed anticipation and excitement as he grabbed his guitar and stepped up to the microphone.
The rest of the band took their places, but Jessica didn't see any of the other guys. Her gaze was solely on Sean, her heart beating way too fast, her stomach fluttering with a desire she thought had gone dormant after the death of her husband. It was back now and in full force.
She tried to tell herself that it was the whisky sending a shiver down her spine, but when Sean looked into the crowd, directly at her, she knew her nervous tension had nothing to do with the Fireball and everything to do with him.
Sean held her gaze for a long moment and then his lips slowly curved into a smile.
She smiled back, at the same time feeling a little foolish for even considering that he was actually looking at her. There were lots of women in the crowd, and who knew what he could see beyond the bright lights?
With a one-two-three, the band began to play, a lively beat with a rock and roll edge. Sean was the lead singer, his deep baritone voice raising the hairs on the back of her neck. As he sang, he brought the crowd into the music. He made the words mean something. He was in complete and absolute control on that stage, and they were all just along for the ride.
It was an amazing thing to watch. Sean had been born to do this. He was truly living out his dream. How many people could say they were doing that? Certainly not her. She wasn't even sure what her dream was anymore.
She reminded herself that Sean's dream was a solo journey. Musicians were notorious for failed relationships, unable to commit to one person, which was completely understandable considering the love affair they could have every night on the stage surrounded by beautiful women. She'd lived through her mom's fascination with musicians, watching her date one guitar player after another. Her mom always thought she was the one being sung to, that the lyrics of love and longing had been written just for her. But that was almost never the case.
Jessica had criticized her mother for being foolish, telling her to look at reality, stop making decisions based on her heart. Now she felt guilty at how harsh she'd been, because she could feel the magic of Sean's music wrapping itself around her like a warm pair of arms, drawing her in, whispering in her ear, making her feel like she was the only woman in the room.
She blew out a breath and downed the rest of her drink in one long swallow. She wouldn't make the same mistake her mom had made so many times. But she didn't have to leave. She was just here to have fun, and that's what she intended to do.
At some point in the set, Emma handed her another drink.
"Thanks," she said, enjoying the warming slide of liquid down her throat. She began to sway with the beat, thinking how long it had been since she'd wanted to dance. She'd given up dancing when she got married, but now she was starting to miss it.
The crowd burst into applause as Sean's band finished their encore. Despite shouts for more, they finally made their way off the stage, and the lights came up.
"That was awesome," Emma said, her face lit up with excitement and pride.
"I can't believe my brother is that good."
"I never thought Sean would be this talented when we were kids," Nicole agreed. "He used to drive us crazy practicing his guitar every other second. I guess it paid off."
"Should we get another drink?" Emma asked. "Do we want to stay for the next act? I think it starts in about fifteen minutes."
"Not me," Nicole said with a shake of her head. "I have to get up early tomorrow and be a mom."
Nicole's words made Jessica feel guilty. "I should go, too."
"No, you should stay," Nicole said firmly. "Kyle is already asleep at my house. Relax and enjoy yourself."
"What do you think, Jess?" Emma asked.
"I'll stay." It was an easy decision. She wasn't at all ready to leave yet.
"I'll walk Nicole out and make sure she gets a cab," Emma said. "Do you want to get us another drink, Jessica?"
"Sure." She made her way to the bar as Emma and Nicole left. There was a long line, so she was in for a wait. As she glanced around, she saw Sean coming out of the hallway, heading in her direction.
Her pulse began to race, and her mouth went dry. He was even sexier up close, and she couldn't stop the tingle that ran through her body. It was silly. She felt like a teenage girl with a crush on a rock star. She needed to get a grip. Despite the mental reprimand, she couldn't help feeling pleased that Sean passed by a lot of other women on his way to her.
"Jessica," he said, a husky note in his voice. "I was surprised to see you in the crowd."
So he had seen her. He had smiled at her. She wasn't completely crazy.
"Ryan offered to watch the boys so Nicole and I could come. Emma is here, too."
"Yeah, I saw them. Where are they now?"
"Nicole is on her way home. Emma went to help her get a cab. She'll be right back." Jessica was rambling, but Sean's gaze was so deep and intense that she felt more than a little rattled. She tucked her hair behind her ear, feeling self-conscious under his close scrutiny. "You're staring. Do I have something in my teeth?"
"No. But you lookdifferent."
Her cheeks warmed under his smile. "I hope in a good way."
"In a beautiful way. It's great to see you out enjoying yourself."
"It's nice to be out. It's been a while."
The crowd jostled her from behind, and she found herself suddenly pushed against Sean's broad chest. She grabbed his strong arms as his hands settled on her waist. His touch was firm, almost possessive, and he didn't seem in a hurry to let go.
She didn't want to let go, either. In fact, she was fighting back the urge to pull him even closer. Her brain screamed at her to step back, move away, say something, but she couldn't seem to do anything but look at him.
His deep blue eyes darkened as he gazed down at her. His lips parted, his breath hitting her mouth like a kissa kiss she very much wanted.
"Jess," he murmured. "Beautiful Jess. What am I going to do about you?"
The tender, caressing words washed through her like a hot silky breeze.
Everything else faded away. The only person she could see was Sean. The only voice she could hear was his.
The crowd swelled around them, and Sean pulled her closer. It was her undoing. With his hard body against hers, she felt an incredible, reckless yearning.
She didn't know who moved firstit was probably her. All she knew was that she felt an imperative need to kiss him, and when their lips came together, it felt absolutely right. She sank into the kiss, loving the taste of his warm mouth, the pressure of his firm lips, and the way he held her against him, as if he never wanted to let her go.
Another jostling move from the crowd broke them apart. Sean's hands dropped from her waist. He stared at her with an unreadable gaze. She wanted to say something, but she was having trouble catching her breath. What the hell had she just done?
"Jess," he began.
She waited for him to say more, but he couldn't seem to find words.
Then Emma appeared at her side. Jessica was more than grateful for the interruption. She was also relieved that Emma hadn't arrived a minute earlier and seen them kissing.
"Sean, what a great show." Emma gave her brother a hug. "Your best yet, I think."
"Thanks." He cleared his throat. "Glad you could make it, Em."
"How's this next group?"
"They're good. I'm going to get a drink. Do you two want one?"
"I'll take another Fireball," Emma said.
"Nothing for me." Another drink was not a good idea. She'd already made one bad decision.
As Sean made his way to the bar, Emma gave her a curious smile.
"Uh, sure." At the sound of a female squeal, her gaze moved from Emma to the tall blonde woman who had just launched herself into Sean's arms. "Who's that?"
"Never seen her before, but she looks like Sean's type."
"Which is what?"
"Tall, skinny, blonde, big boobs. You know, every man's type."
"She is attractive." Jessica felt a twinge of jealousy as the woman put her arm around Sean's waist and leaned in close to whisper something in his ear.
Jessica deliberately turned her back on Sean and faced the stage as the next group came on. Their first song was more loud than good, and her ears were ringing when it finished. Emma tipped her head toward the back of the room, and they found a quieter space away from the speakers.
"Better," Emma said.
"Yes. I'm not sure how much I can take of this group though. Not my favorite."
"They're definitely not as entertaining as Sean's band."
At the end of the next song, Sean found them. He handed Emma her drink and then took a swig of his beer. For a few moments they just watched the band.
Jessica felt more than a little uncomfortable. She didn't know if she should apologize to Sean or pretend the kiss had never happened.
When the next song ended, Emma turned to her brother. "So who was the blonde you were talking to?"
"Laura. She's a friend of Trevor's fiancée."
"Are you seeing her?" Emma asked. "Is she your girlfriend?"
Jessica shifted her feet, waiting for his answer but trying to act like it didn't matter in the slightest, because it shouldn't matter. She might have kissed him, but she wasn't stupid enough to think it meant anything.
"I don't have time to see anyone," he said. "I'm too busy for a girlfriend."
Sean wasn't looking in her direction, but Jessica still wondered if his comment was directed at her.
"That's just another way of saying you haven't met someone you want to make time for," Emma said, sipping her drink.
He shrugged and turned back to the stage as the band played on.
After two more songs and five more minutes of awkwardness, Jessica was more than ready to call it a night. Noting Emma's now empty glass, she decided to make a break for it. "Are you ready to go, Emma? I have a lot to do tomorrow with the move, and I should probably get home. Or I can go on my own if you want to stay."
"I'm fine to leave."
"The move?" Sean interrupted, speaking directly to her for the first time since their kiss. "Are you going somewhere, Jessica?"
"Yes, to a house around the corner from your parents. My apartment building went condo, so I had to find a new place to live."
"I'm not thrilled having to move again so soon, but I'm looking forward to getting back into a house with a yard."
"She's moving into the Emery house," Emma interjected.
Sean's jaw dropped, and something dark and unreadable flashed through his eyes. "What? What did you say?"
"She's moving into the Emery house," Emma repeated, her gaze filling with concern. "Sean? Are you all right?"
It was a good question Jessica thought. Sean had gone white at the mention of her house.
"I can't believe it," he muttered. His gaze swung from Emma to her. "How could you be moving into that house?"
"Nicole heard that Mrs. Emery was moving into an assisted living facility and wanted to rent out her house," Jessica explained, wondering why Sean was so disturbed by her news. "In exchange for a discount on the rent, I'm going to clear out her attic. Apparently, she's built up a ton of stuff over the years and has never been able to throw anything out." She paused, frowning.
"Is there something wrong with the house?"
"There was a fire. Two people died. One was a little girl," he said shortly.
Jessica was taken aback by his words and by what now appeared to be anger in his eyes. "No one told me about a fire."
"I told Nicole that she should mention it to you," Emma said. "But she didn't think it was a big deal. I'm surprised Helen didn't tell you."
Jessica wondered the same thing. "When did it happen? Was it recently?"
"No, it was a long time ago," Emma replied. "Twenty years, right, Sean?"
He gave a tight nod.
"That's why Nicole didn't think it was important, and I'm sure Helen doesn't like to talk about it since it was her son and granddaughter died in the fire," Emma added.
"I didn't know," Jessica said again, trying to catch Sean's gaze, but he wasn't looking at her anymore. In fact, he wasn't looking at anyone. He seemed to be completely lost in thought. "Sean"
"I have to go," he said, cutting her off. "Thanks for coming tonight."
As Sean took off, Jessica frowned and said, "What am I missing, Emma?"
"Sean and Stacy, the little girl who died, were best friends. In fact, she was playing at our house earlier that day. I guess the memory hit him really hard. It's kind of strange. Sean rarely gets worked up over anything. He's always super chill, sometimes annoyingly so."
"Don't let his attitude bother you, Jessica. Every house has a past, right?"
"Not always a past tragedy."
"If it makes you feel any better, the house was remodeled after the fire.
I'm sure there aren't any ghosts left. It's going to be a good place for you and Kyle to live."
"I hope so," she said, trying to shake off the uneasy feeling that Sean's behavior and Emma's mention of ghosts had created.
Maybe it was a good thing Sean didn't like the idea of her moving into the Emery house. She'd just given him another reason to stay away from her. And if he didn't come around, it would be easier to forget him.
But the taste of Sean's mouth still lingered on her lips, and the voice inside her head called her a liar.