Read an Excerpt
Mallory Dickinson had vowed years ago that she'd never return to Brighton Valley. But here she was, back in town, listening to the empty moving van pull away from the curb of her newly rented home on a quiet, tree-lined street. One nice thing about the neighborhood was that it wasn't far from the Brighton Valley Medical Center, where her grandfather, a recently retired minister, was hospitalized.
Alice Reilly, who worked part-time at the church, lived across the street. As luck would have it, the kind-hearted woman had been the one to find her grandfather unconscious and to call paramedics. She'd also contacted Mallory and let her know how seriously ill he was. And then, last week, when Alice had learned that the house in her neighborhood was available for rent, she'd called both Mallory and the landlord, setting her cross-country move into motion.
As Mallory studied the small living room, thinking of all the unpacking she had to do, a bark sounded behind her, followed by a couple of bumps, a thump and a swoosh.
She turned to the front door, which apparently the movers had failed to shut tightly when they left, just as a big dog with muddy feet rushed into the house and skidded to a stop in front of her.
"Hey!" she said. "You don't belong in here."
The goofy mutt looked friendly enough, so she reached for its blue collar in an attempt to take it outside before it could track any more mud across the hardwood floor. But she'd no more than skimmed her fingers along the fur on its neck when the mutt jerked to the left, bumping a table with its rump and knocking over her grandmother's antique crystal vase filled with the yellow roses Alice had brought over as a welcome gift an hour earlier.
She winced at the shattered glass, the scattered flowers and the puddle of water on the hardwood floor, as well as the smeared muddy paw prints.
The vase, along with several other valuables and breakables, had been packed in a box marked Priority. She'd opened it immediately upon the van's arrival to make sure the movers hadn't broken any of the contents.
They hadn't, of course. And when Alice had brought the flowers
But she quickly shut out her reason for setting out something so precious, so valuable, so soon, and shifted her focus to the dog that now headed toward the stairway.
Before she could protest or curse the negligent pet owner who'd let the animal run loose, especially after a spring rain had dumped nearly an inch of water overnight, the critter took off upstairs, its dirty feet undoubtedly tracking up the new beige carpet.
"No!" she yelled. "Don't go up there. You come back here. Now!"
Before she could dash after the darn mutt, a man's voice sounded behind her. "Excuse me, but did a dog just run in here?"
Mallory spun around, ready to give the dog's owner a piece of her mind-and to tell him that he owed her the cost of cleaning the carpet-until her gaze met a familiar face.
Her breath caught, and her jaw must have dropped clear to the floor. She wasn't sure what surprised her more-the fact that the notorious Brighton Valley High School bad boy, a sinfully gorgeous adult version, was standing in her doorway. Or that she still had the same breath-stealing reaction to a pair of dazzling blue eyes she'd never expected to see again.
"Mallory?" he asked, clearly just as astonished to see her.
She had to close her mouth before she could respond, yet even as her lips pressed together, then parted again to allow her to speak, the words only wadded up in her throat.
She finally managed a nod.
He glanced at the broken vase, at the muddy paw prints on the floor. "Oh, no. Did Buddy do that? I'm so sorry. I'll pay for the damages. Where did he go?"
She pointed upstairs.
Rick whistled, then called, "Buddy!"
A bark sounded, and the dog came bounding down the stairs to its master, its tongue dangling from its mouth.
When it plopped down on its haunches, its muddy tail swooshing across the hardwood floor like a dirty dust mop, Rick slipped his hand under the collar and snapped on the leash. Then he straightened and scanned the cardboard-box-filled room. "Did you just move in?"
At that, she finally found the words to go along with her nod. "Yes."
"That's a surprise."
Wasn't it, though!
She'd loved Rick once, with all her heart. But things had changed. He'd changed. She'd changed.
They stood there for a moment, caught up in some kind of weird time warp, where nothing made sense. The air grew thick, making it hard to breathe.
Rick seemed to gather his wits first, as he took another glance at the mess his dog had made. "I'm really sorry about this, Mallory. Buddy has the heart of a puppy and still has a lot to learn. I'm afraid he jumped the fence and was exploring the neighborhood. I'll walk him back to my place, then I'll come back and help you clean up."
His place? Did that mean Rick Martinez was one of her neighbors?
If she'd known that, she never would have agreed to take this house, no matter how cute it was. In fact, she'd assumed that he'd moved away from here years ago, like the teenage drifter he'd claimed to be when she'd first met him, when he'd had to move from his uncle's home to foster care.
Well, apparently her assumption had been wrong.
But there was no way she could accept his offer of help. No way at all.
"You don't need to do that," Mallory said. "I'll take care of it."
"I can't leave you with the mess."
Why couldn't he? She'd cleaned up the mess they'd made of their young lives years ago all on her own, hadn't she?
"So you're back in town," he said again, as if finding it difficult to believe. But then again, why wouldn't he be surprised? After the first few months, she'd never expected to come back, either.
"My grandfather is having some health issues," she said. "I need to be close to him."
Rick nodded as if that all made sense. And while his family hadn't been close, he should understand. Mal-lory's grandparents had raised her after her parents had died. Gram was gone now, too, and Grandpa was all she had left.
Grandpa and Lucas.
Oh, no. Lucas.
Please don't let Alice bring him home now. Not until I've had time to think things through, to decide what to say to who-and when.
Things were complicated. And it would be tough to explain, especially when it was sometimes hard for her to believe how it had all come to be.
"Well," Rick said, "I'd better take Buddy home. But I meant what I said about helping you clean up. I'll also pay for any damages the dog might have caused you. Like the broken vase and the cost of the carpet cleaning."
"Don't give it another thought," Mallory said, eager to see him go, to begin the cleanup, to put her home and her life back to right again.
As Rick turned and walked his dog outside, Mallory followed him to the porch and waited until he started down the sidewalk. When he finally reached the street, she reentered the house and closed the door. Only then did she breathe a sigh of relief.
Of course, she wasn't foolish enough to think that the relief would last very long. If Rick lived nearby, which he apparently did, eventually they'd run into each other again. And one of these days he'd undoubtedly cross paths with Lucas.
She had no idea what Rick would think, what he'd say, how he'd react when she finally told him about the amazing chain of events that had occurred since she'd left Brighton Valley-if she actually said anything to him about them at all.
She might be older and wiser, but for the second time in ten years, Mallory feared what the future would bring.
It wasn't every day that a guy ran into the girl who'd broken his heart as a teenager, so to say that Rick had been surprised to see that Mallory Dickinson was back in Brighton Valley and living just down the street was a no-brainer.
He'd been sucker punched by the sight of her, by the shoulder-length blond hair that was just as glossy as he remembered, by the big green eyes that had grown even more expressive over the years, by the knockout shape that was far more womanly than when she'd been an innocent teenage girl and he'd been an angry, rebellious teenager on a fast track to nowhere.
Back then, he'd had a chip on his shoulder a mile wide-due in large part to all the times he'd had to change schools. He'd just transferred to Brighton Valley High at the end of his junior year, and he'd been tempted to drop out. But when he met Mallory in the high school cafeteria, he'd been slammed with a classic case of puppy love for a real-life good girl who attended church, even when it wasn't Sunday.
The beautiful college-bound blonde and a full-blown zap of adolescent hormones had done what the teachers, guidance counselors and school psychologist had never been able to do-get him to knuckle down and study. And before he knew it, he was getting his homework done, acing tests and avoiding detention.
He might have complained to his friends about the fact that Mallory had him toeing the line, but he really hadn't minded. For once in his life, someone really cared about him and what his future held.
But then again, things weren't always what they seemed. Whatever he'd felt for Mallory had blown up in his face, leaving him hurt beyond measure and once again shut out by someone he'd thought he loved, someone who'd claimed to have loved him.
Buddy tugged at the leash, and Rick held him steady. "What am I going to do with you, boy? You have to stop jumping the fence and digging out of the yard."
Across the street, coming out of Alice Reilly's house, a dark-haired boy trotted down the porch steps. Rick hadn't noticed him in the neighborhood before. But Alice was always taking in strays of one kind or another-just like Rick did, only hers had two legs instead of four.
"Hey," the boy called out to him. "Nice dog. What's his name?"
"Can I pet him?"
"Sure." Rick held the dog steady while the boy jogged to the gate, then let himself out of Alice's picket-fenced yard.
Buddy was one of Rick's rescue animals. He'd been brought to the veterinary clinic by a couple of college students who'd found him abandoned by the side of the road and knew he would die without medical help. Buddy, who'd been malnourished, dehydrated and septic from an infected leg wound, was barely alive when the kids had dropped him off.
Rick had told them to leave the dog with him, knowing he'd probably never see any payment. He'd never seen the college kids again, either.
In the meantime, after Buddy responded to the antibiotics and treatment, Rick moved him from the clinic to the rescue yard, planning to find him a new home. But it soon became apparent that the rambunctious Buddy would need some obedience training before he was ready to become a real family pet. Otherwise, whoever adopted him might give up on him and abandon him to a shelter because of his rascally ways.
As the boy ruffled the dog's head, Buddy gave him a sloppy kiss, which caused the kid to laugh. "He likes me."
"I can see that."
"I sure wish I had a dog," the boy said. "Oh, yeah? Well, it just so happens that Buddy is looking for a home."
"No kidding?" The boy looked up at him with big, blue eyes, reminding him of one of those trusting expressions Joey, his kid brother, used to flash at him years ago. "You mean Buddy doesn't live with you?"
"He lives with me, but only until I can find him a home with a real family."
"Wow. That would be way cool to have a dog of my own. I always wanted one, but when we lived in the city, my dad said it wouldn't be fair to an animal to keep him cooped up inside all day long. But now I live in a house with a yard."
A squeaky screen door swung open, and Alice Reilly stepped onto her porch. "Oh, there you are, Lucas. I see you've met Dr. Martinez."
The boy, who'd been looking over his shoulder at Alice, turned back to Rick. "You're a doctor?"
"Yes. Actually, I'm a veterinarian."
"Cool. Just like Dr. Doolittle, huh? Buddy's lucky to have you."
Rick laughed. "Apparently Buddy isn't so sure about that. He's still trying to decide if there's a better place he'd rather live. Otherwise he'd stay in the yard or on the leash."
"If I can get permission, I'd like to keep him," Lucas said. "We might need a need a bigger, better fence, though."
Rick studied the kid for a moment, noting his short, dark brown hair and the cowlick that grew much like his own. His blue eyes were also a little unusual in those with a darker skin tone. But then again, Rick had Hispanic blood and blue eyes. It happened. He credited his olive complexion to his old man and one of his blue-eyed genes to his Norwegian mother.
Talk about mismatched couples. Rick had given up trying to figure out why his parents had gotten married in the first place, let alone why they'd stuck together long enough to make everyone around them miserable.
He'd always found genetics interesting, but psychology had never been one of his favorite subjects. Maybe because his family had been so screwed up and it would have given the most gifted therapist a headache to try and figure out a way to straighten them out.
Rick glanced across the street at the house where Mallory had just moved in, then back at Lucas.
No, it couldn't be. Mallory was as honest as the day was long. She wouldn't have deceived him like that and not said a word about it. Besides, the boy-Lucas-had mentioned having a dad and referred to his parents. And Mallory wasn't married. At least, she hadn't been wearing a ring-Rick had checked.
Still, he'd have to find time to talk to her one of these days. There were a few things he'd like to ask her, like why she'd quit taking his calls. And why she hadn't come back to Brighton Valley when she'd said she would.
If they were going to be neighbors, they'd be running into each other on occasion. And it might be best to address some of that stuff and get it out of the way so they could each move on with their lives and not be uncomfortable around each other.
He'd have to stop by her house another time, when he didn't have Buddy to worry about.
He'd told her he'd come back and help clean up Buddy's mess, which would give them an opportunity to talk then. But she'd been pretty adamant about doing it herself. Maybe they both needed to put some time and distance between them until they got used to the idea that they were going to be neighbors.
"Well, I'd better get home," he told Lucas and Alice. "It's feeding time at the zoo."
"You have a zoo?" the boy asked, his eyes growing even wider than before.
Rick laughed. "It feels that way sometimes, but no, it's not a real zoo. I do have quite a few rescued pets, though. Maybe Alice will bring you to visit someday."
"Will you, Mrs. Reilly?" Lucas turned to the gray-haired woman, reminding Rick that polite kids didn't call their elders by their first names. Then again, he'd never had lessons in courtesy when he'd been growing up.
"I'd be happy to," Alice told Lucas. "That is, as long as our visit is at a convenient time for Dr. Martinez."
After saying goodbye, Rick took one last glance across the street at Mallory's new digs before taking Buddy home.
All the while, his thoughts drifted to the baby he and Mallory had conceived, the child they'd given up for adoption. He had no idea if the baby had been a boy or a girl, but he thought about it a lot, especially when he spotted a kid about the age their baby would be now.
He hoped that he or she had ended up with better parents and a much better home than Rick and his brother Joey'd had. The fear that he might not have been able to offer the poor kid much better was the only thing that had forced him to sign the papers and lose all ties to his son or daughter.
Well, that and the fact that Mallory and her grandparents hadn't left him with any other options.