Read an Excerpt
She needed another challenge like she needed a sharp stick in the eye.
Haley Anderson was trying to get this small, dingy storefront space whipped into shape to house the teen mentoring program she called ROOTS. It had to be a place where kids would actually want to hang out. She'd hoped it would be ready to open up when the school year ended, but it was already the first of August and she hadn't secured the lease until the end of July. Now the real work started.
The empty area needed furniture, games, a TV, DVD player and probably a computer. But she didn't think bringing in any of that while the walls needed a makeover was prudent.
She'd only had time to paint the one that faced Thunder Canyon's Main Street, a background for the mural she was in the process of doing. It was the first thing teenagers would see when they peeked in the window. She wanted warm, empathetic, inviting images. Since she was taking a chance with community donations to open ROOTS, why not amp up the pressure factor with her first, very public art project?
As if all of that wasn't challenge enough, she was a full-time waitress at The Hitching Post, the bar and grill just down the street. Although her brother and sister had part-time summer jobs at Thunder Canyon Resort, she was the main breadwinner of the family. It was the kind of thing that built character, or so she'd been told. From her perspective, she had enough character for a small but determined army.
And now she was staring at yet another challenge. He was still outside. The guy who'd walked all over her tender heart that summer after high school graduation, just before her life really fell apart—correction, before she really started building character.
Marlon Cates. MC. Major Crush. But that was so yesterday. Now the MC stood for major caution.
There was nothing wrong with him standing outside—except it was looking like he planned to come inside. But maybe she was borrowing trouble. Maybe he'd walk on by.
That hope disappeared in a poof when he noticed her watching, lifted his hand and smiled. The grin got to her like nothing else, probably because it was fueled by that wicked twinkle in his eyes. It was the down payment on flirtation and fun and made her heart beat faster even though she knew he was a player. He didn't live in Thunder Canyon now, but he still had family here. Every couple of months he showed up at The Hitching Post and women flocked to him like compulsive gamblers to a deck of cards.
He never left with the same woman twice. Her heart knew better and shouldn't have beaten faster as he opened the door and walked inside, but it did. Apparently her heart had a mind of its own. When he pushed the door open, the bell above dinged. She hoped it covered the sound of her groan.
He was six feet of long legs, lean muscle and broad shoulders. In worn jeans and a black, chest-hugging T -shirt, he looked every inch the bad boy of his high school and college days. His brown eyes glittered with reckless promises and the short dark hair was meticulously mussed. His jaw was shadowed with sexy scruff. She told herself it would rub her face raw if they kissed, but her one personal experience with him hadn't been long enough to rub anything raw except stirred-up yearnings.
Still, a part of her was willing to risk a close encounter with scruff and she planned to choke that part of her into submission. Along with the part of her that desperately wished she wasn't in old, torn, paint-splattered jeans and her brother's too large T-shirt. She also wished her straight brown hair wasn't twisted up off her neck and held with a clip that made it stand out like feathers from a freaked out turkey.
Marlon moved closer and glanced at the mural she'd sketched of kids, computers, books and sports. She was in the process of painting in the lines, but put her brush down on the small rusty metal table she'd brought from home for her art supplies.
"That's impressive," he said, nodding his chin at the wall. "Did you draw this?"
"Yeah." She couldn't remember a time when she didn't have crayon, paint or charcoal pencil in hand. Some art classes in high school and junior college had improved her technique and she soaked up his praise like rain on tinder-dry brush. "Thanks."
He looked down at her, his gaze assessing. "How've you been?"
"Good. You?" It hadn't been that long since she'd seen him. "Weren't you back last month right around the Fourth of July?"
"Yeah." He glanced down and shifted his feet. "Now I'm taking a working vacation."
In college he'd created a line of silk-screened T-shirts, jackets and hats with a Montana theme. A venture capitalist staying at the Thunder Canyon Resort had seen the items displayed in a restaurant on the premises and approached him about backing a bigger business enterprise. Marlon then expanded into MC/TC, primarily a jeans label. When the Hollywood "it" girl he was dating was photographed wearing the brand and turned up in multiple national magazines, the company took off and became phenomenally successful. And still was. But Haley didn't know anyone who wasn't feeling the effects of the recession, and wondered about the state of his company.
This teen program, ROOTS, was dependent on donations and people were struggling, just one of the reasons the opening was later than she'd hoped. But there was still about a month until school started and she wanted the kids to be able to take advantage while they could.
"How's business?" she asked.
She waited for more information, but he was looking around. The room was small and square. And obviously empty.
"I know it doesn't look like much now," she defended, "but I have plans. With used furniture from the Second Chances thrift store the interior will really pop." She pointed to a doorway. "There's a bathroom and tiny storage area through there, with a door leading to the parking lot. It's big enough to put in a refrigerator, microwave and cabinet for snacks and paper goods. If my brother is anything to go by, teenage boys have bottomless appetites."
"Good," she said. "Trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. She's taking classes at the junior college and changes her major every other month."
"He just graduated from college. Engineering major," she said, her voice full of the pride she couldn't hide. "There was a time when I didn't think he would graduate from high school, let alone go to college and get a degree."
"Why is that?"
"He never had a father figure and was only sixteen when mom died. That's a tough age under the best of circumstances, but the two of them were especially close. It hit him really hard."
Her brother wasn't the only one. It had been the worst time of her life and she suspected her sister Angie felt the same way.
"Yeah. I can see where that would happen."
"I'm convinced it's our roots here in Thunder Canyon that tipped the scales in his favor."
"How's that?" he asked.
"The people in this community took us under their wing. Neighbors helped out, especially Ben Walters."
"Isn't he the rancher who lives near your place?"
"Yeah. He's a widower." She sighed. "That's probably why he spent a lot of time with Austin, called him on his crap when necessary because Austin refused to pay attention to me. I'm only his big sister. Sometimes Ben just listened when the kid needed a man to talk to."
"Ben always was a saint."
The critical tone made her feel defensive for some reason. "He was a father to my brother and I'll never forget it. In fact, that's really how ROOTS started in the first place."
She nodded. "They hired me at The Hitching Post when I needed a job to support the family. Folks stepped in to watch Angie while I was working. And Ben kept Austin out of trouble. We were teens without a mom and Thunder Canyon put their arms around us. I wanted to open a community clubhouse where teenagers can come. Hang out. Talk if they want. Or not. It's just a place where you don't have to feel alone. Like the way people here in town made me feel."
"The name is from an embroidered sampler of my mother's that we keep on the wall at home. It says 'There are but two lasting things we give our children—Roots and Wings.' I intend to pay that message forward."
"Good for you."
Her eyes narrowed on him. Was he laughing at her? "I wouldn't expect a big shot entrepreneur like yourself to understand something that isn't about making money. Especially when it fell into your lap—"
He reached out and put his index finger to her lips, to silence her. "Success didn't just happen. I worked damn hard for it and still do. That wasn't a criticism. Obviously you've got one nerve left and apparently I stepped on it."
"Sorry." That happened when your buttons got pushed, and not any of the good buttons. "It's been sort of an uphill battle—finding the money, convincing the mayor and town council of the need… Thunder Canyon High's principal and faculty have been incredibly helpful. And my special adviser is Carleigh Benedict, from county social services." She took a deep breath. "There will be strict curfews enforced. And adult supervision when the doors are open. I want to make sure I get everything right."
He looked down for a moment, then met her gaze. "Sounds like an ambitious undertaking. Could you use an extra pair of hands?"
Surely he wasn't talking about himself. "I'm definitely going to need volunteers. When it becomes the coolest hangout in town, which is what I'm hoping for. But right now it's just me."
"That wasn't me gathering information. It was a sincere offer to be of assistance," he explained, his expression wry.
"You want to help out?" she asked skeptically.
"Don't sound so surprised." His eyes turned a darker shade of brown, but hurting Marlon's feelings seemed like a long shot since there'd never been an abundance of evidence that he had any. "Like I said, my schedule is loose and not being busy makes me nuts. It seems like a win-win."
"You could give your dad a hand," she suggested helpfully. His father, Frank, owned Cates Construction where Marlon's identical twin, Matt, worked, the twin expected to take over the business some day. She marveled at how different the two men with the same face were. Matt was serious and a stay-put kind of guy. Marlon was a charmer who never stood still.
"I plan to help out my dad if he needs it," he said. "But you know as well as I do that things have slowed down in construction and he's doing his best not to lay off workers. Especially the ones with families."
"Times are tough. That's going to affect a lot of kids," she agreed.
"So let me help you out."
On top of more surprise that he wouldn't drop the idea, Haley's suspicions kicked in. His reputation had bad boy written all over it. Whoever supervised at ROOTS would have to be someone the kids looked up to. Not that she thought Marlon was a threat, but he wasn't positive role model material either.
"I don't think there's much to do right now," she lied.
"Could have fooled me." One of his dark eyebrows rose as he looked around at the empty space and three remaining dingy green walls. "Look, Haley, you'd be doing me a favor and I could return it."
She bit her lip as she looked up at him, trying to figure out how to say this in the nicest possible way. "The thing is, Marlon, what I'm trying to do here is important. These are kids who have been let down in one way or another. Like you said, people are losing their jobs and the bad stuff filters down to the kids. In a world where nothing is in their control they need someone they can count on."
"And you don't think I'm reliable?"
From personal experience she knew he wasn't. A long time ago he'd kissed her and promised to call. He never did. She'd waited by the phone, slept with it next to the bed, constantly checked for messages. There was no way she would have missed his call, if there'd been one. On top of that, he breezed in and out of town whenever he felt like it. He couldn't be counted on.
When she didn't answer immediately, he said, "What's your point?" His facial expression didn't change, but there was an edge to his voice.
Darn it, she thought. He was going to make her say it straight out. She looked up at him, way up, and took a deep breath. "I just don't think commitment is one of your strengths, Marlon. But I really appreciate the offer. Thanks anyway."
He nodded once, then left without another word, which made her one part sad and two parts grateful. Her crush was part of her past, but it didn't seem wise to test that theory by having him underfoot. Although when she looked around and thought about her to-do list, she had a sinking feeling she'd just cut off her nose to spite her face.
"Just once," she whispered to the grungy walls, "I'd like to get what I wish for."
She wished Marlon hadn't walked in. And that he wasn't still the handsome scoundrel she remembered. Most of all she wished to be someone he might be interested in. But she knew better than most that life was filled with challenges you had no control over and some you did. And Marlon Cates was one she just wasn't willing to take on.
Commitment wasn't his strength?
After several hours of stewing over those words, Marlon Cates pushed aside the see-through lace curtain as he stared down on Main Street from the window of his apartment over The Hitching Post. He'd rented the western-themed place, with brass bed, antique chifforobe and its own bath, for a month. It was within walking distance of ROOTS where he'd intended to do his court-mandated time to get back his driving privileges. His parents and three brothers knew what had happened and his mother didn't sugarcoat anything when she said it served him right. Three speeding tickets in less than a year landed him in front of a judge who yanked his license and gave him thirty days of community service.
From this vantage point he could see the storefront where he planned to do his time. When the court clerk gave him a list of places, he'd spotted Haley Anderson's name and decided it might not be so bad after all.