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There was no place like home.
Or some sentimental, greeting-card bullshit like that.
Neil Pettit swung his duffel bag out of the back of his rental car and then slowly climbed the paved walkway toward the dark house. He supposed for some people going home was a big deal. A good deal. That it meant returning to a place of happy memories, home-cooked meals and comfort. A place where they belonged.
For others, it was nothing but a pain in the ass. He wished it wasn't. But instead of proving how far he'd come, whenever he returned to his hometown, all he remembered was what he'd come from.
Maybe his agent was right. Maybe he could do with a hefty dose of therapy.
He shifted his bag to his other hand and knocked on the front door. This house, with its fancy windows and various roof lines, its immaculate lawn and professional landscaping, was what he'd always dreamed of, what he'd worked so hard for. It was a testament to his work ethic, skills and talent.
He'd promised himself that when he was one of the top players in the NHL, his family would have the fanciest, biggest, most expensive house in Shady Grove. Mission accomplished.
So why did he still feel like that scrawny kid from the wrong side of town waiting on the stoop for someone to let him in? As if everything he'd always wanted for his family, for himself, was just out of reach. Always out of his reach.
He rolled his head from side to side. Knocked again. A minute later, the porch light came on and the door opened to reveal Geraldine Pettit, her short, curly red hair disheveled, her mouth a thin line.
"Neil Pettit," she said, yanking the ties of her light blue robe together so tightly, Neil was surprised she didn't strangle a kidney. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
He nodded once. "It's early."
He shifted before remembering that, not only did he have twelve inches and one hundred pounds on her, but he was also an adult now. Her disapproving look no longer had the power to affect him.
She turned that look up a few degrees. Set her hands on her nonexistent hips.
Sweat beaded on his upper lip. He couldn't stop himself from hunching his shoulders.
"Sorry if I woke you," he said before she fried him with another glare.
"Of course you woke me. It's not even six a.m. Your flight wasn't due to land until eight."
"I got an earlier flight." He scratched the side of his neck. "Should I wait out here for a few more hours?"
She harrumphed. "It'd serve you right if I told you to go on and do just that. Lucky for you," she said with the nobility of a queen, "I'm a forgiving soul."
A point her husband might dispute but one that was essentially true. "I appreciate it."
"As you should." But her expression softened and she finally stepped back enough to give him room to enter the airy foyer with its glossy woodwork and high ceiling. She shut the door. "It's good to see you."
Before he could evade, he was wrapped in a hard hug.
Still holding his bag, he awkwardly patted her upper back with his other hand. He wanted to push her away. Worse, so much worse, he wanted to pull her closer and just hold on.
"You saw me last week," he said as he stepped back. She and her husband, Carl, had come out to Seattle for game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs not five days ago.
"You look much better now." She took his chin in her hand and turned his face this way, then that. Did another harrumph at the thin scar under his eye. "At least that new team doctor stitched you up nice and pretty. But I still can't believe the refs only gave that Russian bully two minutes in the penalty box. He should've been ejected from the game."
"It's all part of hockey." Though he could have lived just fine without getting whacked in the face with a hockey stick. "We won that game. That's all that matters."
"I suppose. But took great satisfaction in that goal you scored when you returned to the ice."
"How's a man supposed to sleep around here with you two yakking?" a male voice grumbled.
Neil glanced up then quickly looked down at the floor. But the memory of Carl Pettitand his hairy legs and round stomachstomping down the stairs in nothing but a pair of black-and-white checked boxers was permanently etched in his brain.
Neil really would need therapy after this visit.
"You were sleeping just fine when I tried to tell you someone was at the door," Gerry said. "Why, it could've been a burglar come to rob us blind."
"What kind of burglar knocks?" Carl asked.
"A polite one. Well? Aren't you going to say hello to your son?"
"You're my son when you piss her off," Carl told Neil with a wink as he offered his hand. They shook, and Carl gave Neil an affectionate slap on the shoulder. "When you scored that winning goal in overtime in game three of the series, you were her son."
"I should've called," Neil said, shoving aside the weird sense of pride and longing Carl's words had invoked. "Told you I was getting in early."
But he wasn't used to sharing his schedule or discussing his decisions with others. Had always had a hard time remembering to let his adoptive parents know where he was going or what he was doing after spending the first ten years of his life not accountable to anyone.
"Yes," Gerry agreed, "you should have. But since you didn'tand since we're all up nowyour father can make some coffee while I get breakfast."
"That's not nec"
But she was already heading toward the kitchen.
"You know your mother," Carl said with another slap to Neil's shoulder, this one with enough behind it to have Neil taking a step forward to keep his balance. Though he was closing in on seventy, Carl was built like a bear and had the strength of a pro defenseman. "Always has to be doing something. Besides, it's not like she gets a chance to fuss over you very often."
Coming from anyone else, Neil would have thought he'd just been chastised. But Carl was as subtle as a knee to the groin. If he thought Neil should feel guilty about not coming back to Shady Grove very often, he'd come out and say so.
Or, more likely, demand that Neil get his sorry ass home.
Still, he considered trying to get out of the whole family reunion breakfast thing, but arguing with either Geraldine or Carl was a losing proposition. Getting your way when they were on the same side of an issue? Not going to happen.
And Neil didn't fight battles he couldn't win.
"Coffee sounds good," he said, though a few hours of sleep sounded better.
While Carl went back upstairs to get dressedthank you, GodNeil put his bag in the guest suite at the end of the hall. Hanging on to a few of the limited moments he'd have to himself until he got back to Seattle, he changed into a fresh shirt then went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. By the time he walked back toward the kitchen, the scents of brewing coffee, frying bacon and something sweet and yeasty filled the air.
He would have been happy with cold cereal and toast, but Gerry was the epitome of Go Big or Go Home. She'd shown Neil the joy of taking on a challenge if only to prove you were a match for it. From Carl he'd learned that hard work had its own rewards and quitting wasn't an option.
They'd taken in him and his younger sister, Fay, taught them what a normal, functional family was like and gave them both the tools they needed to become productive, successful adults.
Without them, he never would have been able to go from small-town kid with few prospects and no hope to one of the NHL's highest-paid players.
He owed them. Big-time. And he'd never forget it.
Neil slowed as he approached the room, stood just outside the doorway taking in the scene. Gerry bustled from the stainless-steel refrigerator to the six-burner stove to the granite-topped island and back again while Carl sat at the table, the morning paper spread out in front of him. Their voices were both pitched low but, as always, Gerry's words were quick and snappy while Carl's responses were more languorous.
Yin and yang, Neil thought. If he believed in soul mates, he'd say they completed each other. But he'd stick with thinking that they complemented each other, kept the other balanced. Out of all they'd done for him, all they'd taught and given him, he most appreciated how they'd raised him and Fay in a calm, positive atmosphere. They'd shown what a healthy relationship looked like, that one was possible.
Even if he didn't believe one was possible for himself.
Hearing footsteps on the stairs, he turned. Fay approached him slowly, as if unsure if he was real or not. Unsure of her welcome from him. As always, she was wary and nervous and easily injured.
As always, he'd be her strength, her protector.
"Neil. You're here."
Her words were soft and grateful, and so needy, it was like an elbow to the gut. Seeing her gave him that same hard tug of responsibility, the same punch of love he'd felt from the time he'd been old enough to realize it was up to him to take care of her.
Even if every once in a while he secretly, selfishly, wished she was strong enough to take care of herself.
He nodded, his throat tight with emotion. "I'm here."
She held out her hand and he gripped her fingers. Her eyes, a lighter shade of blue than his own, were huge in her narrow face, her complexion pale, her hair a wild tangle of shoulder-length strawberry-blond curls. The years melted away. Gone was the grown woman Fay had becomea mother with two sons of her own. In Neil's mind she was four years old again, gripping his hand like a lifeline, looking up to him as if he was her savior.
He'd been six.
The weight of her reliance on him, of his own sense of responsibility, pushed down on his shoulders, made it hard to take a full breath.
Funny how coming home made him feel like a fish out of waterfloundering and gasping for air. "Coffee's done," Gerry called.
With a final squeeze, Fay let go of Neil and walked ahead of him into the kitchen. "Good morning," she told Carl, touching his shoulder. She gave Gerry a quick hug.
"What can I do to help?"
"You can sit down," Gerry said, whipping something in a bowl so quickly, her hands were a blur. "Save your energy to deal with those two boys when they get up."
Fay picked up a pair of tongs and began transferring slices of crisp, cooked bacon onto a paper-towel-covered plate. "Luckily, they never wake before seven."
Gerry set down the bowl and shooed Fay aside. "Still, I've got this under control. Sit down, have a cup of coffee with your brother."
"I can get it," Neil said, stepping into the middle of the room only to realize he had no idea where they kept the coffee cups. He'd bought this house for them eight years ago when he'd signed his first big contract, but hadn't spent more than a day or two at a time here.
But it didn't matter because Fay was already getting cups down from the upper cabinet to the left of the sink. Neil sat across from Carl while Fay poured coffee, sliding the carton of half-and-half toward Carl, handing Geraldine a pot holder without having to be asked.
The three of them were close. Affectionate. Comfortable together and with their respective roles: father, mother, daughter.
Neil was comfortable in his role as temporary house-guest.
He sipped his coffee. This must be what their mornings were like now that Fay and her two young sons had moved back home. Breakfasts together. Small talk about their plans for the day. A shared smile or soft laugh.
It wasn't for him, wasn't anything he'd ever wanted. But he was glad his sister had it. Glad Carl and Geraldine had come to Fay's rescue. Even if part of him resented he'd been unable to do so. At least in person.
Fay was too thin, he thought, narrowing his gaze. Her pajama pants were baggy, the matching T-shirt hanging on her. She'd always been slight. Delicate. But now her slim frame bordered on gaunt, her cheekbones sunken, her collarbones standing out in sharp relief.
He'd take her out to lunch later, he decided with another sip of coffee. Make sure she was eating enough and not just playing with her food or spending all her time lying in bed with the curtains drawn.
The way Annie Douglas, their mothertheir real motherhad every time she'd found out about another of her husband's affairs.
"You look tired," he said when Fay poured more coffee into his cup. Tired. Defeated. And so much like Annie with her wild hair and sad eyes, it was all he could do not to shake her. To demand she stop acting like the woman who'd washed down a handful of sleeping pills with a bottle of vodka, leaving her children to find her cold, dead body when they got home from school. "Why don't you go back to bed? We can catch up later."
And it'd give Neil a chance to question Geraldine and Carl about what really happened between Fay and that bastard she'd married.
"No woman likes to be told she looks anything less than her best," Gerry said. "Have I taught you nothing?"
"Just because we teach," Carl said, sounding like some Zen master, "doesn't mean anyone learns."
"More fortune-cookie wisdom?" Geraldine asked, pouring scrambled eggs into a pan.
"Today's horoscope." Carl looked over the paper at Fay. "But Neil's right. You look exhausted." He inclined his head toward the door. "Go on. Take a nice long nap. Gerry and I will wrangle the boys when they wake up."
Fay, her eyes downcast, traced her fingertip around the edge of her cup. "I suppose I could shut my eyes for a few more minutes ." She lifted her gaze to Neil. "You really don't mind?"
He wanted to tell her not to ask his permission, to decide for herself what she wanted, what she needed. To demand she make her own way instead of following someone else's lead.
"I'm going to head over to Bradford House later this morning," he told her. He was having the run-down Victorianera house renovated. "Why don't you meet me there? Bring the boys then we'll get some lunch after."
She frowned. Nibbled on her pinkie nail, a habit she'd had since she was three. "What about Bree? Aren't you going to see her today?"
Breanne, his eleven-year-old daughter, didn't even know he was in town yet. He'd put off calling her, telling himself he wanted to make sure his plans were firm before letting her know he'd be around for a few days. But even he wasn't that good at lying to himself. Not when he had so many conflicting feelings toward his daughter. Affection and resentment tangled up inside of him, making a toxic brew, one he hated, one he tried like hell to hide, but couldn't deny.
And he was afraid she knew it. That she saw right through him. Just like her mother always had.
"I'll have Bree spend the night here," he said.
"Well," Fay hedged, "if you're sure "
"He's sure," Gerry said, wrapping her arm around Fay's shoulders and guiding her toward the door. "We'll save you some breakfast," she promised, giving Fay a nudge into the hall. A moment later, she turned back to Neil and Carl and lowered her voice. "She wouldn't be so tired if she didn't spend every night crying over that SOB."
"She'll get through it," Carl said. "She needs time."