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"I'll help, Mrs. Gibson," said Melanie Hollister as Skylar carried a bucket of soapy water to the eating area outside the hamburger stand.
"Me, too, Mom," Karin added.
Skylar hid a smile. "Thanks, but study comes first." She didn't have any illusions-the girls were doing their geometry homework. According to Karin they had a bunch of "dumb-ass postulates" to learn and an equally "lame-o" set of problems to solve. They'd do anything to get out of the assignment, even scrub dried ketchup from tables and benches.
Well Skylar looked at Melanie and changed her mind. The teenager was solemn, sincere and eager to please-she probably did want to help. She was a junior and high schoolers could be cruel to younger students, yet the two girls had formed a close bond since Melanie's arrival in Cooperton, despite their age difference. Melanie had turned sixteen in August, and Karin would soon be fourteen, but they were in several classes together because Karin was in an accelerated program, a year ahead of her classmates, while her new friend had fallen behind from having moved around so often.
If Melanie hadn't been a Hollister, Skylar would have been pleased they were friends. Thinking of which, a black Mercedes glided to a stop in front of the hamburger stand. It gleamed, without a speck of dirt daring to mar its perfection-a sharp contrast to her old pickup truck. She couldn't remember the last time it had been washed probably before her husband's accident.
Actually, she knew exactly the last time it had been washed and waxed the day Jimmie had died. He'd waxed both of their trucks that morning. The deep stab of loss was duller now, but it still hurt that he was gone. They were supposed to grow old together, and for months the sorrow and unfairness of it had kept her awake at night. The grief counselor had insisted it was anger at Jimmie for dying. Okay, maybe she was a little angry for a while, but it hadn't lasted. Mostly she was angry with the driver of that 18-wheeler for running a stop sign, not her husband for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The gloomy voice broke into Skylar's dark thoughts. The girls were looking apprehensively at the Mercedes.
Aaron Andrew Hollister, or "Randy Andy" as he was sometimes called in high school, climbed out with a frown. "Melanie, I thought you were studying at the library this afternoon."
"We went already." She pointed to the pile of books next to her. "And Karin has some of mine in her bag 'cause there were more than I could carry. Don't worry. Mrs. Gibson is taking me home. It won't be long because we don't want to miss the baseball game."
"You already went to the library? School only let out an hour ago." His tone strongly suggested that she hadn't told the truth in the first place. "Your mother wants you to do better in your classes. She hopes your stay in California will make a difference, and you can catch up."
"Yeah. She always says stuff like that when she dumps me somewhere." The teen bit her lip, and Skylar could see the resentment in her eyes. The kid had been left with her half brother while her mother was off traveling the world with her second husband, or whatever it was the indolent rich did with their time.
"You weren't dumped here." Aaron's protest rang hollow. By all accounts, Melanie had lived with a dozen or more different relatives and friends of her mother, rarely finishing the year in the same school. That's how the Hollisters approached childrearing- as if it was someone else's responsibility. But leaving her with Aaron? Oh, puleeze. That was scraping the bottom of the barrel.
"I don't care what you call it," Melanie muttered. It hadn't taken long for her to transform into a sullen teenager with a chip on her shoulder. "You didn't want to come here, either."
His expression froze. "Our situations aren't the same."
Skylar perked up her ears. Aaron hadn't wanted to come back to Cooperton? That wouldn't surprise her; he used to be contemptuous of small towns and the people in them. Unfortunately for Aaron, his job at Cooper Industries was an inherited responsibility. He was the only Cooper grandchild-his mother, Celina Cooper Morgan, hadn't had more children after her divorce from S. S. Hollister, so Aaron was always expected to take over one day.
That was something Skylar didn't want for Karin. Granted, the Gibson Nibble Nook wasn't a huge company like Cooper Industries, but her daughter would have choices that didn't require slicing onions and flipping hamburgers. It wasn't a legacy; they could sell the place when the time came.
Melanie closed her geometry book with a snap. "I know you hate being here, Aaron. I heard you tell-"
"Melanie, we don't air our private business in front of strangers," he interrupted.
Skylar wanted to smack him. They were far from strangers. As much as she'd like to forget sleeping with Aaron over fourteen years ago, she couldn't. And if that wasn't enough, he'd bragged to his buddies about nailing her. After that, every guy in school thought she was an easy target. She'd already had a bad reputation, but it hit rock bottom when Aaron opened his big mouth.
Funny, she'd given Aaron little conscious thought in years, but now that Melanie was friends with Karin, she was getting daily reminders.
"They're just studying," Skylar said, trying to stay calm.
Fair was fair. Melanie was doing her geometry homework, not joyriding. Besides, the hamburger stand was only open for breakfast and lunch. The Nibble Nook intentionally closed at the same time the high school let out for the day; otherwise they could have a crowd of teenagers until late every afternoon. Still, she couldn't deny that a few farmworkers and other customers often arrived near closing and lingered over their meals.
She and Jimmie had discussed keeping the Nook open longer, but this way they'd had a better family life. It was the same decision his parents had made when they were running both the Nibble Nook and the Nibble Nook Too in Trident, where Skylar had gone to get a job when she'd learned she was pregnant. She sure couldn't have hung around Cooperton, where people knew her; it was hard enough returning as a married woman.
Aaron shot Skylar a cool look.
He'd been attractive in high school with his dark brown hair and eyes. Now he was downright gorgeous. Luckily she was immune-she knew his handsome exterior concealed a jackass of major proportions. And in the four months since he'd taken over as the managing CEO of Cooper Industries, his employees were discovering what she'd learned as a stupid, reckless seventeen-year-old.
The employees disliked Aaron intensely-he treated them as potential criminals, the company cafeteria prices had tripled and the shortened lunch break wasn't long enough to let them drive farther than the Nibble Nook for an inexpensive meal.
"Whether they're studying or not isn't the issue. And I'll handle my own problems, if you don't mind," he growled.
Then stop handling them badly, she wanted to add, except antagonizing him wouldn't be good for Melanie or Karin. She'd tried to remember that whenever he'd "visited" the Nibble Nook over the past several weeks.
A vision of Aaron's face the first day he'd shown up at the Nibble Nook rose in Skylar's mind, and she almost laughed; the Trident Hell Raisers had been there. They were a harmless group of retirees who'd formed a motorcycle club. Jimmie's uncle Fred belonged, and they came over once a week to talk, drink coffee and try to look like tough, seasoned road warriors in a defiant "FU" to lost youth.
So, in drove Aaron Hollister in his shiny black Mercedes and expensive suit, horrified to see his sister surrounded by a motorcycle gang. He hadn't asked questions, just rushed Melanie away so abruptly she'd forgotten her book bag. Skylar supposed she might have been concerned if their places were reversed, but really, the Trident Hell Raisers were retired accountants, doctors and firemen. Uncle Fred had irreverently nicknamed them the Bunion and Hemorrhoids Brigade.
Skylar could have reassured Aaron, but he was so damned obstinate and suspicious, he probably wouldn't have believed her, anyhow. And he'd just argue that other bikers ate at the Nibble Nook, too. It was true enough, but they'd never caused trouble.
"We did go to the library," Karin announced. "Mel-lie checked out a ton of books on President Lincoln for her history paper."
"I didn't ask you, young lady."
Skylar's temper flared at the stuffy censure in Aaron's voice. He had a lot of nerve.
"Thank you, Karin," she said, managing to keep her voice level. "Why don't you and Melanie go get milk and apples for another snack? I moved the organic fruit to the left side of the fridge in the back storeroom."
The teens exchanged glances.
"Uh, okay, Mom," Karin agreed, apparently deciding not to attempt her usual argument in favor of chips and soda.
Once her daughter and Melanie disappeared into the Nibble Nook, Skylar rounded on Aaron, throwing caution to the wind. "If you're upset that Melanie is coming here to study, then say so," she hissed. "Don't take it out on my kid. You implied that your sister lied about going to the library-Karin was just sticking up for her friend."
Aaron directed his intent gaze at her. "She was impertinent."
"Impertinent?" Skylar rolled her eyes. "La-di-dah, aren't we being high-and-mighty? Karin was only impertinent if you're a seventeenth-century land baron lording it over a peasant. Give me a break. This is the twenty-first century, and I own this property. If Karin had been rude, I'd be the first to chew her out."
He clenched his jaw. "I didn't accuse Melanie of lying, but she does have a history."
"Who told you that-other relatives who wanted an excuse to ship her back to her mother? You might check the facts before making assumptions." Skylar marched to the stack of books and opened one to the library's date stamp. "See? The return date is two weeks from today. That's the standard loan period for the Cooperton Public Library."
"You knew that because you already looked."
She slammed the book onto the table. "No, I didn't. Karin isn't an angel, but she's a good kid and usually tells the truth. I'm betting Melanie is the same. I'm also betting that I've spent more time with your sister than you have since she got to Cooperton."
"That's outrageous. She lives with me."
"Oh?" Skylar planted her hands on her hips. "You mean you eat dinner together every night? You check her homework? You go out to movies or take her for pizza? Do you even know what pizza she likes?"
A dull red flush crept up Aaron's neck. "I'm hoping to spend more time with Melanie, but things have been hectic at the office. It's critical to have a smooth transition from my grandfather's leadership at Cooper Industries to my own. I was returning from a meeting when I saw she was here. But if I hadn't seen her, I would have called to be sure she got home okay."
"Or your executive assistant would have called. Her name is Peggy, right? I've heard Melanie say her name when they're on the phone. That's child care by proxy."
She dunked her scrub brush into the bucket of sudsy water and slapped it on one of the tables. Aaron scowled and stepped back to avoid getting splashed. Good. His size didn't intimidate her, but she didn't enjoy being that close to an obnoxious jerk. Lord, he'd always had a gift for making her angry. Even on their few teenage dates they'd fought more than they kissed.
"I'm not delegating Melanie's care," he growled. "Peggy has experience from raising her own children and recommended a quick status check with Melanie after school, which she takes care of when I have other commitments. There's nothing wrong with accepting her help."
Skylar practically snorted. She finished scrubbing the brightly painted aluminum picnic table and hosed it down before starting on the next. Her workday didn't stop for spoiled rich guys wearing pricey suits and fine Italian shoes. At least she assumed they were Italian; Aaron probably thought he was too good for regular American-made products.
She swept the remains of a French fry order into the trash. Cooper Industry employees weren't tidy customers; they ate on the run because their pay was docked double if they weren't back on time. That was another one of Aaron's unpopular new policies. Honestly, they could barely get out of the company's large parking lots in half an hour. Since he'd taken over management, the Nibble Nook's profits, while consistently respectable, had skyrocketed. They were located just outside the main gate, provided easy access to and from the road and could handle a feeding frenzy during the staggered factory meal breaks.
"Peggy must fill in a lot," she said after a moment. "I understand one of your commitments included a date with a former winner of the Miss California beauty pageant. In Sacramento. Did you get home at all that night?"
"Not that it's your business, but that was before Melanie arrived. And I didn't realize you were monitoring my social life."
Skylar rubbed unnecessarily hard on a smear of dried mustard. If only it was Aaron's nose.
"Don't flatter yourself, Hollister. Gossip in Cooperton is like ivy and blackberry briars, it's everywhere. You can't get away from it."
He crossed his arms. "Maybe you should try harder."
"Maybe you should remember how impressionable teenagers are."
"Oh, right, you're a fine one to talk, Skylar." She stared, wondering how he had the gall to say any such thing. "As I recall, you're the one who did the talking."
He had the grace to look uncomfortable, or perhaps it was her imagination. She had to wonder how much did he remember about the past? Was she just one of many girls who'd foolishly succumbed to his questionable charm and good looks? If so, she probably was a stranger. Who knew how many of them he'd discarded like yesterday's newspaper.
It was reassuring in a way; she didn't actually want him remembering too much.