Read an Excerpt
Just for the Summer
A Lake Bliss Novel
By Jenna Rutland, Kerri-Leigh Grady
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jenna Rutland
All rights reserved.
One of these children could be her son.
Dani Sullivan clutched the windowsill of her rented Lake Bliss bungalow and watched the small group of boys who played at the water's edge. She searched each child for something familiar, desperate after eight years to see the sweet face of one little auburn-haired boy.
Would she recognize anything of herself in the child? Or would his features trigger an unwanted memory?
A woman clad in a floral one-piece bathing suit hustled out of a lawn chair. Her long blonde ponytail swayed as she rushed toward a boy wearing bright red swim trunks who stood near two other kids throwing sand. He wore a navy Detroit Tigers ball cap, and tufts of his brown hair peeked out the back. The shade reminded Dani of nutmeg, a color that matched her own curls at that age. The shape of his face and the way he'd run—swinging his arms like they were the source of his locomotion—seemed so familiar. So right.
An image of a baby boy flashed in her mind. A newborn, wrapped in a hospital-issued blanket, dark-eyed with a tuft of auburn hair. Her beautiful baby, whom Dani had promised a happy life.
As another woman's son.
Fueled by an overwhelming urge to get closer, she scurried onto the screened-in porch and grasped a wooden beam for support. Outboard motors roared on the lake, drowning out conversation. The woman appeared to scold the children next to him then guided the boy to sit on the end of the dock where it met the beach. The others gathered around. The woman removed the boy's cap and tilted his head upward. The child swiped first at his right eye then at the woman's hand.
That could be her son's adoptive mother.
Nausea tightened Dani's gut.
Without thought, she pushed open the screen door and took a few steps toward the beach. The sun was harsh on her face; the mixture of dried-out grass and weeds pricked her bare feet. She pulled her sunglasses from on top of her head and slid them onto her nose.
The voices at the beach escalated, and the woman grasped the boy's hand. Once again, he swatted her away and rubbed his eye. She massaged her temple in apparent agitation.
Instinct kicked in. Dani jogged the few yards to the beach and made her way to where the boy sat on the dock covering his eye. "Can I help? I'm a nurse."
The woman turned, her eyebrow raised in question.
"I'm Dani Sullivan, the new renter in cottage three. I thought maybe the boy needed help."
The woman glanced at the child, then back to Dani. "I think he's got sand in his eye. He won't let me look, and I'm not sure what to do."
Dani removed her sunglasses and squatted to get a better look at him, and he pulled his hand away from his face for just a moment. Though his eye was red, she didn't see any sand on his cornea, and his eye was no longer watering. She took the opportunity to scan his eyelashes, his mouth, his nose. Did they resemble hers? She'd seen her son eight years ago for barely an hour. Would she even know if this boy was him?
He rose from the dock. The faintest hint of unease surfaced in his uncovered eye. "Don't even think about giving me a shot."
His comment surprised a laugh from her. She would have made a similar remark. "I promise—no shots. Okay?"
After a quick nod, he lowered his hand, uncovering his eye. She took a few steps closer, the sun-heated sand gritty between her toes. She concentrated on dragging the humid air into her lungs. "What's your name, honey?"
Sam. A name she knew but hadn't chosen.
Invisible hands constricted her throat, and she fought away tears, thankful her back was turned toward the woman.
Despite the battle between joy and sadness she felt in this moment, she cursed her impulsive need to come so close. She'd promised herself that she'd keep her distance, and she'd agreed to a closed adoption with no contact before he turned eighteen. She had no ill intentions. Her only goal was to see her son, to know he was happy, to be assured he was healthy. Didn't she deserve to at least know how the baby had fared?
She swallowed. Swallowed again. She could do this. A child needed help. How many other children had she cared for over the years? Countless times she'd pushed aside her personal feelings and forced herself to act professionally. She was a nurse; she had a duty.
Dani sat where she'd squatted, within arm's reach of Sam despite his retreat. "It's important not to rub your eye. You don't want to scratch the surface. How about if your mom and I get you inside so we can remove whatever's in there?"
"She's not my mom." He ducked his head, kicking the sand with his toe. "I don't have a mom."
Dani pushed away the alarm his pronouncement gave her and turned a questioning look to the woman with the kids. What had happened to Sam's adoptive mother?
"I'm Rachel Clarke," the woman said. "Sam's with us today while his father's at work."
"My dad's the sheriff," Sam informed Dani.
She smiled at his obvious pride. "Hmm ... I got a parking ticket yesterday. Wonder if he gave it to me?"
"Dad didn't have to work yesterday. We went fishing." Sam stopped rubbing his eye but continued to squint.
"Want to know how I treat little boys who get sand in their eyes?"
He gave an enthusiastic nod.
"I flush it out."
The kids doubled over with laughter. Sam rewarded her with a grin that revealed two missing front teeth. He looked so darned adorable with the big gap in his smile. Her heart warmed. This was what her soul had craved.
Their laugh was contagious and she found herself grinning. "What did I say that was so funny?" Dani asked Rachel.
"You don't have boys, do you?"
Dani felt her smile diminish. "Nope."
"You say the word flush and they think toilet. That's pretty much all it takes to set them off. Whatever you do, don't pull their finger if they ask." More hysterical laughter. One little boy giggled so hard he fell off a child-sized lawn chair.
Dani motioned toward her cottage. "I'd like to run some water across his eye to see if we can get the sand out. Maybe when we're done, we could all have some homemade muffins."
Rachel nodded in agreement. "What do you say, Sam?" Dani asked.
His attention shifted between the two women. "Can everybody come?"
The boys ran ahead, scaring a group of squawking seagulls into flight.
"Thanks for the help," Rachel said. "You're good with children. Do you work in pediatrics?"
"Used to." But the craving to see her son had escalated with every little boy she treated. "After that, I worked on the medical/surgical floor. For the last year, I've been on a leave of absence while I took care of my ill mother. She passed away a few months ago."
"Sorry," Rachel said. "I know how hard that is." She stared down at her empty hands.
"Yeah. It's been difficult. I'm looking forward to a much-needed break before I return home to my job. A quiet summer in Lake Bliss will be perfect." Not to mention how it would help to know her son was happy before she returned to her life alone.
The boys waited patiently on the stoop outside the screened-in porch of her cottage. Dani ushered them inside.
"I noticed you were alone when you arrived yesterday," Rachel said. "Are you married?"
"Sorry for being nosy. I'm divorced, so I'm always hoping to chat with other single women. Seems like everybody I know is married except for Sam's dad, but he's been even less prone to chatting since his divorce."
Dani smiled. "Came close once." Until she'd told her fiancé about the horrible night of her attack and Sam's conception. Stephen had run from her life so fast he could have won an Olympic medal for the 100-meter dash.
Once in the kitchen, Dani turned to Sam. "I want you to hop up on the counter next to the sink. Need a boost?"
The get real look on his face made her smile. He jumped up and waited for more instructions. At the close range, Dani took the opportunity to make a quick catalog of her son. He would never know where his features came from, but some of them were clear to Dani. Freckles dotted his sweet face—freckles that would disappear in his teenage years if he took after her. The slightly upturned nose belonged to her father. But the cleft in his chin ... that didn't come from her side of the family.
"Are you gonna flush my eye now?" He imitated a toilet flushing. Right on cue the other boys cracked up.
Dani gave him a slight push on his shoulder. "Lie down and Rachel will support your head over the sink. I'll pour a bit of water into your eye. Hopefully we'll wash out whatever's there. Any questions?"
Five minutes later, Dani blotted his eye with a towel. "Blink a few times. We'll see if the sand is gone."
"It doesn't hurt at all. It feels normal." He hopped off the counter. "Can we have the muffins now, Ms. Sullivan?"
"You can call me Dani." She opened a plastic container. "I made these last night. I've got blueberry and banana nut." She'd no sooner set them on the kitchen table than Sam grabbed one.
Rachel laughed. "You and your sweet tooth, Sam." She helped herself to a muffin.
Sounded like he had inherited that, too.
"Can't tell you the last time I baked." Rachel peeled back the paper liner. She took a bite and closed her eyes. "These are fabulous."
"Feel free to stop by if you ever have a craving. Baked goods are my downfall, so I usually have something around."
"Mom, can we take these down to the beach?"
Rachel gave the boys a thumbs-up.
"Don't go in the water until I get there." They tore out of the kitchen and down the porch stairs. "What do you say to Ms. Sullivan?" Rachel yelled before they got too far. The boys shouted their thanks then took off running. "And no throwing sand." She turned to Dani. "I better head down there. Nice to meet you. Thanks again for your help."
Dani walked her to the door. "Glad to lend a hand." Especially since it had allowed her to meet Sam. A twinge of guilt settled over her at violating the spirit of the adoption agreement, but she would never regret the opportunity to speak to him or to see him laugh.
Rachel paused at the porch steps. "There's a cookout tomorrow night, just a casual thing for all the guests. I'll pass around flyers later today. Hope you can join us."
Dani raised her eyebrows and nodded. "I'd love to, thanks." She should probably work on some new recipes for the cookbook she was contracted to write this summer, but she could spare an evening for dinner. And Sam.
"Take your parking ticket to the sheriff and tell him I sent you. He'll toss it in the trash." When she smiled, the tiny worry lines between her eyebrows disappeared.
After saying good-bye, Dani headed toward her bedroom to change clothes. What would be appropriate to wear to the sheriff's office? Because this afternoon she did plan to pay a visit to Sheriff Reagan—Sam's father—and she knew it would involve much more than an undeserved parking ticket.
She opened her closet door, but before she made a selection she sat on the bed. Maybe this idea needed more thought. Her original goal was to have no contact with the adoptive parents and instead simply watch from the sidelines. By going to meet her son's adoptive father, she'd be taking a huge risk of getting closer than she'd ever meant to be. But it was necessary in order to know if the man so essential to Sam's health and happiness was worthy of her son, since clearly he was now a single dad. She'd have to tread lightly and never let him know she was Sam's biological mother. The last thing she wanted was to complicate Sam's life. He seemed happy, and she meant for him to stay that way.
* * *
Matt Reagan shifted toward his computer, his chair creaking like an old man getting out of bed in the morning. One last detail to his first end-of-the-month status report. Next he'd work on the budget, where he planned to add a line item for redecorating. Nothing fancy, but nobody could argue that the mustard yellow walls and gray aluminum blinds had seen better days.
Relief rolled through him. His first official document as sheriff of Lake Bliss was an excellent report, well worth the effort he'd put forth this morning. Even if it had taken him three hours.
He rocked back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his neck, and enjoyed the air-conditioned blast of cool air that hit the back of his head. After a quick read of his report, he saved the document, and tapped the send button.
The computer screen went blank. He shot forward in his chair to hit the escape key.
Nothing. He punched the on/off button a couple of times.
Still blank. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple. How could one single keystroke erase his entire document? Was it floating around in cyberspace? He slammed his fist on the keyboard. There had to be a way to recall it, but he'd be damned if he knew how. Not on these old behemoths that should have been sold for scrap ten years ago.
"Tiffany!" If she couldn't retrieve the document, he'd be in big trouble.
Where was Tiffany? Probably chatting on the phone with her boyfriend of the week. Cousin or not, she should have been fired long ago.
Tiffany's heels clicked on the floor. "Sorry, I was on the phone with Kent."
Matt looked up at her. "Could you try to limit personal tasks during regular working hours? I'll even tack on an extra thirty minutes to your lunchtime so you can make hot and heavy calls to whichever poor schmuck you've got dangling this month."
Tiffany leaned against the door frame. "You obviously don't remember saying the exact same thing last week. I could use an hour-and-a-half lunch."
"I need your help with my computer."
"Aw, the beast acting up again? I'll have to call the repair dude. Later. It's lunchtime." She turned to leave. "By the way, Dani Sullivan is here to see you."
Matt gritted his teeth. Just what he needed, another friend of Sam's wanting to see where his dad worked. "Give him a can of soda. I'll be just a minute." He enjoyed the occasional visit from Sam's friends and their parents when they were in town. He liked getting to know the kids, but now wasn't a good time.
Tiffany giggled before heading out the door. "As you wish, boss man."
Admittedly, this kid had Matt's curiosity piqued. Sam usually took a while to get chummy with the vacationers, but not so in Danny's case. When Matt had talked to Sam after the sand-in-the-eye incident, every sentence related to Danny. Danny knew how to fix his eye. Danny made everybody laugh. The muffins at Danny's were awesome.
Matt vaulted off the chair, hoping to catch Tiffany before she left the building, but he clipped the edge of a pile of paperwork, and it toppled over. File folders and papers sailed under his desk, and a few pieces wedged into the cracks in the linoleum. Reason set in. Any lost computer files wouldn't be any easier to find now. It could wait. He sighed and sank onto all fours to clean up the mess.
He crawled around under his desk to scoop up the fallen documents. He opened his mouth to yell for Tiffany again when the floorboards creaked and footsteps sounded in the office.
He let out a long exhale. "Dammit." Still on his hands and knees, Matt circled his desk to rescue some wayward papers. Expecting Tiffany, he stopped mid-crawl when he saw a pair of white strappy sandals. Next came sexy-as-anything legs.
Before he got to the neckline of her white T-shirt, he caught sight of the most incredible pair of breasts he'd ever seen. Round. Firm. Large. He wasn't ashamed to admit he was a breast man. Sure, he liked all the other parts, too, but breasts were the ultimate. When he finally locked eyes with his guest, those begging-for-a-kiss lips curved into a sly grin. His blood rushed south of the border.
"Hello," she said. "Wondered when you'd finally get this far."
He couldn't read the expression on her face. Interested or irritated?
Matt reprimanded himself for openly gawking at this woman and silently admitted to being a lecherous pig. What the heck was his problem? Had it been so long since he'd been with a woman that when he was finally exposed to one he turned into an idiot?
Get a grip, man. He'd never seen her in town, so that meant summer tourist. He reminded himself that he didn't want to get involved in a temporary relationship, although this seductive woman could surely make him second-guess his goals.
Excerpted from Just for the Summer by Jenna Rutland, Kerri-Leigh Grady. Copyright © 2013 Jenna Rutland. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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