Read an Excerpt
Faith Lewis loved her son more than life itself. But honestly, if he whined at her one more time, she was going to duct tape his mouth shut.
"Why can't I stay home by myself?" Austin asked sullenly from the passenger seat. "I'm not a baby."
Then why are you acting like one? And worse, why had she reverted to thinking like a nine-year-old herself? She bit her tongue and strangled the steering wheel. If she'd learned one thing over the past twelve years, it was self-restraint.
Thank God she'd learned something, right?
She pulled into the municipal parking lot half a block down from Brit's Snips and shut off her car.
"It's not fair," he continued, crossing his arms, his green eyes shooting daggers at her. "I'm almost ten—"
"Last time I checked," she said, unbuckling her seat belt, "your birthday was eight months away."
He flipped back his brown hair. If he'd let her give him a trim, he wouldn't have to keep jerking his head like that.
"But why do I have to come to work with you?"
She pushed her sunglasses back on her head. "We've talked about this before. So many times I might as well put it on a recording and push Play the next time you start in on me." And he would. Her son was nothing if not stubborn.
Like the color of his eyes, he got stubbornness from her. But that didn't make it any less frustrating. They'd had this conversation every day since school let out two weeks ago. It was going to be a very long summer.
"It's not like I'm gonna start the house on fire or something. Why can't I stay by myself?"
"For all the reasons I've already explained." Plus a few she'd kept to herself, such as her fear of coming home only to discover him gone. Tossing the keys in her purse, she opened the car door. "Now, I'm already late for work and you are about one more word away from losing your video-game privileges. Do you understand me?"
Scowling, Austin sank farther down into his seat. "Yeah," he muttered.
She raised an eyebrow—yes, just like her own mother used to do when Faith was little. This day kept getting worse. "Excuse me?"
"I mean, yes, ma'am."
Unlike her mother—who would've boxed her ears—Faith ignored the way he rolled his eyes. Hey, she didn't expect him to like having to toe the line. She'd done plenty of things in her life because she'd had to and not because she wanted to.
She stepped out into the bright sunshine, her lightweight shirt clinging to her skin. But that had more to do with her frantic morning than the unusual June heat wave, in the mid-eighties for three days straight.
Heat wave. If the people of Kingsville, Maine, thought this was hot, they should try spending a summer in a cramped trailer with no air-conditioning down in South Carolina.
It'd melt their Yankee brains.
"Run down to Reynolds' Mart," she said, handing Austin a ten dollar bill, "and buy yourself something for breakfast."
"Okay," he said eagerly.
"Don't even think of buying any boxed pastries, doughnuts and/or muffins. And avoid anything frosted, sprinkled with extra sugar, fried or carbonated."
His face fell. "What am I supposed to eat then?"
"How about some yogurt? And some fruit?"
Austin made a gagging noise. "Yogurt is gross. It's like eating cold snot."
Faith grimaced and slid her purse onto her shoulder. "Thank you for that visual."
"What if I got a breakfast sandwich? It's all healthy and stuff."
Sure it was. Eggs, cheese and sausage on a buttermilk biscuit. Her arteries hardened just thinking about it.
But the past had not only taught her self-restraint, it'd also taught her which battles were worth fighting. And wheeling and dealing with her son in the middle of downtown Kingsville wasn't one of them. Not when she was already two hours late for work.
"You can get the breakfast sandwich as long as you get some milk to go with it and a piece of fruit."
"You take the fun out of everything."
"Well, it is my sworn duty as your mother to make your life as miserable as possible. So glad to hear I'm doing a good job."
He rolled his eyes again but his lips quirked as he walked away.
She watched him as he went to the corner, looked both ways and crossed the street. A man in a dark business suit, his cell phone to his ear, approached Austin from the other direction. Faith clutched the strap of her purse. Austin, keeping his head down like she'd taught him, moved to the inside of the sidewalk and picked up his pace.
The man didn't give him a second glance. Exhaling, Faith put her sunglasses back on and walked off in the opposite direction. But she couldn't stop herself from glancing over her shoulder and checking on Austin.
He needed to do things on his own, as much as feasibly possible, anyway. The store was only two blocks away. Austin was smart, responsible and more careful than a nine-year-old should ever have to be. And she'd chosen this coastal town as the place for their new lives because of the small town's quaintness and charm.
But mostly she'd chosen it because it was safe—and hopefully the last place anyone would think to look for them.
And yet she still wouldn't take a full breath until her son was back in her sight.
Fighting her natural instinct to keep to herself, Faith nodded and greeted people she passed as she hurried toward the salon. She knew how to play the game. All she had to do was be friendly. Normal. Act her part so the people in town wouldn't wonder. Wonder where she and Austin came from. Why they'd moved here four months ago.
Who they were.
Faith pushed open the door to Brit's Snips and stepped inside the air-conditioned building. The salon's owner, Britney Coletti, was at the back lowering a dryer over the tin-foiled head of a client. Removing her sunglasses, Faith's jaw dropped at the sight of her boss.
Britney had gone country today. She'd tamed her long, dark corkscrew curls into two fat braids. The low-cut brown vest and frayed micromini denim skirt showed ample amounts of her toned, tanned body. She leaned over to speak to her client and Faith winced and quickly averted her eyes. That flash of Brit's lady bits was more than Faith had ever wanted to see.
Faith tugged at the hem of her own baggy top. She wasn't a prude—far from it. Before she got married at the naive age of nineteen, her clothing had veered toward tight, skimpy and just this side of trashy. For the younger woman's sake, she just hoped a preference for tacky clothing was all Britney had in common with the person Faith used to be.
"I'm so sorry I'm late," Faith called over the low hum of the dryer. "Did Mrs. Willit mind rescheduling?"
"I got ahold of her and booked her for later in the week." Britney grinned, her nose wrinkling adorably. "It's all good."
"Well, I appreciate you taking care of it. And I'll make it up to you somehow," Faith said as she went behind the counter and skimmed a finger down the appointment book. She still had fifteen minutes until her next appointment.
"Did you get ahold of the plumber?" Britney asked as she joined her.
"He's working over at that new motel outside town so he's busy until Friday." Faith tucked her hair behind her ear. She and Austin would be without hot water for a while yet. And she didn't even want to think about how much the plumber was going to charge.
She clutched the counter until the nausea passed. She'd brought this on herself by deciding to become a home owner rather than just renting a house. After all, what better way to hide than in plain sight? It'd taken her close to a year but she'd managed to save enough to buy her and Austin a whole new life, complete with birth certificates, social security cards and a credit history. It'd been worth every penny. By purchasing a house and becoming a full-fledged citizen of Kingsville, she was thumbing her nose at the people looking for her.
And proving she was ready to stay in one place longer than a few months.
"You can't live without hot water for that long," Britney exclaimed, as if Faith had admitted they'd be sleeping in the car a few nights. Which, sad to say, they'd had to do several times.
Faith hefted the strap of her bag over her shoulder. "It'll be fine."
Her stomach growled. When she'd gone down to her basement this morning to throw in a load of laundry, she'd been met with at least two inches of water. She hadn't had time for even a cup of coffee let alone anything to eat.
And while she might hand over a few dollars to feed her son, she wasn't about to waste money on herself. Especially since they'd have to buy lunch because she hadn't had time to pack it.
"I'm going to put my stuff away," she said. "If my ten o'clock gets here early, could you let me know?"
In the break room Faith tossed her bags on a chair and groaned as the unmistakable scent of coffee reached her. She headed straight to the coffeepot on the counter by the sink, but stumbled over something. She frowned down at a metal toolbox in the middle of the floor.
Hopping over the damn thing, she poured herself a cup of sanity.
Cup in hand, Faith stepped back over the toolbox and crossed to the mini fridge. Her choices were limited to half a ham-and-Swiss sandwich from yesterday or strawberry yogurt. Cold snot, hmm? She chose the sandwich.
As she chewed, the knots in her shoulders dissolved. At least the worst was over. It had to be. Her day couldn't possibly get any crappier.
She heard the back door open. "Hey, Faith." A familiar masculine voice. "How's it going?"
She viciously bit into her sandwich. There went her theory, blown all to bits. Guess she shouldn't have tempted fate.
All she had to do was remain in character. Be polite, say hello and act as if she wasn't, at this very moment and every moment, terrified of someone—especially this someone—finding out her secret. Resigned, she slowly faced Britney's older brother.
There was no denying Nick Coletti was good-looking. That is if you liked tall, broad-shouldered guys with wavy dark hair, bittersweet-chocolate-colored eyes and Roman features. Her tastes had always run toward men in designer suits over ones in snug T-shirts, faded jeans and a tool belt hanging low on narrow hips.
Too bad she'd also chosen men based on the size of their bank accounts instead of what kind of morals they had.
"I'm fine," she answered, sounding as prim as her husband's uptight secretary. "And you?"
He grinned, his teeth flashing white against his tanned skin. "Couldn't be better."
So what if his smile did funny things to her? All that proved was that she was female. She hung her head so her hair hid her face as she fought for composure. What made her a nervous wreck was that, instead of a tool belt, the man usually wore a holster and badge.
"Great," she mumbled, squeezing the sandwich out of shape. Reaching over to tear off a paper towel, she knocked the roll over. Nick caught it in one hand before it hit the floor.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked, handing it to her.
"You seem a bit—" her skin prickled under his scrutiny "—flustered."
Yes, he'd flustered her. How crazy was that? Used to be a time when she flustered men.
She ripped off a towel and wiped the mustard from her thumb. As long as she kept her cool, he'd never suspect he put her on edge. She set the towels back on the table and crushed the used one in her hand before rewrapping the rest of her sandwich and putting it back in the fridge.
And damn him for making her lose her appetite when she wouldn't have a chance to eat again for another three hours. "I've had a…hectic morning."
He nodded and twisted open a bottle of water. But even as he drank, his eyes didn't leave her. She calmly returned his gaze.
Let him stare. It wasn't as if he was interested in her. With her mousy hair and shapeless blue top and white, wide-legged cropped pants that made her curvy, hourglass figure look at least ten pounds heavier, she hardly turned men's heads.
When she'd decided to become Faith Lewis, she'd ditched the colored contact lenses and fake glasses she'd used as a disguise for the past three years, but had kept the drab hair color and baggy clothes. It wasn't much but it made her feel safe. Even if she would rather shave off her eyebrows than wear another pair of mom jeans.
Sometimes you just had to suck it up and do whatever it took.
Because nothing, and no one, was going to destroy the life she and Austin were building in Kingsville.
Nick couldn't quite figure Faith out. She was pretty enough with her light green eyes and shoulder-length chestnut hair, but she sure was a jumpy thing. He'd gone out of his way to be friendly, not only because she worked for his sister but because she and her young son were new in town. But each time they ran into each other, she was as uneasy as the first time they'd met.
"I'd better go," she said, edging past him. No surprise there. She usually left a room as soon as he walked in.
Faith's escape was ruined, however, when she tripped on his toolbox.
He grabbed her to keep her from falling. Her body went rigid and she pulled away from him. "You all right?" he asked.
"Fine. I should've watched where I was going."
But when she took a step, he saw her wince. He crouched in front of her. "Did you twist your ankle?"
He raised his eyebrows as he noticed her shoes for the first time. High-heel wedged sandals with crisscross straps—the better to show the bright pink polish on her toes. They were girlie, sexy and totally inappropriate for someone who stood on her feet all day.
Nick touched her ankle to check for swelling. She inhaled sharply and sidestepped him. "I just stubbed my toe. Which wouldn't have happened," she said pointedly and, if he wasn't mistaken, irritably, "if you hadn't left your toolbox in the middle of the floor."
"You're right." He shoved it against the washing machine. "I ran out to my truck and wasn't thinking."