One glance at the hot firefighter who responds to a misguided 911 call and Penelope Denning knows she's out of her depth. Leo Montesano is a charmer with an exciting career. She's an accountant focused on getting her son through his teenage years. Yet Leo is definitely pursuing her. How can she possibly resist?
As the attraction between them ignites, Penelope discovers a wild side she never knew. The passion makes her think about a future beyond this affair until her real life interrupts. And when she's convinced she must choose her son over romance, Leo does something she never expects!
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Penelope Denning glanced behind her, left, then right, then left again. Still alone. She was safe.
Shaking her hips to the Fray's latest song, which streamed from her laptop, she danced from the pantry to the center island and set down the bottle of olive oil. She wiggled her shoulders and moved side to side to the beat, the tile floor cool under her bare feet. At the catchy chorus, she sang along under her breath.
And Andrew said she couldn't sing. She may not be in Beyonce's league, but Penelope could hold her own against the likes of a few of those American Idol finalists. She was definitely good enough for the church choir, no matter what her son said. It wasn't as if she'd have to stand in front of the entire congregation under a spotlight, performing solo and, no doubt, sweating and nauseous. She'd be a part of the group.
She sang louder. She'd finally be a part of something. Would have a place where she belonged. Maybe she should audition for the choir.
Unless Andrew was right. In which case she'd simply make a fool of her
Something creaked. Penelope froze, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck standing on end, the tune dying in her throat.
She turned, her chest tight with trepidation. Only to exhale heavily to find the room still empty.
Oh, thank goodness.
She was being paranoid, that was all. But she stopped shimmying and two-stepping. Sang silently with only her foot tapping.
No sense tempting fate. If Andrew caught her dancing around the kitchen, he'd undoubtedly give her one of the smirks he'd perfected over the past two years. Then flay her with some sarcastic comment, one meant to hurt her. To anger her.
She hated to admit how often he was successful.
But not today, she assured herself, layering circles of fresh mozzarella and thick slices of tomato on a rectangular white plate. Today there would be no drama. No arguing. None of the angst, heartache or soul-crushing doubts that came with raising a teenager.
All she wanted was one day where she and her son weren't at each other's throats. Where they spent time togetherin the same roomconversing and, perhaps, even laughing a few times. One measly day where she wasn't the bad guy who'd ruined his life.
And he wasn't an ungrateful, mouthy brat.
Surely that wasn't too much to ask for.
She checked the caprese salad with a critical eye. Gently patted the tomato and cheese slices together so they lined up perfectlytwo neat rows alternating white and red, each layer set exactly halfway on top of the one before it. Exactly. She wiped her hands on a clean towel, then drizzled a thin stream of olive oil over the dish.
The midday sun shone brightly through the dining room's huge windows, illuminating the dust mites dancing in the air. One reason she'd bought the house, a midsize Victorian that had been remodeled, was the open floor plan. The entire first floor flowed, from one room to the otherfoyer to living room, living room to dining room, and dining room to kitchen. She liked the sense of roominess. Of freedom.
After spending too much of her life cooped up in hospital rooms, waiting rooms and doctors' offices, all she wanted was space. Space to stretch out. To move around.
Space to breathe.
A warm end-of-summer breeze ruffled the lacy curtain adorning the window above the sink and brushed against the back of her neck. Shutting her eyes, she inhaled deeply. Held it, just held it in her lungs, the clean scent of the fresh air, the pungent aroma of olives and basil. Feeling this satisfied, this content, was all too rare. At least, it had been rare for her.
Might as well soak it in while it lasted.
She exhaledmainly because she had no other choice, not if she wanted to keep living. She tore the top off the small bunch of basil on the cutting board, rolled the leaves up and began slicing. That sense of peace and contentment was fleeting. Life was too fluid. Always changing, always shifting, moment to moment, milestone to milestone.
She couldn't do anything about those shifts taking her in new directions, those moments fading into the past, the milestones passing.
It was so annoying.
But what she could do was control how she responded to being set off course. She'd moved to Shady Grove to give her and Andrew a fresh start. It'd taken a whilegoing on eight monthsbut they'd finally settled in this small town so far away from everything they'd known. Everyone they'd known.
A fact Andrew never let her forget.
It hadn't been an easy transition. There had even been times when she'd considered giving up and moving back to California.
If only to stop her son's complaining.
In the end, she'd held firm and, more important, had stood by her decisions. Hooray for her. Hand over that shiny gold star, because she'd persevered against Andrew's miserable attitude and constant griping.
This parenthood thing wasn't for sissies, that was for sure.
She did her best to keep her son safe and healthy. Made sure they commemorated his milestones, no matter how small or insignificant, from getting his braces off to his voice cracking before it deepened to passing his driver's test. Every stage of childhood, every rite of passage of adolescence, was cause for celebration.
For too long she'd worried he'd never get
She glanced up, just to make sure the weights Andrew was liftingand dropping with such careless abandondidn't crash through the ceiling onto her head.
There was more clanging followed by a loud thump, which had her praying he hadn't dinged the hardwood flooring.
Pressing her lips together, she carried the salad to the fridge and tucked it alongside the heaping bowl of fresh-cut fruit. She wouldn't worry about the floor. She'd ignore the fact that she'd told him, at least one hundred times, not to drop his weights.
How hard could it be to set the dumb things down gently?
That was what her life had come to. Ignoring the parts she couldn't control, couldn't fix. Andrew constantly texting, even during dinner. His spending most of his time in his bedroom. How he took three showers a dayand there was no way she was even going to think about why, or what he was doing in there for so long. His new fixation with lifting weights and gettingas she'd overheard him tell one of his friendscut, when he should be focusing on his schoolwork.
And, of course, his surliness, rudeness and out-and-out bad attitude.
The joys of motherhood. Someone should have warned her about this.
Not that she'd change anything, she assured herself quickly, kneeling to retrieve her favorite serving platter from a lower cupboard. Her son was going through a stage. A two-year-long stage that seemed to have no end in sight.
But that was all right. She could handle it. Andrew was fine. Not quite happy, but that would come in time. There were more important things than happiness. Security. Safety.
He was healthy and that was most import
She reared up, whapping the top of her head against the counter. Her vision blurred and tears filled her eyes. She fell onto her butt with a thud. Rubbed the spot and prayed like mad those tiny stars circling her head weren't real.
When the dizziness passed, she gingerly climbed to her feet. She wouldn't yell, she thought, as she carefully climbed the narrow staircase leading from the kitchen to the second floor. She'd approach him calmly. Rationally. Explain why he needed to be more careful.
She knocked on his door. Behind it metal clanged. He grunted in exertion. It sounded like torture.
"Andrew?" she called, knocking again, making sure to keep her tone friendly and pleasant, as if she wasn't sporting a possible concussion due to his negligence. "Honey, could you open the door?"
Nothing. Her eyes narrowed. She widened them, blinked a few times. No. She wasn't going to get upset. Wasn't going to jump to conclusions. For all she knew, he hadn't heard her.
His next doctor's appointment, though, she would make sure his hearing was checked.
Using the side of her fist, she pounded on the wood. "Andrew!"
No matter how hard she glared at the door, it remained shut.
She tried the handle. Locked. She jiggled it, frustration building. Still locked.
There was only one thing to do, one surefire way to get his attention. She pulled her cell phone from her shorts pocket and sent him a text.
Open the door. Now.
Andrew could, and often did, ignore her. Her insights and opinions, her attempts at civil conversation and questions about his thoughts, his feelings.
But he never ignored his phone.
A moment later, the door opened and her sonher sweaty, disheveled son, the child who used to look up to her with such adoration in his eyesscowled down at her. Yes, down at her because, thanks to a growth spurt last year, he now towered over her by a good six inches.
He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. "What?"
Her mouth tightened. Her head pounded. Then again, dealing with her son usually left her with a headache, pondering where she'd gone wrong.
"Take out your earbuds," she said slowly, overenunciating each word in case he'd suddenly learned how to read lips.
His frown deepened. "What?" he shouted.
She jabbed her fingers at her own ears, mimed pulling something out.
With an eye roll, he pulled the earbud from his left ear. Half his attention was better than nothing at this point. "What do you want?"
Her entire body stiffened. She wouldn't lose her cool. She would not lose her
Oh, who was she kidding?
"The first thing I want," she said in a mom voice guaranteed to let him know he was messing with no ordinary mortal, "is for you to speak to me civilly and politely."
Another eye roll.
How on earth had her well-behaved, sweet boy turned into this this closing-in-on-six-foot, shaggy-haired, sarcastic, ill-mannered man-child?
And what did she have to do to get the old kid back?
"Really?" she asked, crossing her arms. "No apology?"
He turned, walked to the weight bench in the corner, laid back, and started pumping a barbell up and down. Up and down.
Stubbornness was just one of the new, and many, unattractive traits he'd acquired and perfected since puberty hit him full force.
She stepped into his room and wrinkled her nose at the scents of stale sweat, dirty socks and only God knew what else. Maybe it was a good thing he kept the door shut all the time.
Holding her breath, she crossed to the window, stepping over a pile of clothes she knew darn well had been clean and neatly folded two hours ago. Mainly because she was the one who'd washed, dried and folded them.
She opened the window. "I guess you've had enough of your phone privileges then."
Privileges he'd just gotten back after she'd shut off his account for the past two weeks thanks to his smart mouth.
Some days she felt more like a parole officer than a mother.
He set the weights on the support bar with a clang, his face flushed, either from exertion or irritation.
Heaven forbid he actually be embarrassed or ashamed of his behavior.
"Sorry," he muttered, already moving on to bicep curls, his elbow resting on his knee as he pumped the weight with slow, deliberate movements.
She smiled. A small, forgiving smile, though his apology was halfhearted at best. Forgive and forgether life motto.
"It's okay," she said, but he kept his head lowered, eyebrows drawn together in concentration, lips moving as he counted his repetitions.
He'd changed, and more than his personality. The raging hormones she blamed for his bad attitude had also broadened his shoulders, deepened his voice. His face, a blending of her features and those of his father's, had lost its roundness. His hair was darkernearer in shade to her own than the sandy-blond he'd had as a grade-schoolerand badly in need of a trim. He was a tall, darkly handsome, soon-to-be-cut young man.
God save her when the teenage girls started coming around in earnest.
She picked up three clean shirts and carried them to his closet. "Why don't you jump in the shower?" she asked, shaking the wrinkles out of the first shirt before placing it on a hanger. "I'm about to put the burgers on the grill so we can eat in half an hour."
"I'm not hungry," Andrew said, sweat sliding from his hairline down the side of his forehead.