Dealing with unexpected twists isn't new for Hailey Maddox. Despite everything, she's managed to create the perfect life for her daughter. Oh, except for one tiny thing. A ghost from the past in the form of JT McNulty, her first love. When he arrives to attend his mother's funeral, Hailey's not surprisedshe's terrified.
After fifteen years of avoiding the truth, she's got no choice but to come cleanto her daughter and to him. And Hailey still has feelings for this man who's literally too good to be true. Will JT ever forgive her for what she's done? Will she ever convince him she'd never hurt him? Well, not again, anyway.
About the Author
Ellen lives with her husband and sons in a college town in New York State. Visit Ellen on the web at www.ellenhartman.com
Read an Excerpt
Church, bar, church, bar, Statlerville was exactly the same as the last time JT had been here. But he was lost. How did a person get lost in their own hometown?
Move away and stay away for fifteen years. That's how he'd done it, anyway.
Now he was late, which was just perfect. He was only coming because his brother, Charlie, said he couldn't do this without him, and now JT wasn't going to make it in time. He glared at the empty expanse of dashboard. Of course his rental didn't have a GPSwhy use technology when you can keep right on making the same stupid mistakes forever?
He should never have agreed to this. But Charlie had asked him. JT rolled down his window and took a good look at the streets of Statlerville. Something would ring a bellshow him the way.
There. St. Pete's, his high school. His mom's funeral was being held at the Statlerville Volunteer Fire Department hall. Four minutes tops and he'd be there. Looked like he was going to be on time, after all.
Hailey was in the main treatment room at Viva, the rehabilitation and physical therapy center she ran, watching her first appointment of the day. Rita Temple, rehabbing after a hip replacement, finished her last set of lifts just as Hailey's cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She handed the checkout sheet to Rita as she opened the phone.
"Hailey?" It was Sarah Finley, her best friend, speaking in a barely audible whisper.
"Sarah, where are you? The opera?" She smiled.
"I'm at Melanie McNulty's funeral. Olivia's here." Sarah paused. "Hailey, she's sitting with the family."
Hailey stared blankly at the photo of Bing Crosby in White Christmas hanging in front of her on the wall of the treatment area. She couldn't make her brain process what Sarah had said.
Melanie McNulty had died three or four days ago; she'd missed a curve on Route 6 driving too fast in the dark. Hailey hadn't realized the funeral was today, but her daughter apparently not only knew about it, she'd decided to skip school to be there. With the family.
"I'm on my way," Hailey said before hanging up.
She asked the receptionist to reschedule her clients because of a family emergencywhich was so ironic she almost laughedand was putting the key in the ignition of her ancient Mustang convertible before she realized that she hadn't asked Sarah if JT was there.
But he wouldn't be, would he? He'd never come back. She'd heard he never even spoke to his parents on the phone.
He couldn't be there, because Olivia was, and that was bad enough but not unfixable. As long as JT wasn't there.
The funeral was already under way when she got to the hall. She had a clear view up the aisle at Olivia, who was wearing the navy sweater and kilt they'd bought for last Thanksgiving, the extra half inch of thigh between the hem and her knee a heartbreaking reminder of how fast her baby was growing up and out of childhood.
It was funny, Hailey thought a moment later, how she might not have recognized her daughter. Olivia's narrow back and tall-girl, teenage slouch looked unfamiliar only because she had one hand on the back of Jack McNulty's wheelchair.
Hailey's eyes moved next to the two tall, broad-shouldered men in dark suits standing next to Olivia. Charlie. And unmistakably JT.
JT McNulty was standing with Olivia. Olivia thought she was standing with her dad.
For one instant Hailey imagined hustling to the front and rushing her daughter out of there the same way she'd moved her away from the baboon cage during a kindergarten field trip to the Philadelphia zoo when the residents had begun a noisy round of monkey love. But she couldn't. Couldn't shelter her daughter from this now that Olivia was here. Couldn't pretend that her daughter hadn't lied and cut the last day of school to be here. Couldn't ignore the fact that Olivia was standing there with the McNultys just as if she belonged to them. As if they were part of her life even though, as far as Hailey knew, she'd never spoken to any of them.
JT McNulty had lived through a lot of jacked up drama in his thirty-two years. His parents had been reality TVThe Biggest Spectacle or maybe How Screwed Up is Your Family?before the concept was even invented.
This funeral was vintage McNulty, he thought. The twenty-four-page glossy booklet he'd found on his seat was closer to a Playbill than a funeral program, and he was wishing like hell he'd stayed in Pittsburgh. He should have sent a really nice flower display and called it a day.
Last he knew his family was Catholic. But this didn't resemble any church service he'd ever been to, and Father Jordan's pissy attitude back at the funeral home finally made sense. Charlie had told him his mom had planned her funeral a few years ago after she'd been in the hospital overnight with chest pain. Calhoun's Funeral Home had pulled out those notes and this spectacle was the result. Of course this service wouldn't have been allowed at St. Pete's. The huge, black-bordered photos of Melanie hanging on the side walls, the program, the original poetry substituted for prayersnone of that would have flown in the church.
It was theater, not a funeral. Which he supposed he should have expected. His mom had never lived in the same world as other people. Hers had been full of chaos, the one constant had been Melanie's place in the center of the spotlight. And there she was again in the spotlight, on the video screen this time, which currently displayed one of the large nude self-portraits she'd done his senior year of high school.
JT couldn't watch. Instead he elbowed Charlie in the side. His brother half turned to him impatiently. "What?"
"Who's the kid?" he whispered. The dark-haired girl standing on the other side of Charlie had hugged Jack and then slipped into the chair next to him as soon as they got here. At first he'd thought she was a nurse, but when he took a better look he realized she probably wasn't old enough to drive.
Charlie shook his head. JT couldn't tell if that meant "later" or "I don't know, either" but he let it go.
"And finally, a few words from Melanie," the funeral director said as he hit a button on the sound system.
His mom's smooth, rich voice rolled out, accompanied by more video footage, and JT was startled by an unwelcome sting in his eyes and at the back of his throat.
He was here for Charlie. Not for her. But watching the old pictures and home videos scroll by as her voice filled the hall, he missed her. It was weird as hell that she was giving her own eulogy. She hadn't ever been much of a mom. At times she'd been out-and-out awful. But she'd been his mom and she'd died and
And he'd left things a mess with her. Never tried to repair what had been ripped apart when his parents kicked him out. The screwed up, not too happy times they'd had were all they were ever going to have.
His dad made a sound deep in his throat and JT glanced over at him. Jack was a big man with a thick head of blond hair and he filled the wheelchair in a way that was awkward to see. JT had stumbled through greeting his dad that morning, unsure how to act around the man who'd dominated his childhood, but now seemed diminished.
Jack pursed his lips and JT had a moment of panic that he was going to see his old man cry. He swallowed and rolled the program tight in his fist. This was worse, way worse than anything he'd expected. He wasn't supposed to be getting upset about his mom or worried about his dad.
Then Jack cleared his throat and hocked a gob of spit a healthy distance out into the middle of the floor, close enough to the casket to make his intended target perfectly clear. The kid put her hand up to her mouth to cover her shocked gasp. Charlie was pretending so hard he hadn't noticed he was practically vibrating with the effort. JT clenched his jaw tight to keep from laughing. Perfect. His mom was driving his dad insane from the grave and the entire town of Statlerville was witness to the scene. Welcome home.
Hailey's stomach was queasy as she watched Olivia sneak peeks at JT. The expression on her daughter's face, hungry and excited and intense, was enough to tell Hailey exactly how much of a mistake she'd made. A good number of the other guests were watching JT and Olivia, too. Statler-ville wasn't exactly a small town, but it was small enough, and insulated, as many of the suburbs of Philadelphia were. Hailey had grown up here, knew most of these people, and of course they were curious about JT and Olivia. They all thought they were witnessing the reunion of a long lost dad and his daughter.
While Hailey was practically a carbon copy of her mother, Olivia hadn't inherited either the famous Maddox beauty or her real father's distinctive green eyes. She had Hailey's dark hair and wide brown eyes, but the way her features came together was all her own. Based on appearances, she could be JT's daughter as easily as that of almost any man in the room.
When the service ended, the funeral director wheeled the coffin out of the hall, JT and Charlie walking behind it. Olivia was just behind them, still with one hand on Jack's wheelchair. JT glanced at his brother and back at his father, but then stared straight ahead, not meeting the curious looks from anyone on either side of the aisle.
Hailey moved back from the doorway, tucking herself close to the wall. JT didn't notice her as he went past, following Charlie out into the sunlight.
When Olivia came through the door, Hailey reached for her wrist and pulled her close. Jack stopped his chair and watched them.
"Mom, let go."
"Stop it, Olivia," Hailey said.
"No, you stop it. You have to let me go." Olivia pulled backward, her eyes on the doorway through which JT had disappeared.
Hailey tightened her grip, conscious that other people were starting to file out of the hall. She leaned closer and said in a low voice, "No."
Olivia threw a glance over her shoulder, but Jack was now surrounded by other people and his sons hadn't come back inside. "I just want to see him," she said. "We didn't get to talk. He didn't even say hello." Olivia's brown eyes were full of hurt as they locked on Hailey's, looking, perhaps, for answers.
As her skin flushed first hot and then cold, she realized how serious her mistake was. What had she done to her girl? She'd never meant to hurt Olivia; she'd lied to try to avoid the hurt. All she'd wanted was to give her daughter what every other well-loved child had. But she'd messed up.
Before she could respond, JT was back, moving through the crowded entry toward his father. Olivia pulled her wrist free. Hailey barely registered the greetings from people she knew as she witnessed this first encounter between her daughter and JT.
He'd grown into his height, was more solid but still handsome. His dirty-blond hairchunky dark tones liberally streaked with lighter goldwas swept back off his forehead in a more contemporary version of the surfer-style mop she'd found so endearing when she used to watch him sleeping through English class. His lanky form had filled out, too. His suit jacket clung to his shoulders and stretched across his back, testament to lean muscle underneath.
Olivia stood frozen, her hands clamped on the sides of her skirt. Hailey reached the wheelchair at the same time as JT.
His eyes widened in surprise. "Hailey?" His voice was low and he hesitated over her name.
"I " She stopped. "I'm sorry about your mother."
"Thanks," he said without emotion. He barely seemed to see Olivia before he glanced down at his dad. "The car is waiting to take us to the cemetery." Before Hailey could think of anything else to say, he'd grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and was pushing Jack toward the door.
Olivia was standing perfectly still, clearly shattered. Hailey met her daughter's eyes before Olivia fled out the side door.
Hailey started after her, trying not to shove people, but using a little muscle. When she made it through the side door and onto the sidewalk, she saw Olivia waiting next to the Mustang. Hailey slowed her steps, closed her eyes and said a quick prayer of thanks.
Olivia was quiet in the seat next to her as they pulled out of the parking space and started down the street. Her face was bent forward, hidden by the curtain of dark hair.
At the first stop sign, she lifted her head slightly. "I just wanted to see him." Her voice was so whisper soft Hailey almost missed it. Tears prickled in Hailey's eyes.
"I understand," she said as she made the turn onto Main.
Olivia's shoulders hitched as she tried to hold back a sob. Hailey could no more have kept her distance than she could have juggled chainsaws. She reached awkwardly over the console and put an arm across Olivia's shoulders. Rubbing gently, she murmured, "I'm sorry."
It's my fault.
Olivia put her head back down, hugging her abdomen as she cried. "I wanted to see him. Because you don't talk about him and I never saw him except in your yearbook and I didn't know if I'd ever have a chance again."
"I know, baby," Hailey soothed. "I know."
"But I " Olivia stopped talking as another set of sobs shook her shoulders. "I couldn't say anything and why didn't why didn't he even say hello to me? I was right there and I couldn't say anything and he didn't even say hello."
Hailey closed her eyes. This was exactly what she'd wanted to avoid. This exact scene with her daughter reaching out to someone who didn't want her. Hailey couldn't believe the lie she'd told to avoid this was now the catalyst for it.