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By Rita Oberlies, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Rita Oberlies
All rights reserved.
Luke tucked his black Amex into his billfold as he slipped out the side door of the Marquee Grill. A dozen colleagues, including his brothers, were still inside celebrating the acquittal of their firm's top client, Newhart Industries. After a year of posturing for the media, the Suffolk County District Attorney had presented a grossly anemic case that resulted in a stunning loss and a sharp rebuke from the presiding judge.
By the time Luke retrieved his car and navigated the narrow streets out of the North End it was after eight. He hit traffic along Atlantic Avenue and didn't reach Ridge Point Athletic Club until almost 8:15.
The sight of John lounging in a worn club chair chugging vitamin water greeted him the moment he stepped through the lobby.
"And you're beautiful when you pout," Luke said, tossing his backpack on the only vacant chair.
"Probably pissed off."
"You didn't call her?"
"I thought about it." Luke bent down and grabbed his racket out of the back of his bag. "But I'm not looking to get involved right now."
"Your testosterone levels must be flailing. Buy some blue pills and get out there."
Fueling John's fire would only keep the verbal crap flowing his way all night. "Let's go, candy ass. I've got a pedicure first thing in the morning, and I don't want to be late."
"Speaking of late, why aren't you in Amherst? I thought you guys had a two-night gig."
Luke slowed his pace until John fell in step beside him. "I'm taking a sabbatical. Balancing work and the band was becoming too much of a grind."
Silence reigned until they reached court number four. When the door clicked shut, John finally responded.
"Since when has playing the drums been a hardship? It's the only thing other than playing third wheel with me and Amanda that you do."
"True. And just how long can I keep that up?" Luke positioned himself in the serving zone and raised his racquet.
As the ball ricocheted off the front wall, John raised his voice. "We need to talk."
The ball bounced high, forcing Luke to stretch nearly beyond his reach. "I can't handle any amateur therapy tonight."
This time the ball bounced off John's shoulder as his racket dropped to the floor. "Brenna's coming home. I found out this afternoon."
Luke's heart slammed hard against his chest. "What?"
"She put her condo on the market. Amanda said she's hoping for a quick sale."
Every molecule in his head began to throb.
"Why now? I thought her life was perfect in Florida. Hell, I heard she was practically engaged to that construction worker."
A bleak look settled across John's face. "Things haven't been easy down there. Supporting her seventy-five-year-old grandmother and her brother hasn't been a picnic."
Anger burned a knot in his gut. "Why didn't you tell me? I could've helped."
"How exactly? By throwing money at her? She wouldn't let you buy her a damn drink in Sarasota, Luke. Do you really think she'd accept charity from you?"
The walls in the confined court made him feel like a caged animal. "Let's get out of here. I want to know what else you've been holding back."
John moved toward the door. It wasn't until they reached the now crowded lounge that the silence was breached.
"Grab a bottle of water and your coat," John said, as he pulled a gray hooded sweatshirt over his head. "We'll walk the track across the street."
Few things in their decade of friendship had ever threatened to destroy their bond. Luke's relationship with Brenna Morgan, particularly at the end, was a notable exception. A once-tight circle of friends had splintered.
As soon as the automatic doors swung open a blast of frigid air assaulted them. At least they'd have privacy. It was too damn cold for outdoor exercise. Fifty feet of spotlights showered the sidewalk that led them to the street corner.
"How bad has it been?"
John snorted. "It's not just money. Her grandmother is suffering from dementia, and she can't be left alone all day. I think it's starting to take a toll on Brenna."
"Moving back to Boston won't help her financial situation. Housing alone will be out of her reach." Luke increased his stride, hoping to burn off some of his anxiety.
"She's out of options. Brenna's great-aunt has offered to help with her grandmother's care."
"What about Chase? Can't he help out?"
John exhaled sharply. "He's moving in with a couple of buddies off campus. I'm not sure Brenna would ever ask him to drop out of college."
Luke's lungs burned as they approached lap eight. He'd been praying something big would happen. He wanted her out of Florida and back home.
"All I'm asking is that you give her time to adjust to being home before you try to dazzle her with your newfound maturity."
He was right. Luke had been careless once before, and that couldn't happen again. "Does she have any firm plans? A job? A place to live?"
"She's moving in with her great-aunt, at least temporarily."
A faint picture of a fifty-year-old, two-bedroom Cape Cod flashed in his mind. He'd been there once or twice his senior year at Brighton University.
"That's a rough area. They've had a lot of break-ins."
A knowing smile spread across John's face. "I warned Amanda that we were going to have our hands full keeping you reigned in."
Luke rubbed the heel of his hand above his eye. "If you two weren't the poster pimps for marital bliss, I might have a more normal outlook on relationships."
"Do you want to hear my 'there are other women out there' speech?"
"Shit, no." Luke's legs began to burn. "I've met more than enough of them." Hell, Grace Winston was damn near perfect, but still he thought about Brenna. It was her body he wanted next to him when he woke up in the morning.
"What if Brenna believes the right man simply hasn't crossed her path yet?"
"Then I have to prove her wrong."
"A lot has changed since college. Some of those changes aren't likely to work in your favor."
Luke raised an eyebrow. "Meaning?"
"Some chicks would love to latch on to an attorney with more money than brains. Brenna's not one of them. I'm guessing she'll see more obstacles today than before."
He came from money, old money, the kind that carried weight in Boston. At school it hadn't mattered. Most of his buddies recognized the Braden name, but fortunately, it fell far below girls and beer on their scale of importance. Only one person had a visceral reaction — a certain brunette who treated him like a venereal disease, like he was the last thing on earth she wanted to catch.
"My lineage and my bank account don't mean a damn thing to her." Luke hated this part, hated trying to explain something he didn't fully understand. "It was never the surface stuff. It's not like —"
His friend stopped him in mid-thought. "You don't have to explain it to me. I remember what you two were like when you were together. Just don't start brainstorming ways to win her over yet."
As much as he hated to admit it, John was right. Two months ago she couldn't bring herself to spend more than fifteen minutes with him. One dirty martini, followed by a lame attempt at cordial conversation, was about as good as it got in Sarasota. He had a long road ahead of him if he held any serious hope of changing her mind and getting his second chance.CHAPTER 2
"Those are snow clouds, honey. Should I call Frank and make sure he's left the office?"
Brenna bit down on the corner of her lip. Grandpa Frank was dead. Maxwell Industries went bankrupt five years ago. And snow had been falling for the past sixty miles. She was tired. Her butt was sore. And her odometer had stopped working back in North Carolina.
"Not to worry, Gram. I called Grandpa at the last rest stop. Mr. Grimes sent everyone home early because of the storm warnings."
"Thank heavens. Maybe he'll have a pot of beef stew on the stove for us."
Brenna muttered a quiet affirmation, wondering how she could survive another two hundred miles of nonsensical conversation. Guilt pooled low in her stomach. She should have found a way to pay for a one-way ticket home. Eleven hundred miles in a cramped car was taking its toll on her gram's already fragile memory. A three-hour flight, under the watchful eye of airline attendants, would have been far less jarring.
No looking back. None of the choices she was now making were easy. Only time would tell if they were the right decisions. At least the sale of her condo had gone smoothly. Even her realtor was surprised to see a full asking price offer within forty-eight hours of the listing going live.
That night Brenna had celebrated. It took three cosmopolitans before she realized the tears falling down her face were not tears of joy but heartbreak. She would miss the new life she had built for herself. Sarasota had been safe and simple. Steady work that allowed her to support her family without relying on her nomadic father for assistance. Her first real home, paid for with her own money. It was here that she experienced the freedom of dating without fear that a guy would recognize her last name because it kept appearing in the local police blotter. That would all disappear.
"I hope we don't miss Wheel of Fortune. Your poor grandfather spends so much time watching Vanna that he never manages to solve the puzzle." A light giggle floated across the front seat. "Of course, I'm rather fond of Pat Sajak, so I can't complain."
"Maybe I'll beat you both tonight. My losing streak has to end some time."
Small, bony fingers gently clasped her right shoulder. "You're smarter than the rest of us. I wish some of that intelligence would rub off on your father. William is too darn old to be flitting from one job to another."
As far back as Brenna could remember there had never been a real job. Sure, her father brought in money from time to time, usually after a night at Foxwoods Casino or following an afternoon of hocking flowers out of the back of Jay Mancini's minivan. During his luckier streaks it was enough to buy ground beef. Most times it barely covered the cost of generic macaroni and cheese.
"Why don't you close your eyes for a few minutes, Gram? It looks like traffic is slowing down a bit."
She dropped her hand from Brenna's shoulder and twisted her body away from the passenger door. "A trip to the mall doesn't usually leave me this tired. Wake me up before we reach home. I want to freshen my makeup before my Frank sees me."
"Absolutely. Grandpa might not recognize you without your petal pink lip gloss."
Those lips lifted into a girlish smile. "I know you think we're a couple of silly old people, but it's the little things that keep you going. No one wants to work hard at a relationship, but that's the only way you make it through the hard times."
Hard times. Brenna wasn't sure how many more hard times she could handle. The doctors at University Hospital had warned her about the changes she would see in the months ahead. The effectiveness of the medication that had been aiding in her grandmother's fight against dementia had leveled off; they were at a new stage in her illness. Bad days would soon outweigh good days. At some point home care was no longer going to be an option.
A soft hitching of breath confirmed Brenna's suspicion that her passenger had succumbed to exhaustion. Her gaze settled on her grandmother's peaceful expression. It shouldn't have brought an ache to her heart, but it did. Hot tears pooled fast and unexpectedly. One day she wouldn't wake up. Every morning her stomach clenched when she entered her gram's bedroom. Although she prayed that Gram would go peacefully in her sleep before dementia robbed her of every piece of her humanity, she wasn't ready for that reality.
The blue glow on the dashboard reminded her that she still had hours to go. It would be a minor miracle if her stomach and the windshield wiper fluid could hang in there that long. She couldn't stop. The one time she left her grandmother in the car alone had turned into a disaster. Instead of staying buckled in for five minutes, while Brenna dashed into 7-Eleven for a bottle of aspirin, her grandmother decided to take a walk down Tamiami Trail during rush hour. It took twenty minutes and the help of two police officers to track her down. Brenna would starve before she'd take a chance like that again.
By the time she crossed over into Rhode Island both the snow and the traffic had tapered off significantly. They'd arrive in Boston no later than nine that evening. With luck, she'd have the car unpacked, her grandmother fed and settled in bed, and all necessary phone calls made well before midnight.
It was a good plan. If fate, in the form of a broad-shouldered man, hadn't intervened it would have also been a successful plan. As soon as Brenna reached the corner of Highland Avenue she knew something was amiss. There was no way the dark Cadillac Escalade idling in Aunt Tess's driveway belonged to any of her relatives. Amanda and John had an ongoing love affair with all things Volvo, so it was unlikely they were staking out her aunt's home.
Panic would have set in if she weren't so damn tired. She pulled up behind the oversized SUV, turned off the ignition, and gently nudged the shoulder leaning against her side.
"We're here, Gram. There's Aunt Tess on the front porch waiting for us."
Surprise and excitement quickly wiped away her grandmother's initial confusion. "Look at her. Good heavens, she doesn't have the sense of a horsefly. Only my baby sister would prance around the neighborhood in a pink housecoat."
The passenger door opened and closed so quickly that Brenna had no time to reply. Even from this distance she could feel the joy of a long overdue reunion between siblings. A small layer of doubt disappeared.
The slam of another door brought Brenna's attention to the vehicle in front of her. It was time to face the unexpected music. She pushed her arms through the sleeves of her long abandoned coat, counted to three, and slipped quietly out of the car.
"John and Amanda will no doubt tear into me tomorrow when they find out I came."
She tried to ignore the hammering in her chest. The urge to wrap herself around him overwhelmed her. He looked so solid in his worn jeans, brown leather jacket, and scuffed boots.
"Tell me why you're here and maybe I won't blow you in. And how the hell did you know when I'd arrive? Kind of stalker like, isn't it, Braden?"
"I had to see with my own eyes that you arrived home safely tonight. No matter what, you'll always be a friend I care about. So deal with it." He hesitated, tucking both hands into the front pockets of his bomber jacket. "I called Tess. She gave me your approximate ETA. So no, I haven't been stalking the house. If you'd let me, I'd like to unload the car for you. Give you time to help settle your grandmother in."
She squeezed her eyes closed, forcibly shutting down the tears that threatened to spill. "I should decline your offer, but right now every bone in my body feels like it's going to crack."
"Why don't you give me your keys and head inside?" Warm fingers reached out and brushed against her arm. "No strings. No agenda."
There would always be strings between them. They might ignore them, or in her case deny them, but that didn't obliterate them.
"Okay. I'll leave the back door open, and you can pile everything into the kitchen for now."
He palmed the keys in his hand and retreated to the back of her car. Instead of escaping to the safety of her aunt's home, Brenna followed his footsteps.
"I know you don't consider me a friend anymore, but I care for you. That hasn't changed."
She swallowed past a lump in her throat. This shouldn't be so damn hard — either push him away forever or find a way to build a small bridge. But she couldn't get past the fact that he'd bailed on her all those years ago when things got uncomfortable.
A set of bright lights flashed across the street as a pizza delivery driver pulled up to the curb. Without warning, her stomach grumbled.
"I could give you a hundred reasons why you should turn me down, Bren."
"And I could give you a hundred other reasons why I should kick your ass off my property and tell you to leave me alone for good. I don't need any more friends, Braden, especially not the kind that bail when the going gets tough."
Excerpted from Second Chances by Rita Oberlies, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2012 Rita Oberlies. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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