Being a single mother and successful florist is tough, especially when your new next-door neighbor is the man who shattered your heart. Eight years ago, bad boy James Bracken walked away from Adrian Carlton and their unborn child. Now he's back. And Adrian's desire to protect her son from the truth of his biological father isn't enough to hide the wild blue eyes of father and son, or to keep Adrian from surrendering to the raw passion between her and James. But is he truly the changed man he claims to be? Maybe this time his rebel heart really is home to stay.
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Spring had gone to the birds, and Adrian didn't mind so much that it had. She encouraged them, setting up bird feeders and birdbaths all around the backyard of her Fairhope cottage. With the weather warming into late March, it allowed for her to open the windows of the house and let the spring breeze waft through the screens. The scents of fresh-cut grass, potting soil and early annuals, as well as the sound of birdsong drifted through the cottage with it.
The squirrels, however, thought the bird food was theirs for the taking.
"I don't think so," Adrian muttered as she watched one such offendera big vermin with a beer bellycreep down to a bird feeder from one of the overlarge oak trees surrounding the yard. She stood up from the nook table and, using one of the chairs, grabbed her son's BB gun from the top of the cabinets where she'd hidden it.
She crouched next to the half door that led out onto her small patio with the pretty terra-cotta tiles she'd laid herself. Leveling the gun on top of the half door, she closed one eye and sighted it. "I see you," she said, and felt for the trigger. "Mom!"
Adrian jumped a mile high and shrieked. The sound and movement startled Nutsy the Squirrel and he lit off up the tree, chattering angrily at the spoiled opportunity.
Adrian fought back a curse and stood, raking a hand through her short crop of red hair. "Kyle," she said in as normal a voice as she could manage.
Kyle narrowed his eyes. They were a wild shade of Scandinavian blue. Right now they were scrutinizing her as they scanned the weapon and her long, white nightgown. "Were you shooting squirrels again?"
Adrian cleared her throat. "I was just going to pop one in the butt. Teach him a lesson." When Kyle rolled his eyes, she drew her shoulders back, searching for some dignity. "He was stealing birdseed." Then she waved a dismissive hand. She didn't have to explain herself, no matter how ridiculous she felt in the face of his seven-year-old derision.
"Mom." Kyle sighed. "Please stop doing that. It's embarrassing."
Adrian raised a brow and felt the corners of her mouth twitch. "Oh, is it, huh?"
"Yeah," Kyle said, and scrubbed the backs of his first two fingers over his mouth. It was an endearing habit he'd had since his toddling years. "What's for breakfast?"
"There's some cereal in the pantry," she told him, and waited until he went inside before crawling back up on the chair and replacing the gun on top of the cabinets, out of his reach. Then she got down, carried the chair back to the table and met him at the refrigerator. "Orange juice?" she asked.
"Sure," he said, and took a seat at the table, pouring Cap'n Crunch into a bowl. Adrian topped the cereal with milk, then fixed him a glass of juice.
"Did you know there's a moving van next door?" Kyle asked.
Adrian stopped in the midst of pouring herself a second helping of coffee. "What?"
Kyle craned his neck to look out the bay window over the nook table. "Somebody must be moving in."
The house next door had been for sale for well over six months. The previous owners had left it in a state of complete and utter disarray, so much so that everyone on the street had begun to resent the overgrown property. Adrian leaned over the table, placing a hand on Kyle's dark, tousled head, and peered across her trim, perfectly kept yard into the next.
The grass of the adjacent property had grown as tall as reeds. The mailbox was hanging loose on its stand, the driveway was cracked and mottled and the detached garage was even beginning to fall in. The roof of the house was carpeted in dead leaves and strewn with naked oak branches. The screen door of the front porch had been torn. Adrian was surprised to see the For Sale sign gone and an oversize moving truck parked at the curb, butted up against a sleek, black sportster.
"Somebody finally bought it," Adrian muttered with an unbelieving shake of her head. "I thought they were gonna have to tear it down, the state it's in."
"Maybe they've got kids," Kyle said, eyes widening at the possibility. He watched more closely, nose nearly pressed to the glass now, as the movers milled from truck to house with boxes of varying sizes. "Do you see any toys, Mom?"
Adrian, too, watched for a moment, then frowned, dropping back to her heels and straightening. She wondered how many other neighbors were rubbernecking this morning to get a gander at the street's newest addition. And while, for the most part, rubbernecking was a harmless sport, Adrian knew all too well what it felt like to be the victim of it. "Eat your breakfast," she said with a pat on Kyle's shoulder.
"It'd be really cool if there was a guy my age moving in." Kyle considered as he pushed his cereal around with his spoon, no longer paying Cap'n Crunch much mind. "Then Blaze and I can play two-on-two when Gavin visits in a few weeks."
"What if they have a girl?" Adrian asked coyly, glancing sideways from the counter just in time to see Kyle wrinkle his nose.
The kid positively moped at the idea. "I guess that would be all right, too."
Adrian chuckled. Kyle was firmly entrenched in the cootie phase. "It wouldn't be so bad. You like Harmony, don't you?"
"Harmony's a baby," Kyle told her, referring to their family friends the Savitts' little girl. "Real girls are mean."
Adrian hid a snort in her coffee. "Just concentrate on eating. We've got to get you to school, mister."
"Hey, maybe we could send them something to eat," Kyle suggested, still gazing out at the movers.
"Something to eat?" she asked, brow creased.
"Yeah. Like how we sent the Millers one of Briar's pies when they moved in. Blaze said it was real good. That's how we got to be such good friends."
Adrian smiled as she watched her son's mind work. With a small business to run and being a single parent, her days were so full she had hardly a moment to stop and breathe. But sometimes when she looked at Kyle her heart ached with how much she loved him and at how fast he had grown. "Good idea. I'll talk to Briar this afternoon."
Kyle finally turned his head and grinned at her.
In the light spilling in from the open windows around the room, those wild blue eyes shone like stars and the dark freckles across his nose contrasted with his cheeks. "Thanks, Mom."
She walked to him and touched a kiss to his brow, brushing back the dark hair that was growing over his forehead at a rapid rate. "Take your bowl to the sink. Then get dressed quickly. You don't want to be late."
As Kyle slipped by her, Adrian stole one last glance at the house next door. The movers were hauling in what looked like weights and power tools. She frowned at the license plate of the sportster. Out of state, from the looks of it. Though the tall grass was obscuring her view.
She just hoped whoever was moving in got the old eyesore looking somewhat decent again. How they would manage it all, she had no idea.
Only an idiot would buy a house that run-down. Or somebody with some serious ambition. Hoping for the latter, she turned from the windows and went to help Kyle get ready for the day.
James Bracken frowned at the cards in his hand. Pocket jacks. He'd always had a knack for knowing what cards were going to show up on the table as well as for reading the people who challenged him to Texas Hold 'Em. Those fine-tuned senses told him that despite the nice, round pile of poker chips between them, his opponent, a scrawny man in a near-to-threadbare work shirt torn at the shoulder, was bluffing.
Scanning the man closely, James wondered when the last time the mover had had a good steak dinner. Not the lean kind of steak. A big, juicy, porterhouse number with fat trimming the edges. He couldn't have been older than thirty but judging by the deep furrows in his brow and his receding hairline, things like luck and plenty had never been on his side.
After leaving home just shy of eighteen, James had found that the former came far more easily to him than most. For eight years, it had brought him a great deal of the latter. Which was why when the dealer, another mover, this one heavy-set around the middle and sweating like a pig in the unaired rooms of James's new house, flicked the river card onto the table, James took pity on his less fortunate opponent.
Ignoring those smiling pocket jacks, he dropped them facedown onto the siding board laid across two sawhorses to make a makeshift poker table and cursed under his breath. "Nothin'," he muttered as hope lit in his opponent's eyes. Reaching for the bottle of water that was sweating as much as their dealer, James lifted a shoulder and leaned back in one of the creaky beach chairs he'd found folded against the wall of the sorry excuse for a two-car garage. "Goddamn, Ripley. The cards love you."
The dealerDenning was his name, as James had gathered over the course of the busy morningbarked out a knowing laugh. "Bull. Nothing's ever loved Ripley. Least of all Texas Hold 'Em." He reached over to slap Ripley on the shoulder. "Ain't that right, son?"
Ripley was still blinking in disbelief at the poker chips. He'd gone all-in before he realized he was drawing dead. Carefully setting his cards down, he splayed them on the table and looked up at James. "Denning's right. I was bluffing the whole time."
James stared down at the two and the eight. Just as he'd thought. "Hell of a poker face you got there." It was a lie. James had spotted Ripley's tell half an hour ago when the lower lid of his left eye twitched after the man wound up with trip nines. It had been his one well-played hand of the game. Ignoring Denning's answering snort, James pushed the chip pile toward Ripley. "Go on. Count your spoils. I need some air."
Ripley's hand paused before it reached for the pot. "You're gonna finish the game, right?"
James hid a smile by turning to the long line of windows and sliding doors that led out onto the wide deck. This was the reason he'd bought the house. Something about all that glasssmudged and dirty as all get-out at the momentand that yawning view of the sunbaked deck and the pool and yard beyond it had called to him.
James had always been a sucker for a lost cause. The fact that he'd snatched up this dilapidated house only a short walk from Mobile Bay where he'd grown up was indisputable proof of that. "Sure, I'll finish the gameafter we've got all the furniture in." As nice as the companionship he'd found in Ripley, Denning and the other movers was, James was eager to get a move onto get started making things right here in Fairhope where he'd left his past and all the ghosts that had chased him away.
The past that had haunted him for eight long years. The past that he'd realized he was desperate to finally make right.
A knock on the door echoed from the entry-way and James smoothed over the scowl he saw reflected in the dirty window. Turning back to the others, he said, "That'll be the pizza. Let's eat, boys."
The pie was cherry and it was still warm. With Kyle's hope for a new neighborhood friend in mind, Adrian had procured it during that morning's visit to Hanna's Inn where her friend, innkeeper and adept cook and baker, Briar Savitt, lived and worked alongside her husband, Cole. It wasn't out of Adrian's way at all. She owned Flora, the flower shop on the street side of the building next door to Hanna's, a building that also housed their mutual friend Roxie Levy's bridal boutique, Belle Brides, and Briar's cousin and Adrian's high school friend, Olivia Leighton's bar, Tavern of the Graces, on the bay side.
As luck would have it the midday lull at the flower shop allowed Adrian to slip back to her cottage a few blocks away. Kyle would need his soccer gear for his practice that afternoon anyway, so she'd be saving herself a trip later if she left her assistant, Penny, in charge of the shop and picked up the duffel bag now, in addition to dropping off the pie.
The day was downright gorgeousit made the gloom of winter feel far away. As Adrian walked from Flora down the sidewalk along the bay toward home, she watched sunlight kiss the water's small crests with golden light. The breeze lifted the bangs off her brow. Over the delicious aroma of cherry pie were strong currents of salt and magnolia leaves. Without sunglasses, she had to squint to see the shadow of silver spires and cranes on the western horizon that marked the opposite shore and the port city of Mobile.
She turned onto the street where she had lived since she left her ex-husband in a hurry years ago while Kyle was still a toddler. The trees on either side of the street grew thickly, merging overhead. Shade gathered around her, sunlight choked out by leaves and heavy waves of Spanish moss. She climbed the hill to the cottage, waving to the few neighbors who were out and about.
She hoped her son didn't have too many memories of those disastrous years she'd spent with Radley Kennard. The man's presence still lurked like a towering wraith at the edge of her consciousness. Run-ins with him had been fewer and farther between as the years passed, mostly thanks to the restraining order she'd filed against him and the fact that her friend Olivia and her husband, Gerald, had given him a non-too-friendly warning the last time Radley had come calling months ago.
Nevertheless, Adrian never forgot he was around. She'd spent many sleepless nights worrying he might show up, drunk and pounding at her door again. Or that he might realize the one thing that would be most devastating to herlosing Kyle.
Adrian shuddered and was thankful when she broke into a patch of warm sunlight again. Dodging around the big moving van and the sportster at the house next door, she slowed. Checking that no one was around, she did a quick perusal of the vehicle. North Carolina plates. As she rounded the car, she caught sight of a Van Halen CD in the passenger seat.