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Her arm muscles screaming from the weight of the sacked-out toddler slumped against her chest, Kelly McNeil blinked up at the multigabled Queen Anne, so still and serene in the dark
and prayed she wasn't making the biggest mistake of her life.
Okay, the second-biggest mistake-
"Who'd you say these people were again?"
Behind her, the minivan's engine ticked itself to sleep, the sound overloud in the deep winter silence, and Kelly smiled briefly for her young son.
"This is where my best friend lived," she said, her heart knocking as they started up the softly lit brick walk that bisected the snow-shrouded front yard. "We'll be safe here."
Between the twin disks of his Harry Potter glasses, Cooper's nose scrunched. "You sure?"
"Yes," Kelly said, because she had to believe that or die. As it was, she felt as though she'd never be completely free of the fear knotting her stomach a fear that had finally trampled her last shred of common sense. Because this was so not her, this was insane, uprooting two kids in the middle of the night and taking them someplace she hadn't even seen for nearly twenty years. She knew the Colonel still lived there, Sabrina had said so in her last Christmas letter, but his number was unlisted and Sabrina had apparently changed her cell phone number-
Swallowing hard, Kelly boosted Aislin higher on her shoulder and trudged up the steps to the porch, where brass coach lamps still stood sentry on either side of the glossy black door, illuminating the weathered gray floorboards, the dark green porch swing that had been privy to many a summer night's adolescent gripefest .
Blowing out a breath, Kelly pressed the doorbell. A dog barked. A big one, by the sound of it. Coop sidled closer.
"Doesn't know where we are, sweetie."
Because by the time she and Rick had met, her third year of college, her father was dead and her mother had moved to Philly and Maple River, New Jersey, had quietly slipped into her past. Oh, Sabrina had been one of Kelly's bridesmaids and had visited after Coop's birth, but there'd been no reason for Kelly to return here. "It never came up," she said quietly, and Coop nodded.
Except he then glanced over his shoulder, worried, and Kelly tugged him closer, fury hard-edging the fear. A moment later, through the frosted panels framing the door, a light flashed on. Sabrina wasn't there, of course- girlfriend had traded the Garden State 'burbs for Manhattan years before. And Bree's mom, Jeanne, had died some years before. Which left the Colonel. Who'd always scared Kelly a little, truth be told. Man hadn't risen through the ranks of the air force as quickly as he had by being a softie, that was for sure.
But for all Preston Noble's penchant for order and discipline, he'd also adored his five kids, four of whom were adopted. And Kelly had come to associate "next door" with love and laughter and the security that comes from being in a large family where everyone had each other's backs. Sure, Sabrina's dad might glower and bluster for a moment, especially at the late hour, but Kelly had no doubt he'd allow her and her children the same refuge he'd not only given to an untold number of foster kids over the years but also more rescue animals than she could count.
At least until she figured out what came next.
The door swung open; Kelly sucked in a breath only to nearly choke when she realized the dark-haired, beard-hazed man hanging on to the excited bear of a dog wasn't the Colonel. The man frowned, confusion rampant in deep brown eyes even more intense than she remembered.
"Alf! Sit!" he commanded, glowering first at the dog, then her after the beast obeyed. "Can I help you?"
Clearly, he had no idea who she was. But even after eighteen years, Kelly would have recognized Sabrina's twin brother, Matt, anywhere.
Behind owl-like glasses, embarrassment flared in the woman's oddly familiar green eyes as she cradled the baby's head to her shoulder. The chipmunk-cheeked boy beside her inched closer, the move belying the minute thrust to his chin. Wrong house would be Matt's guess.
Until she said, "Matt? It's Kelly. Kelly Harrison. McNeil, I mean. Sabrina's old friend?" And he felt like he'd been sucker punched.
Holy crap. When was the last time he'd even thought about Kelly McNeil-?
She cleared her throat. "Is.is your dad here?"
"Uh, no." Unable to contain herself at the sight of the boy, Alf surged to her feet again; Matt tightened his hold on her collar until butt once again touched floor. "Actually, he's out of town."
"Oh. Well. Um Sorry for bothering you." Kelly touched the boy's shoulder. "Come on, Coop-"
"No, it's okay," Matt said, confused as hell but not about to send a woman and two kids back out in subfreezing weather. "Please come in." He opened the door wider, kneeing aside the whimpering Newfoundland. When Kelly hesitated, Matt sighed. "Really. And don't mind Alf, she's harmless. Although you might want to watch out for slobber."
That got a pair of tiny smiles, before, with a murmured "Thanks," Kelly ushered the boy inside. Matt shouldered shut the heavy door as the draft sideswiped the thermostat, kicking it on. The kid-Coop-immediately hunkered in front of the brass floor register, the concerned dog standing guard, while Kelly lowered herself and the sleeping toddler to the painted bench in the foyer. Unbuttoning the top button to her own coat, she released a long breath. "That feels so good. The heat I mean. The heater's wonky in my car, and it took longer to get here than I'd expected."
"Haleysburg," she said, naming a town about a half-hour's drive away. Her face reddened. "I don't want to put you out-"
"If you're sure," she whispered, her eyes drifting closed, and he realized this clearly exhausted woman was not the same stuck-up girl who wouldn't give his sorry-assed self the time of day all those years ago. Still, an explanation might be nice right about now. "Your kids, I take it?"
Kelly jerked, her eyes popping open. "Yes, sorry. I'm " Yawning, she yanked off her white knit hat, freeing a billion red curls. Barely past her shoulders now. Not as bright. "This is Aislin. And that's Cooper. Coop?" The boy pushed upright, grabbing the dog's ruff to steady himself. "This is Matt Noble. My best friend's brother."
Coop seemed to gather himself before sticking out his hand. "Pleased to meet you," he said, like he was sixty, for God's sake, and Matt felt a smile elbow through his not-exactly-chipper mood.
"Pleased to meet you, too, Cooper." Not much of Kelly in the boy that he could see. Except for the curls, maybe, although they were brown. The set to his chin, however- that was Kelly all the way.
"Can I go in there?" he said, looking toward the living room, still crammed with Matt's mother's sometimes bizarre Americana collection.
"Sure. Knock yourself out."
As boy and dog wandered off, Kelly fingered back the baby's snowsuit hood to stroke her damp, strawberry-blond curls off her face. "I apologize for showing up out of the blue like this, but Sabrina must've changed her number and I'd forgotten the one here ." Her chin wobbled, steadied again. "And I was.desperate."
Matt's eyes narrowed. "You in some kind of trouble?" he asked, giving voice to the question that'd been poking him between the eyes from the moment he laid eyes on her. Because you can take the cop off the force, but taking the force out of the cop-not so easy.
Kelly's mouth turned down at the corners. "Not sure that's the right word. My ex-"
The toddler suddenly jolted awake, huge blue eyes assessing Matt for a moment before swerving to her mother.
"It's okay, baby," Kelly whispered, smiling for her little girl, a smile like Matt remembered her giving to anybody but him back in the day, and something pinged in the pit of his stomach. The kind of pinging lonely, divorced schlubs would do well to ignore.
Except then Cooper and Alf reappeared, and Kelly shook her head, color once more flooding her cheeks. And finally it clicked, what would make a woman drag two kids out in the middle of the night, to someplace she hadn't been in years. True, there weren't any obvious signs, no black eyes or visible bruises, but-
"You guys want something to eat?" he asked, tamping down a repulsion that had never faded, even after nearly thirty years, and Kelly's grateful smile cracked his heart. Because the past had nothing to do with now.
And now she obviously needed his help.
Whether he was totally on board with that idea or not.
Kelly sat at the glittery white quartz island, Aislin pitched forward on her lap to smush pudgy little fingers into the sparklies, thinking that, on the one hand, the heat purring through the register and the smell of browned butter as Matt made grilled-cheese sandwiches-under the dog's unwavering supervision-were soothingly familiar. Enough that Kelly felt her perpetually tight shoulder muscles unknot. A little.
Because what was also familiar-and not soothing in the least-was her wack-a-doo reaction to this dude she hadn't seen since she was sixteen. An eon, practically, during which she'd fallen in love, married, become a mom twice over. As in, moved on? And yet
True, she was worn-out, and emotionally trashed, and time had definitely blessed Matteo Noble, who hadn't exactly been shabby before. On him, that whole dark, moody, broody thing worked. It was how it was all working on her that was seriously messing with her already fritzed brain.
So, no. Not going there.
Instead she ruffled Coop's hair as he sat next to her, staring up at the assorted copper cookware hanging off a rack, and corralled her wayward thoughts as she gave the renovated kitchen a once-over. Gone were the knotty pine cupboards, the beat-up, trampoline-size maple table where the island now stood, the brick-patterned linoleum. Now it was all very HGTV, stainless steel, glass-tile back-splash and pale wood floor. Very nice, very generic. Very not Matt's mom, an energetic little blonde who'd always been far too busy feeding people to worry about her kitchen's décor.
As if reading her mind, Matt said, "We talked Dad into a remodel a few months. Since he's making noises about wanting to sell the house, anyway, and eighties nostalgia wasn't gonna cut it."
Remembering that their mother had died several years before, Kelly gently asked, "How's he doing?"
Matt flipped the sandwiches on the griddle. Shrugged. "He functions. Putters. Reads. Sometimes hangs out at Tyler and Abby's salvage shop-Sabrina tell you about that?"
"Briefly, yes. How's that going?"
"Good. Restoration's a hot market these days. So's repurposing. It's amazing, the stuff they pull out of old buildings. Not to mention who buys it. This one guy, he completely refaced the outside of his house with bricks from a demolished factory in Trenton. Nuts, right?"
What was nuts was how they were shooting the breeze as though it hadn't been a million years since they'd seen each other. As though things hadn't been painfully awkward between them, especially at the end.
And that was the smaller of the two elephants in the room. The far larger, stinkier one was the big old "why?" that was behind her bringing the kids here.
Especially since she knew Matt was a cop. A detective, if memory served. So this reprieve-because of the kids, the hour-would undoubtedly be short-lived. At some point there would be questions. Questions Matt had every right to ask. Not that his dad wouldn't have expected explanations, too, but she'd always felt she could trust the Colonel to protect her, the same way he'd protected his own children. Not to mention all those foster kids he and Jeanne had taken in over the years.
But Matt. This was uncharted territory. Yes, he was feeding them and being chatty-he'd been raised right- but could she count on him to take her side? To even believe her-?
"You got awfully quiet," Matt said, scattering her thoughts.
"It's been a long.day."
His forehead wrinkled for a moment before he said, with a wink for Aislin, "Almost done."
Her eyes stinging, Kelly pulled her baby closer, burying her cheek in her silky curls. Thank God this one seemed unaffected by the events of the past two years. The same, however, couldn't be said for Cooper, who leaned heavily on the counter as he watched Matt, smushed face propped in hand. Yawning, he shoved up his glasses to rub his eyes, and Kelly's heart turned over. Poor guy was probably dead on his feet.
"They can bunk in Tyler's old room when they're done," Matt said. "There's twin beds-"
"Oh. I brought sleeping bags-"
"No need." Matt's gaze touched hers, then slid to Coop as he cut the finished sandwiches in quarters, clunked the plates onto the counter. "Whaddya want to drink, sport? Juice? Milk?" He grinned. "Chocolate milk?"
"Mom?" he said, hopeful eyed, and she smiled.
"For tonight? Sure."
Coop sat up straighter and nodded. "Yes, please. Thank you."
She bit her lip, though, when Matt retrieved a carton of one percent milk, a container of "skinny" chocolate syrup from the stainless-steel French-door fridge. He threw her a glance. "Dad's stuff. Doctor's orders."
"Oh! Is he okay?"
"Yeah, he's fine ." He rummaged in a cupboard for something. "Probably healthier than I am. Doc wants him to stay healthy, though. Ah-I knew I'd seen one of these ."
Moments later, he'd rinsed out and poured milk into someone's old sippy cup, which he then handed to Aislin, who plugged it into her mouth and started chugging as though she hadn't had anything to drink in weeks. Matt chuckled, twin creases gouging those bearded cheeks, then turned that grin to Kelly, reminding her exactly how messed up her life was.
How messed up she was. Ergh.
"Linnie! What do you say?"
There was an actual popping sound when spout left mouth. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, sweetheart," Matt said, then faced Kelly again. "What about you?"
"I'll have what they're having," she said, watching Matt's strong hands as he poured her milk, noting how those hands were attached to equally strong arms, which in turn were attached to a good, solid chest, and for a brief moment, because she was crazy stressed, most likely, she imagined herself wrapped up in those arms, against that strong chest. And this wasn't even about sex-seriously, the very thought made her tired-but caring. Being cared about-
"You want something else?" he asked, and her eyes jerked to his.
"Your sandwich. You haven't touched it."
"Oh.sorry. No, this is fine, I'm just." About to cry. Great. "I'm almost too tired to eat."
"I can see that," he said, being kind again, dammit. "By the way, you can take Sabrina's room-"
"Mom? I'm done. C'n we go play with the dog?"
Matt chuckled. "Mutt thought you'd never ask. Here-" he handed Cooper the plastic plate with the mangled remains of Aislin's sandwich "-go on into the family room, back there," he said, pointing. "Make her sit first, though. She knows the drill."
Kids and dog gone, Kelly finally took a bite of her sandwich. "This is really good."
"You must be really hungry."
She almost smiled. "You use butter?"
"Mom would reach down from heaven and smack me if I didn't."
Kelly bit off another corner, washed it down with the best chocolate milk ever. "Your mom used to make grilledcheese sandwiches for Bree and me almost every day after school. You learned well."
Matt hesitated, then carted the griddle over to the sink. His back to her, he said, "Only thing my folks ever wanted was for any kid who set foot in this house to feel safe." He turned. "Making grilled-cheese sandwiches wasn't the only thing I learned well. So what's going on, Kelly?"
And there it was. She set down her milk glass, skimming her index finger over the damp rim before lifting her eyes to his. "Let me get the kids to bed first?"