Read an Excerpt
Tony Herrera studied his four-year-old daughter, Lea, across the kitchen table as she nibbled on her peanut butter and jelly sandwich without enthusiasm. She hadn't touched her cup of chicken noodle soup and had only taken a few sips of her milk.
In the six weeks since she'd been returned to him, she'd barely eaten enough to keep body and soul together. It broke Tony's heart.
"Do you want a cookie, mija?" Tony asked as he gathered up the lunch dishes.
Lea shrugged. Tony chose to take that as a yes. Setting the dishes on the tile counter in the big country kitchen, he lifted the lid on the cookie jar. As he flipped back the big-eyed cat head on the jar, an electronic voice sang out, Three little kittens have lost their mittens
Lea's eyes brightened at the cheeky melody, her mouth curving into a faint smile. She took the chocolate chip cookie he offered her with a soft-spoken thank-you, then dipped it into her glass of milk.
Lea finding pleasure in anything, even a cookie, set off a mix of joy and pain inside him. He knew he had to be patient; as a former school psychologist, he understood better than most how long it might take Lea to recover from the trauma she'd endured. But it hurt so damn much seeing her suffer.
"Jana will be keeping an eye on you this afternoon," he reminded his daughter.
She nodded gravely. Lea liked Jana well enough. At twenty-three, his young assistant was barely older than the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old former foster children that his independent-living program served. But she kept an eagle eye on Lea when the little girl was in her charge.
While Tony and Lea ate their lunch, Jana had been conducting a preliminaryinterview with a potential new hire. After five previous candidates had proved to be a waste of his time, he'd gotten a clue and sent in Jana to vet the woman first. With her spiky blond hair striped with pink and myriad ear studs, Jana was far more representative of the independent program's students than Tony was. She'd never been a foster child herself, but she knew what it was like to turn eighteen with no skills and little education and have to find a way to support herself.
The applicant had to have the proper temperament to work with his initial group of six girls and two boys. The lives these former foster kids had led, their hard luck stories, had left many of them rough around the edges. There was no room in the program for someone who'd have a hissy fit over a few piercings or tattoos.
He picked up the woman's résumé from the kitchen table and scanned it again. Rebecca Tipton, from Los Angeles. A graduate of the California School of Culinary Arts' cordon bleu program. Pastry chef at some chichi four-star restaurant.
That had raised red flags when Tony had first read the woman's curriculum vitae. Why was she contemplating a move from sprawling Los Angeles to rural Northern California? Why abandon a high-profile position at a haute cuisine restaurant to teach former foster kids to bake apple pies at an isolated Sierra foothills ranch? What was Rebecca Tipton running away from?
Rebecca. Far too reminiscent of Becca, the name of his first love, his first wife. His initial irrational impulse when he'd read that name had been to eliminate the résumé from consideration. He'd had to force himself to replace it on the stack. Ridiculous to penalize a stranger for having the same first name as the woman who tore his heart out eleven years ago.
A knock on the kitchen door pulled him out of his brooding. Lea's wary gaze slid toward the door as she gripped her half-full glass of milk.
"It's just Jana, mija," Tony reassured her.
The solemn little girl watched as Tony crossed the kitchen and opened the door. Jana grinned up at him as she entered, but he saw the query in her brown eyes.
"Not too bad today," Tony told her softly. "She's a little quieter than usual."
"How's it going, sweetpea?" Jana said as she gave Lea a quick hug. Jana glanced over at Tony. "The lady's in your office."
"What do you think?"
"She's cool. Didn't so much as twitch at my hair or earrings. And Estelle likes her a lot."
As much as he valued Jana's opinion, Estelle Becken-stein's was the gold standard. His former foster mother had been a rock during his adolescence, a kind but firm disciplinarian who could sniff out a lie or a phony a mile away. If there was anything off-kilter about this applicant, Estelle would have sussed it out and sent her packing without wasting Tony's time with an interview.
He headed out the kitchen door, résumé in hand. As he strode toward his officea converted barn that had once housed goatsthe late July heat blasted him. It was bearable beneath the black oaks and ponderosa pines that dotted the side yard, but when he stepped into the sun's full glare, its intensity took his breath away.
When he first opened the door, the brilliance of the sunlight made it difficult to see in the relative dimness of his office. He could make out little more than the silhouette of a woman sitting with her back to him, her body more generous than Jana's tomboy physique, her hair shoulder length.
A chill trickled down his spine as he realized the woman bore a resemblance to his dead wife, Elena. In the shape of her body, the set of her shoulders, the length and color of her hair. He wondered if she would have the same chocolate-brown gaze.
Then, as his eyes adjusted to the light, she rose and turned toward him. The breath he'd regained in the coolness of his office vanished from his lungs as his gaze fell on that all-too familiar face.
It was Becca Stiles. The woman who had almost destroyed him.
Rebecca had anticipated a difficult reunion with Tony. She'd expected that storm cloud of anger in his face, the hardness in his usually soft brown eyes. As much as she wished otherwise, she'd come here knowing she might be escorted from the property the moment Tony realized that Rebecca Tipton was actually Becca Stiles.
But she hadn't been prepared for the heat that sizzled inside her, the throbbing low in her body. It had been more than eleven years since they'd last made love, since they'd been man and wife, but her body remembered his touch, his scent, every intimate word whispered in her ear.
His dark brown hair was shorter, but just as thick. His shoulders were broader, almost too wide for the Hawaiian shirt he wore, his arms more muscular. His hands were the same, blunt-fingered and strong, but like everything else about him, they spoke of power and competence. During their marriage, their lives had been filled with unknowns. Now it looked as if he'd found some answers.
As she gazed up at him, he leaned toward her, still angry but maybe pulled by the same memories. He almost reached for her; she could see his fingertips stretching toward her. Then he strode past her and put his desk between them.
"Sit," he said sharply, then bit out, "please."
Was he going to give her a hearing after all? Rebecca lowered herself back into the secondhand office chair.
"You remarried," he said.
"I hear you did as well."
Something dark flickered in his face. "I can't possibly offer you this position."
Rebecca dug in. "You know as well as I do that I'm perfect for the job."
"You're married. This is a live-in position, and I don't have accommodations for a couple."
A long, silent beat as he took that in. Then his gaze narrowed on her. "Estelle didn't say a word when she recommended you."
"You wouldn't have even considered me if you knew. Even if no one else with my qualifications has applied."
"I may have named the program after Estelle, but she isn't the one that hires and fires here. I am." His gaze fixed on her, his dark eyes opaque.
She shivered, blaming the chill fingering down her spine on the gust of cool air spit out by the window air conditioner. Wrapping her arms around herself in self-defense, she considered the arguments she'd prepared, knowing in advance she'd have to fight for this job.
But did she really want to? Maybe he was rightshe ought to return to her car. Head back down Highway 50, don those same imaginary blinders she'd worn on her way here as she passed the off-ramp to West Hills Cemetery. Take Interstate 5 south and drive back down to L.A.
Except what waited for her there was just more despair. In the two months since Rebecca's foster daughter, Vanessa, had been returned to her mother, Rebecca had been hollowed out with grief. One moment social services was dotting the i's and crossing the t's on Rebecca's adoption of Vanessa, the next they were calling to notify her that Vanessa's mother had regained custody. Now the five-year-old girl was lost to Rebecca forever. Just as her son was.
She had to at least plead her case with Tony. Hands linked in her lap, she tipped up her chin in challenge.
"You won't find anyone to match what I can offer. You know from my résumé I have impeccable credentials as a baker. I've volunteered teaching cooking classes for two years at a local Boys and Girls Club. And you know as well as I do that my understanding of what these kids have been through in the foster system isn't just academic."
She'd spent a year in foster care when her parents were badly injured in a freak accident and required extensive rehab to get back on their feet. Estelle had lavished loving care on the frightened nine-year-old that Rebecca had been, becoming a second mother to her in that short time.
Tony's hands curled around the arms of his chair, the skin over his knuckles taut. "You'dbe living here full-time. We'd be in each other's faces practically twenty-four/seven."
"It's been eleven years. We can put the past behind us."
"Some pasts shouldn't be forgotten."
That stung, although she probably deserved it. "I know I'd do a good job."
He almost seemed to consider it, then shook his head. "I have to think of the kids. They've all just been emancipated from foster care, and they're anxious enough about their futures. I can't increase their tension by adding you into the mix."
"Don't you think I deserve a chance?"
He shoved his chair back and pushed to his feet. "Damn it, Becca, these kids need some constancy in their lives. They need someone who will commit their heart and soul to them for the entire five months of the session. I can't let you get involved with them and then have you leave them in the lurch if the going gets tough."
He might as well have punched her in the gut. "I was nineteen years old, Tony. Young and confused. I'm not about to walk out on these kids the way I "
The way I walked out on you. The silent words seemed to echo in the small space. On their heels came the harsher indictmentThe way I walked away from our lost son.
He started past her, moving toward the door. Rising, she put her hand on his arm to stop him.
A mistake. Her palm fell on his biceps, just below where the wildly colored sleeve of his shirt ended. His skin was hot, the musculature under it rock hard. She yearned to move her hand along the length of his arm, from biceps to forearm to wrist, then lock her fingers in his.
His dark gaze burned into her, the visual connection sending a honeyed warmth through her. Her heart thundered in her ears, so loud she thought he must hear it, would know her self-control was slipping away.
Then he covered her hand with his. To break the contact, she thought, to get free of her. But his fingers lingered, his thumb stroking lightly across the back of her hand.
He pulled his hand back with a jolt, putting space between them at the same time. "You should go." His voice scraped across her nerves like rough silk.
She pulled in a long breath, willing her heart to steady. "I really want this job, Tony."
His gaze drilled into her. "Why?"
She barely understood the reasons herself. How could she communicate them to as hostile an audience as Tony?
She only knew that what once had seemed so important to herworking her way up the ranks in a four-star Los Angeles restaurant to become master patissiernow seemed like the most trivial of endeavors. Without Vanessa, Rebecca's home was filled with loneliness, a place to escape each day by going in to work at a job that no longer fulfilled her.
She tried to distill her turbulent thoughts down for Tony. "I want to feel as if I'm doing something important."
His jaw worked, tension in the motion. "So I should hire you so you can feel better about yourself?"
"You should hire me because I'm the best person for the job."
His expression grew cold. "The purpose of Estelle's House is to prepare those kids for life in the real world. You'll need to find another outlet to soothe your guilty conscience."
Even as she fought off the heavy weight of discouragement, she realized he was right. There were other opportunities out there she could follow up on, even some down in L.A. Why did it have to be here, with Tony? Because she wanted to be home again? Or because there were myriad unresolved issues between herself and her ex-husband?
He reached past her to open the door. Heat spilled inside, intruding on the coolness of the room. He waited, staring down at her.
She picked up her purse from beside the chair. "I've come all this way. Can I see the place before I go?" If she had more time with him, maybe she could persuade him to reconsider.
She could see he wanted to say no, but he gave her a brusque nod and gestured her outside. The afternoon sun had crept just past the towering pine tree beside Tony's office. The dappled light fell on a wrought-iron-and-wood park bench beneath the tree, giving an illusion of coolness. But in the growing warmth, even the short-sleeved knit dress she wore seemed stifling. This was brutal, San Fernando Valley-type heat, not the more temperate climate of West Los Angeles, where she rented her studio apartment.
Tony led her along a gravel pathway that wound between several structures. Overhanging oaks provided welcome shade. "This was once part of a two-thousand acre cattle ranch that's been subdivided over the years. Sam Harrison bought the eleven acres with the original ranch house and outbuildings as an investment. He leases the property to us for a modest fee."