Jake Bradshaw blew into town almost two months later, at a quarter to three on a blustery, sunny April afternoon.
Not that Jenny was keeping track or anything.
Hell, who kept track of those things? She was busy minding her own business, washing the window over her kitchen sink and thinking the shutters on the Sand Dollarthe luxury cottage across the shared parking lot from her small bungalowwould benefit from a new coat of paint, when the doorbell rang. She just happened to check her watch. Then, looking down at her seen-better-days cropped T-shirt and raggedy jeans, she sighed. Why didn't anyone ever drop by unexpectedly when she was dressed to kill?
Murphy's Law, she supposed. Shrugging, she set aside the old tea towel she'd been using, paused her iPod, pulled out the earbuds and went to answer the summons. School had let out for the day; it was likely a friend of Austin's, although Austin himself wasn't home yet. when she pulled the door open and saw the man on the other side, her mind went blank. Holy Krakow, how wrong could one woman bethis was no teenage kid. This was a total stranger, something you didn't see very often this time of yearunlike during the summer tourist season. And the guy was a god.
Okay, not really. But he was definitely the next best thing. His hair, which she'd mistaken at first glance for blond, was actually a medium brown that had either been burnished by the sun or was the product of some world-class stylist.
She'd vote for the former, given that every man she'd ever known would choose castration before they'd be caught dead over at Wacka Do's wearing a headful of little tinfoil strips. And although she could honestly say she'd never met an actual honest-to-gawd big-city metrosexual, she was pretty sure this guy wasn't to be her first.
His tanned hands were too beat-up looking, his skin a little too weathered. He had muscular shoulders beneath a nice gray suit jacket, worn over an olive-drab hoodie and a silky, silver-gray T-shirt. And solid thighs that were molded by a pair of button-fly Levi's that had seen hard wear.
She couldn't see his eyes behind the shaded lenses of his sunglasses, but he had the most gorgeous lips she'd ever seen on a man, full yet precisely cut. If she were a different type of woman, in fact, she might almost be able to imagine lips like those kissing h
"Is your mother home?"
"Seriously? " All right, not the politest response. But, please. She hadn't almost imagined what his lips could doMarvin Gaye had started crooning "Let's Get It On" in her head. And having him talk to her as if she were a child was like ripping the needle across a vinyl record, bursting her pretty, if where-the-hell-did-t/zat-come-from, fantasy.
After a startled look, he studied her more closely. Those lips curved up in a faint smile. "Oh. Sorry. Your size fooled me for a minute. But you're not a kid."
His smile deepened slightly. "I'm not the first to make that mistake, I'm guessing."
Okay, get a grip, sister. What was her problem, anyway? She didn't lust after strange men. And she'd been in the hospitality business since she was sixteen, for pity's sake, so rarely, either, was her first inclination to unleash snide sarcasm on people.
At least not on people I don't know.
She gave an impatient mental shrug. Because even if she was in the habit of lusting or unleashing, this guy could be a guest at the inn for all she knew. It was the dead lowest part of the low season, which was why she'd felt comfortable enough leaving Abby to man the front desk while she took a rare day off. But Abs was still green, and it wasn't a stretch to imagine the girl blithely drawing directions on one of the resort maps to help a complete stranger find Jenny's place on the back grounds of The Brothers Inn.
Jenny plastered a pleasant expression on her face. "Is there something I can do for you?"
He looked down at her. "Yeah. I was told I could find a Jenny Salazar here?"
"You found her."
"I'm here about Austin Bradshaw, regarding his guardianship."
Jenny's heart picked up its pace, but she merely said, "You don't look like a lawyer."
"I'm not. But Mr. Verilla said you're the person I need to talk to."
She sighed and stepped back. "Then I guess you'd better come in. You'll have to excuse the mess," she said, leading him inside. "You caught me in the middle of cleaning day."
Her place was just under six hundred square feet of recently weatherized cottage, so it took a total of five seconds to reach the middle of her living room. She turned to face him and saw that he'd removed his shades and was hooking one temple arm into the neck of his T-shirt. Raising her gaze from his strong, tanned throat, she met his eyes for the first time.
Shock jolted through her. Oh, God. Only one other person in the world had eyes that pale, pale greenthe exact same shade as the summer shallows in the fjord that was Hood Canal.
Anger was deep, immediate and visceral. And it had her drawing herself up to her not-so-great greatest height. "Let me guess," she said with ice-edged diction. "You must be Jake Bradshaw." when she looked at him now, she didn't see that compelling face or the abundant sex appeal. Instead, she pictured all the times Austin thought his father might call, might show up, and the stark disappointment each and every time that didn't happen. Disdain she couldn't quite disguise tugged at her upper lip.
"Mighty big of you to finally decide you could spare your kid a minute of your precious time."
For over a decade, Jake had dealt with all manner of people. He'd long ago perfected the art of letting things slide off his back. Yet for some reason the contempt from this little female dug barbed needles under his skin.
It didn't make a damn bit of sense. The woman was all of five foot nothing, for crissake, and her shiny dark hair, plaited into two thick little-girl braids, with a hank of long bangs pulling free from the left one, didn't exactly promote a grown-up vibe. She had spare curves, clear olive skin and brown eyes so dark it made the surrounding sclera look almost blue-white in comparison. Dark eyebrows winged above them, and her slender nose had a slight bump to its bridge.
His brows met over the thrust of his own nose. "who the hell do you think you are, lady?"
Okay, not what he'd intended to say. But being back in Razor Bay, the place he'd spent most of his teen years plotting to see the last of in his rear-view mirrorwell, it put him on edge. Plus, after the thirty-two-hour trip from Minahasa to Davao to
Manila to Vancouver to Seattle to here, he was so dead on his feet he was all but punch-drunk. Not to mention seriously tense at the thought of seeing his kid after all these years. Of having full responsibility for him for the first time.
So excuse the hell out of him for reacting to the contempt in her voice and his own flicker of temper that here was yet someone else who thought they could dictate to him about his son.
Stuffing down every negative feeling that arose, however, he managed to moderate his tone when he inquired, "And you think you have the right to judge me, why?" God knew, he'd done enough of that on his own. He didn't need some half-pint stranger's condemnation on top of it.
He watched as she crossed her arms and raised her chin. "Well, let me see," she said coolly. "Maybe because I'm the woman who's been in Austin's life for the past eleven years. And this is the first time I've ever seen you."
Jake wanted to howl at the unfairness of her charge. Except. .was she actually wrong? He'd had a series of come-to-Jesus talks with himself on the endless journey back here and was forced to admit that he'd been looking at his dad ethic through a pretty skewed lens for a long time now. The admission made not defending himself to Ms. Salazar more than a simple matter of pride, more than an ingrained reluctance to plead his case to a stranger.
He couldn't in all conscience smear the memory of Austin's grandparents. Not only would it be too much like something his own father would have donemaking it all about him and not giving a damn that his kid had loved the people he was trash-talkingbut all that damn soul searching had made him realize that he'd spent too many years blaming Emmett and Kathy for doing the job he himself had abdicated.
They'd protected Austin. And if it cut to the bone that they'd felt it necessary to do so from him
well. I guess it sucks to be you, Slick.
Somewhere over Midway Island he'd dropped his defenses and admitted they had cut him a lot more slack than he'd deserved before they'd finally lowered the ax and banished him from Austin's life.
But that wasn't the central thing hereat least not right this minute. That would be that he was finally doing what he should have done a long time ago: stepping up.
So, go him.
Not that any of this prevented the woman standing in front of him from scratching at his temper. He took an involuntary step in her direction. "The fact remains, I'm Austin's father and I'm here now."
Apparently that wasn't what she'd expected to hear, because she blinked long, dense lashes at him, just a single slow sweep that lowered fragile-looking lids over her almond-shaped eyes, then raised them again.
The action ate up a couple of seconds tops, yet somehow it was long enough to make him aware that he was standing a whole lot closer to her than he'd intended. It made him aware as well that, except for the blink, she'd gone very still. Had she seen his banked anger? Jake slowly straightened. Shit. She couldn't possibly think he was going to hit her, could she?
He took a giant step back, shoving his hands in his Levi's pockets.
In the sudden silence, the back door crashed open, and from the way little Ms. Salazar stiffened, he knew exactly who it was. Heart beginning to kick hard against the wall of his chest, he stared at the opening to the kitchen.
"Hey, Jenny," called a male voice from the other room. "I'm home." The refrigerator door opened, then slammed shut and the lid of something rattled against a hard surface. "Dude! Leave a cookie for me."
"Trade ya for that carton of milk," came a second youthful tenor.
"You better be using glasses!" Jenny raised her voice to warn. "If I see washback in my milk, you're dead men."
Glass clinked and a cupboard slapped closed. Silence reigned for a few moments after that, before being abruptly broken by the sound of stampeding feet. Two boys burst through the archway.
The boy in the lead was a gangly brunette whosweet mother Maryhad the exact same all-bonesno-meat thirteen-year-old build Jake had had at the same age.
God oh God. All the moisture dried up in his mouth and his habit of being aware of everything around himhoned by years of knowing that otherwise he'd likely end up bitten by a snake, stung by an insect or mauled by an animal with way more tonnage, power and teeth than himwent up in smoke. The cozy little room and everything in it faded from his consciousness, leaving nothing but his son.
Awash with joy, with terror, with a raft of pain and regret, Jake stared. An emotion he'd never experienced suffused his chest, while panic clawed at his gut. Jesus. He was shaking.
He hadn't thought it would matter so much, hadn't expected to be struck so hard. Was this what love felt like?
The thought snapped his spine straight. Hell, no.
It couldn't be. A: he was a Bradshaw and Bradshaw men's version of the Big L was so fucked it gave the sentiment a bad name. And B: a man had to actually know someone before he could start slinging that word around.
He drew a deep breath. It was probably just simple wonder that the kid could have gotten so big already. Jake'd had this image in his head of Austin at two, at four. Hell, at six even, which was how old Austin was the year Kathy had sent him the last picture.
But this was no little boythis was an almost-grown teen. Not that Jake hadn't known how old he was, of course.
He just hadn't had a clear picture of it in his head.
He'd long ago convinced himself that he was doing the right thingthat Austin was better off with his grandparents, who could give him the stable, structured life that he himself could not. And he'd been right.
But nowface-to-face with what he hadn't merely let slip through his fingers but had actively thrown away with no more than an occasional second thoughthis carelessness felt like shards of glass hacking his gut to shreds.
Oblivious to the thoughts and feelings that threatened to swamp Jake, the boy crossed directly to Jenny without even glancing in his direction.
"Can I spend the night at Nolan's?" he demanded. "His mom said it was okay." His gaze passed incuriously over Jake, returned to Jenny. "She's gonna order pizza from Bella T's, and Nolan has a new Xbox game we're gonna try ou"
With a neck-snapping double take, the kid's gaze suddenly shot back to lock on Jake's. He took a step toward him, making Jake's overburdened heart leap into his throat.
Then Austin snapped upright and an ask-me-if-I-give-a-shit expression molded his young face. He looked at Jake through pitch-black narrowed lashes. "Who the hell are you?" he asked, even though his shuttered expression made it obvious to anyone with eyes that he knew.
Jake swallowed, fighting to sound calm in the midst of the fucking circus taking place inside of him. Automatically, he started forward. "Your dad. I"
The teen made a wrong-answer-buzzer noise that stopped him in his tracks. "Like hell you are. In case you don't know
and I'm guessing you don't since this is the first time I've ever seen ya," he said, contempt coating his every word, "I'm thirteen. I don't need or want a daddy in my life." He turned back to Jenny, pinning her with angry eyes. "So can I stay the night at Nolan's or what?"
Jake watched as she reached up to stroke the boy's cheek, then visibly quelled the urge, clearly knowing he would hate the public show of sympathy. Instead she nodded. "Sure."
Without another wordor so much as a quick peek in Jake's directionthe teen turned and vanished with his friend into a room off the living room. When he reappeared less than a minute later, he was tucking a toothbrush into his jeans pocket. His other hand clutched a pair of flannel lounge pants.
"You need money for pizza?" Jenny asked.
"Nah," the other kid answered. "Mom's got it covered."
Still ignoring Jake, Austin headed for the kitchen, Nolan tight on his six.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Jake stepped forward, but the two boys were already slamming out the back door.
Jake didn't know if it was disappointment or relief that crashed through him. Whatever the sensation was, it nearly knocked him to his knees. God, he must have pictured this first meeting a hundred times since he'd received the news of Kathy's and Emmett's deaths, must have run as many scenarios through his mind. Not once, however, had he envisioned this. He'd been braced for his son's anger, for a barrage of pointed questions he wasn't sure he could answer to the boy's satisfaction.
But how did a guy brace himself to be so utterly
dismissed? He turned on Jenny. "Are you kidding me? You let him just walk out?"
"What did you expect?" Her voice was cool, her gaze even cooler. "Austin's just discovered that the man who fathered him, the man who was never here when he wanted him most, has finally deigned to show up. Don't you think he might need a little time to process that?"
Yeah. He supposed he did. The kid had said it himself: he was thirteennot that many years from being grown. Jake had missed his opportunity to be a father.
No. He squared his shoulders. The hell with that. Austin was a good five years from the bare minimum of being grown, which was a helluva long way from full-out grown. Yeah, he was late to the party, but this was his opportunity to be the man he should have been. And the first order of business was to establish a relationship with his son.
Given Austin's reaction, though, it clearly wasn't going to be easy. Well, tough shit. He wasn't afraid of hard work.
Still. It's a damn shame the kid's too old to buy a pony.
He cleared his head and turned his attention to Jenny. "I agree, he does need time to process. But let me make myself clear. I've spoken with my lawyer, and matters are well in the works to have my parental rights returned to me."
"No." She stared at him as if he'd told her he got his jollies mutilating puppies.
"Yes. My attorney is drafting the documents as we speak. I only need to sign them when I get back to Manhattan. Once they've been filed, Austin will be where he belongs. With me." Okay, probably not smart to tell her thatshe looked as though it might not be beyond her to stage an "accident" before that happened.
No. That wasn't murder in her eyes; she looked
crushed. Bereft. Sick to her soul.
And because he knew exactly how that felt, he gentled his voice. "Look, I don't intend to grab Austin and run." Okay, so his initial reaction when he'd heard both the Pierces were gone had been exactly thatto get back here, command Austin to pack up, then drag the kid back to where Jake had built a life for himself, at least for the part of each year he was in-country.
But he wasn't gonna be that guy. He wasn't going to be his father. "I'm not here to yank the rug out from under him that way. I know he needs time to adjust, to get to know me."
She sagged in patent relief, and it bugged him that he was so attuned to her, that he harbored an urge to relieve her mind. It would be better for all concerned if no one entertained any false hopes.
"Make no mistake," he instructed in his coolest voice, "my life is in New York and we will be moving there. I'll stay here to give my son time to get accustomed to the idea. While he does, I'll find out what, if anything, needs to be done about Emmett's estate."
Suspicion entered her eyes and he narrowed his own in response. "Don't even go there. I'm not after Austin's moneyI've got plenty of my own."
"And I should believe you because
God! Why did that look, that tone, make him want to loom over her, to step too close, crowd into her space and see how she dealt with it?
The urge startled him, because, really, where the hell had that come from? He'd never manhandled or acted threatening toward a woman in his life.
And looking into her fierce little face, he almost snorted. Mighty Mouse here would probably call the sheriff's department if he even looked like he was about to make a misstep. And rightly so, considering she was a woman alone in her house with hima stranger she didn't know from Adam and mistrusted the little she thought she did know.
But wouldn't that just be the cherry on his fucking cupcake if his half brother Max showed up to arrest him? It would probably make the bastard's day to haul his ass to jail.
He drew a steadying breath. "I don't require that you believe me, but in the interest of playing nice with others, I'll give you a freebie." He pulled his wallet from his hip pocket and fished out a card, which he handed to her. "This is my assistant. Call her with your fax number and I'll have her send you my latest bank statement." He gave her a level look. "We have real issues to get through. Me stealing from my kid isn't one of them."
She folded her arms beneath little breasts. "What do you want from me?"
The reasonableness of her tone released some of the tension from his shoulders. "Austin clearly cares about you. I want you to be the conduit between us."
She laughed in his face. "Why on earth would you think I'd do that?"
"Because while I'm willing to stay here for the next two or whatever months to let him finish the school year, in the end we will move to Manhattan." He thrust a hand through his hair. "I'm going to be taking him away from everything familiar, and I don't fool myself it'll be a popular decision. If you care about him, you'll make the transition easier for him. Or you can keep your mad on going with me and make it hard. I guess it's up to you."
She looked at him a long time. "All right. I'll think about it." Her extravagant eyelashes lowered until her eyes were mere coffee-dark glints shining between them. "For Austin's sake," she stressed. "Whatever I decide, I won't be doing it for you."
"No shit," he muttered, but thrust out his hand to shake on the deal. Her narrow fingers were warm as she slid them across his palm, her grip firm.
He was caught unprepared for the spark of electricity that shot through him at the contact. But he buried his response, countering it with his all-purpose wry smile.
"Trust me, I didn't assume otherwise for a minute."
After Jake Bradshaw left, Jenny paced from the couch to the fireplace to the picture window, no sooner reaching one destination than lighting out for the next. The already small living room felt like it was shrinking decrementally by the minute.
She had no idea how much time had passed before her restless circuit finally ended back at the window. She stared blindly beyond the resort grounds to the peekaboo glimpse of The Brothers, the prominent twin peaks in the Olympic mountain range that the inn was named after. "Oh, God." Thrusting her hands through her hair, she knocked her forehead once, twice, three times against the cool glass. "What the hell am I going to do?"
Nothing came to mind. And wasn't that too whacked for wordsshe who had had a plan since her daddy was sent to the pen when she was barely sixteen? At the moment, however, her mind was nothing but white noise, her stomach awash in red-hot acid. And she couldn't string two consecutive thoughts together to save her soul.
She needed Tasha.
Just the thought of her best friend made her stomach a fraction less messed up, and she dashed into the bedroom, snatched her purse from the top of her dresser where she always left it, and headed back toward the door.
On the way, she caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror on the inside of her open closet door.
"Holy crap." She'd forgotten she was still wearing her cleaning clothes. Not to mention that she was devoid of so much as a hint of makeup and her do was totally pulled apart in front from her ten-fingered grab-and-bang. "That's not pretty."
Tossing her purse back on the dresser, she toed off her Keds and kicked them into the closet. She shimmied her jeans down her legs and wrestled her T-shirt off over her head. She was in no mood to go primp crazy, but surely she could do better than this.
It took her no time at all to pull on a nicer pair of skinny-wale cords, a thin red sweater and her three-inch Cuban-heeled black leather boots. She swiped a sheer red balm over her lips and gave her lashes a cursory pass with the mascara wand. Then, removing the rubber bands from her braids, she pulled a brush through her hair.
And called it good.
Two minutes later she was out the door, pulling on a military-style jacket as she headed for the boardwalk that followed the curving shoreline into town.
The wind whipped her hair around her head when she rounded the inn, and she pulled a knit beret out of her jacket pocket. Stretching its back opening, she caught up the bottom of her hair, tugged the gray angora front band into place and tucked in stray strands blowing around her face. The day was more blustery than cold, and the upside to the gusty wind was the clarity of the air now that the earlier clouds had blown away. The Olympics soared out of green layer upon complex green layer of foothills, rising a scant two miles away across the choppy, white-capped water, their snow-blanketed peaks brilliant white against the clear blue sky.
Two blocks down the beach, the actual Razor Bay of the eponymously named town cut a deep, irregular half circle into the land. The boardwalk emptied onto Harbor Street, the face of the business district, with its brightly painted storefronts lining the long arc of the inlet. As Jenny walked away from the mouth of the bay, the winds dropped and the waters calmed within the protection of three sides of land.
Someone tapped on the window as she passed the orange clapboard Sunset Cafe, and she waved back at Kathy Tagart and Maggie Watson, who sat at a table on the other side of the glass. She strode past Razor Bay Jet Ski & Bicycle Rentals, darkened now as it was only open on Saturdays and Sundays this time of year. The neighboring aqua, blue and green building next door was Bella T's Pizzeria, where she was headed.
Jenny whipped the door open, and the rich scent of pizza sauce wafted from brick wood-burning ovens to wrap around her like a security blanket. It was a little early for the dinner crowd, but an older couple she didn't recognize sat at one of the window tables, and a group of teens, laughing and talking, crowded around two tables they'd pushed together near the game room. As she crossed to the order counter, the door to that room opened and closed, belching out the electronic beeps and clangs of the video-game machines behind it.
Tasha looked up from chopping something on a block below the sales counterand broke into a wide smile. "Well, hey, girlfriend!" she said. "I didn't expect to see you this afternoon. Thought for sure you'd be spending your day off eating chocolate-drizzled popcorn and reading romance nov" Her smile faltered and she lowered her voice as Jenny approached.
"What's wrong? Is it Austin?"
"No, Austin's okay." A bark of laughter that threatened to morph into something else escaped her throat. "Well, 'okay' might be stretching it a bit, considering his father is in town, and he's determined to take Austin back to New York with him."
"What?" Setting aside her knife, Tasha wiped her hands on the white waist apron circling her narrow hips. Then she shook her head. "No, wait, let's go over to the far table where we'll have a little privacy. You want a slug of red?"
"Oh, God. That would be soooo appreciated."
"One glass of wine coming up then." She selected a wide-bowled goblet and filled it higher than usual with the house cab. "Here you go, sweetie." Pushing it toward Jenny with one hand, she poured a less generous portion for herself. Then she gave Jenny a quick but thorough once-over. "When's the last time you ate?"
"Breakfast, I guess." She honestly didn't remember.
Tasha was already turning away. "Let me make you a slice."
"I'm not sure I can swallow anything," she said, but her friend had already grabbed a section of dough out of the fridge, slid it onto a paddle and was ladling sauce onto it.
"If this is as bad as it sounds, you're going to need fuel. I've got some of that Canadian bacon and pineapple you like, although how anybody can eat pineapple on" She waved the old argument aside. "Take our wine over to the table and I'll bring the food."
"Fuckin' A, dude!" A boisterous male voice suddenly rang through the room, making the elderly couple gape in shock at the table of teens.
Jenny didn't even turn. Instead, she watched as her friend reached for the big-barreled gun she kept on the lower counter. Then she slowly pivoted as Tasha took aim at the offender and pulled the trigger.
The ping-pong ball that fired from the gun hit dead center in the back of the cursing teen's head and bounced away to skip in decreasing hops across the linoleum floor.
"What the" Slapping a hand to the spot, the boy pushed back from the table and whirled to face Tasha, his face a study in indignation.
But once he had her in his sights, he appeared to promptly lose his train of thought.
For the first time since she'd discovered Jake Bradshaw's identity, Jenny experienced a trace of amusement. Tasha had that effect on the XY end of the chromosome pool. Jenny had always found it interesting because it wasn't her friend's body Tasha was far from being built like a goddess. She was tallish and gangly, with average-size breasts and no hips to speak of. But with her gray-blue eyes, full upper lip and Pre-Raphaelite strawberry-blond curls, she had the more exotically striking than beautiful looksand presenceof a model from a Michael Parkes painting.
It stopped males in their tracks every time.
The gaze she leveled on the teen at this moment lacked her usual warmth. "This is a place for families," she said without raising her voice. "So clean up your language or get out of my shop. You only get one warning."
He hesitated as if tempted to protect his machismo with the usual teenage, knee-jerk don't-tell-me-what-to-do 'tude. Instead, he swallowed, his Adam's apple sliding the length of his throat. "Yes, ma'am," he muttered. "Sorry."
"Yeah, sorry, Tasha," Brandon Teller called from his seat next to the boy who'd dropped the F-bomb.
"This is my cousin's first time here. He didn't know the rules."
"Now you do." Tasha granted the boy a smile. "And admiring as I do a man who's not afraid to apologize, I'll tell you that you handled it better than many. Welcome to Bella T's."
When she and Jenny took their wine and food to a table on the other side of the room a moment later, however, she demanded sotto voce, "Seriously? When did I become a ma'am?"
She made an erasing gesture before Jenny could respond. "Never mind. That's not what's important. I want to see you eat some of that pie."
"I really don't think"
So Jenny picked up the slice and took a tiny bite off its tip. She felt so sick at the thought of Jake taking Austin to the other side of the country, she was honestly afraid her stomach would rebel. But the pizza's flavors exploded on her tongue and she found the crisp golden crust, flavorful sauce and hot, soft cheese a comfort.
Pizza to her was Tasha, and Tash had been her best friend since Jenny's second day in Razor Bay High, when the other girl had put herself between Jenny and some kids who had thought it would be fun to torment her over the much-publicized statewide scandal from her father's exposed Ponzi scheme.
She'd come to learn that Tasha's mother made the strawberry blonde's standing in school even lower than her own. But that only made Jenny admire her more, because most teens already on the fringeand likely a good percentage of adults, as wellwould have covered their own ass rather than put it on the line for a total stranger.
So she smiled at her friend as she reached for her wineglass. "Have I told you lately how proud I am of you? You did it, Tashnot only do you make the world's best pizza, but you're making this place a complete success." Bella T's had only been open for ten months, but it had taken off from the beginning, not just with the tourists during high season, but with the locals, as well.
Tasha gave her a lopsided smile. "Toldja a hundred years ago I was gonna."
She hadthe first time she'd made Jenny a homemade pizza in her mother's single-wide. The same night she'd divulged her dream to one day own her own pizzeria.
From the beginning, the two of them had shared a mutual determination to move beyond their circumstances. But Jenny had been in awe that her new friend, who was only six months older than she, had a full-fledged, neatly typed business plan in her underwear drawer. She 'd been living day to day, just trying to keep her grades up in school and her mother and herself off the streets with the after-school maid job at The Brothers that had brought her to Razor Bay. She so honest-to-God admired everything Tasha had accomplished and was happy for her success. Because nobody worked harder.
Now, in the unspoken agreement of good friends, they chatted about everything but what had brought Jenny here until they finished their meal. Finally, reaching for the half carafe she'd brought to the table, Tasha topped off Jenny's glass and added a splash to her own.
"You look a little more relaxed," she said. "So take a few deep breaths and try to give me the details without getting yourself all stressed out again."
"Tall order," Jenny said, and admitted, "I don't know if that's possible." But she took the calming breath her friend advised and recounted everything that had happened from the moment she'd discovered who Jake Bradshaw was.
"Crap," Tasha said quietly when she finished. "What are you going to do?"
She blew out a breath. "I don't know. He's ignored Austin his entire lifeit never once even occurred to me he would show up. But not only has he," she said with fierce indignation, "he's here with a plan to disrupt Austin's life by dragging him away from everything he knows! God, I just want to"
She stared down at her hands and reached for another calming breath as she uncurled the white-knuckled fists she'd unconsciously tightened into her fingers. Then she looked up at her friend. Gave her a slight half smile.
"It would be nice if I could say I'm being altruistic here, that my concern is strictly for Austin's welfare. But, God, Tash, I really thought I'd get permanent guardianship. I can't bear the thought of him going that far away!"
"Of course you can't. You've been in his life since he was, what, two years old?"
"Nearer to three and a half before I really got close to him."
The other woman shrugged. "Close enough." She reached across the table to give her hands a squeeze. "And maybe it won't come down to that. You said Bradshaw is staying here until school's out, right? Maybe he'll get bored with playing daddy and go back before June." She frowned. "Okay, that's a shitty thing to wish for, too."
"I know." Jenny ground the heel of her hand against the headache beginning to throb between her brows. "It's not like I haven't considered the same thing. But it's hard to forget how long Austin fantasized about having a father before he finally put that dream away." She growled with frustration. "This is such a no-win situation. It's pretty much guaranteed that one or both of us is going to wind up hurt."
She leaned into the table. "But I've got to think like an adult. Because as much as it'll kill me to lose Austin, I'm even more afraid that Bradshaw will win his forgivenesswill make him carethen do something exactly like what you said and stomp the kid's heart to paste."
The moment the words left her mouth, however, she thought of that glimpse she'd caught of. .something. Something that had seethed in Jake Bradshaw's pale green eyes when he saw Austin for the first time. She wasn't sure what it had been, exactly. But it had caught her by surprise because she hadn't expected a guy who'd ignored his son since birth to harbor such strong emotions.
Then she shrugged it aside. So what? It was probably just impatience at having to be here, at having to deal with her and Austin.
All the same, she sat up straighter. "If he's telling the truth," she said slowly, "Jake Bradshaw is going to have legal custody of Austin."
"I'm not sure why he'd lie about it, since that's something easily checked," Tasha said.
"That's my thought, too, because you can be sure I will check. But if it is so
Well, he's right when he said that if I care about Austin, I have to help make the transition easier for him." Acknowledging it made her feel like howling.
Tasha nodded. "I'm sorry, Jen. But I think you're probably right. Look." She leaned into the table. "You can't do anything about it tonight, and I don't like the idea of you going home to brood. You said Austin's sleeping over at Nolan's, right?"
"Yes. Part of me is so relieved that I don't have to pretend in front of him. But you know me too well. Because as much as I'd love to tell you you're wrong about the brooding, I have a feeling that rattling around the house alone is going to make tonight seem like a dog year."
"So don't go home. Things quiet down around here after seven. You can hang around here until then, or run errands or whatever and come back. Either way, I'll have Tiff close for me tonight. You and I are going to the Anchor. There's always some distraction to be had there. We can get stinkin' or we can just feed the jukebox and knock 'em dead at darts. Whataya say?"
She really wasn't in the mood for the local bar. But neither did she want to go home to take up pacing again. Plus, if she knew nothing else, she could rely on one thing: being with Tasha would help. "Deal. I think I'll hang here until you're ready. That'll give me plenty of time to decide whether darts or getting stinkin' is the best way to go."
Jake couldn't settle down. He'd driven around the area to refamiliarize himself with the spots he remembered and to check out the changessurprised at how many of the latter there were. Back at the inn, he'd explored both his suite, which had taken all of five minutes, and the grounds of his former in-laws' resort, which had at least used up a little time. He'd called room service to deliver his dinner, because he was too wired to sit in the dining room.
But now it was only six-thirty and the walls were closing in. He had to get out of here.
Grabbing his hoodie, he pulled it on, zipped up, then wrestled his sport jacket on over it as he headed for the beach. He'd walk into town. See if he couldn't kill some more time.
He barely glanced at the rugged, panoramic mountain range across the water that stopped the tourists in their tracks. Head down in the wind, hands jammed in his pockets, he strode purposefully along the boardwalk, one of the additions that was new to him.
Moments later, he reached Razor Bayonly to discover they'd already rolled up the streets.
"Shit." How could he have forgotten that? It used to be just one more reason added to the many that'd had him dying to get out of this backwater burg. There was bugger all to do in the low season. Hell, it only offered a limited selection of distractions during the high.
The Sunset Cafe, Bella T's Pizzeria and a new Vietnamese sandwich place were still open, and those likely only because it was Friday night. At least in the summer both Harbor Street and Eagle Road were jumping until eleven.
Remembering Austin talking about his friend's mom getting them pizza, he almost went into Bella T's. He tried to convince himself that he had an urge to do so simply because the place was new to him and he was curious. But he wasn't that good a liar. He knew damn well the fuel driving that machine was the off chance of seeing his son.
Even if Austin was in there this very momentand what were the odds of that?did he really want a public face-off with the kid? Jenny was right: he needed to give Austin time to get used to the fact that he was back in town.
He didn't know why just thinking her name made a vision of his son's guardian dragon pop into his head. But not only could he see her shiny hair, those big dark eyes and smooth olive skin, the damn mental picture was high-def.
He blinked the image away. Where the hell had that come from? She was so not his type.
He gave his shoulders an impatient hitch, looking for a more comfortable fit in his skin. The more he thought about it, the more his earlier ideato have li'l Ms. Salazar help pave the way with Austinseemed like the way to go. At the time it had merely been one of those throwaway ideas that sometimes popped off the top of his head. But it was a solid plan.
Of course, it was also predicated on her agreeing to it. And given her opinion of him, that was one big-ass if.
Suddenly recalling the Anchor, he headed for the narrow walkway that was cut between the General Store and Swanson's Ice Cream Shack. The pedestrian shortcut led to Eagle Road, which paralleled the long curve of Harbor Street and comprised the rest of the town's business district, and to the parking lot behind that. As Razor Bay's sole bar, if you didn't count the one off the lobby at The Brotherswhich tonight he definitely did notThe Anchor was one place still bound to be open.
He spotted the white-framed mosaic sign he remembered the instant he cleared the tiled walkway connecting the two streets. It spelled out the bar's name in sea-hued bits of tile on the bump-out over the marine-blue building's three front windows. The same twin neon anchors from his youth flashed yellow and blue on either end of the sign, and what he'd swear were the same neon beer signs dotted the windows.
He felt an edge of anticipation and had to admit he was curious. He'd left town before he was old enough to be allowed in the bar. Back in the day, he'd tried to lay hands on some fake ID with the thought of going there, but it hadn't panned out.
He snorted. Hell, even if he'd scored the best fake identification ever produced, it wasn't as if there'd been a hope in hell he'd have gotten away with using it. Not in the Anchor. In a town this size, everyone pretty much knew who everyone else was.
Pulling open the door, he walked in.
Dimly lit, the interior sported dark wood-plank floors scuffed from years of foot traffic, and matching, if less beat-up, walls covered in black-framed photos that appeared to be black-and-white shots of midcentury Razor Bay. He wouldn't mind taking a closer look at those.
A long bar with tall stools took up most of the back wall, and the two blackboards behind it, whose chalk menus were highlighted by art lights, showed a surprising selection of microbrewery beers and ales. A jukebox, pinball machine and a couple of dart-boards took up a small slice of real estate down at the end of the front wall to his right. Tables and chairs took up the rest of the floor, and a few small booths occupied the wall opposite the gaming section.
He didn't know what he'd expected, but this was a bar pretty much like you'd find anywhere, if a touch more hip than he'd anticipated. But at least he could kill a little time here with a beer and those photos.
"Well, would you look at what the cat dragged in," a deep voice drawled from one of the booths.
Jake froze midstride, and for a single hot second he was a fourth-grade boy again, forgetting for a moment that his dad had walked out on him and his mom, because he was finally on the much-coveted big kids' fourth-to-sixth-grade upper playground at Chief Sealth Elementary. He'd had one perfect momentuntil a boy two grades older came up to him, gave him a shove that almost knocked him off his feet and said, "Heard you got what you deserved. If your tramp of a mama hadn't got herself knocked up, my dad would still be with me and my mom."
It had been a shock on every level because how many darn families did his until-recently-adored father have? And Jake sure hadn't started the new school year expecting to be pushed around by his previously unknown half brother. A brother, he'd learned over a course of several school-yard confrontations, whom their mutual father, Charlie Brad-shaw, had totally ignored even when they'd lived in the same townthe way Charlie ignored him now that he'd moved on to a new family.
But the little flash down memory lane was just thatthere one second and gone the next. Shaking off the mix of confusion and rage that dealings with Max Bradshaw had always given him, he strolled over. "Well, hey, big brother," he drawled right back. "Long time, no see. I hear somebody thought it was a good idea to give you a gun. Tell me that doesn't scare the shit out of the general populace."
"Oh, most people don't have a thing to worry about."
Max gave Jake a pointed look. "You, however" His gaze grazed Jake's chest as if visualizing a bull's-eye.
It was never easy to tell when Max was serious and when he wasn't, but Jake gave him the same cool look either case would garner. "So what number wife are you up to now? Three? Four, maybe? Any nieces or nephews I oughta know about?"
The words had barely left his mouth when he felt an odd regret. He and Max actually shared several traits, and when their father had waltzed out of town, they'd had a narrow window of opportunity to bury the hatchet somewhere besides in each other's skull. After all, they were probably the only ones in Razor Bay who truly understood how the wreckage Charlie left behind affected the other. It had been a rare chance to take comfort in having someone who got it, someone with whom you didn't have to pretend you didn't give a damn that Charlie Bradshaw was a great dad as long as you were his current favorite, but that he forgot you even existed the moment he moved on. And they might have.
If hating each other's guts hadn't been so well ingrained by then.
Even in the dim light he could see his salvo cause something dark to flash across his half brother's deep-set eyes. But the other man merely shrugged a big shoulder. "No wives, no kids. You're the one who started early and followed in the old man's footsteps."
You opened yourself up for that one, Slick. But, ouch. It was a direct hit, and one that gouged at a long-festering guilt, more than a decade old.
Because as much as he'd like to blow off his half brother's potshot as the usual sour grapes, Max wasn't wrong. When Jake's high school girlfriend Kari had gotten knocked up in their senior year, he had started out with good intentions, fiercely determined to man up in a way that his own dad never had. And for a while, he had done just that.
In the end, however, he'd turned out to be nothing but a chip off the old block.
The knowledge rankled now just as much as it had back then, so instead of acting cool and shrugging off Max's remark the way he should have, he snapped, "You don't know a damn thing about me, bro. You didn't when I was nine and you turned the big kids' playground into a battleground, and you sure as hell don't now. When are you gonna get it through your head? My mom and I didn't make the old man leave you and your mother, any more than whoever that other woman was made him leave us. When it comes to Charlie's wives and kids, he's got the attention span of a fruit fly."
His half brother dug his knuckles into his forehead just above the bridge of his nose. Then, dropping his hand to splay atop the scarred table, Max looked up at him. And blew out a breath. "Yeah," he agreed, his deep voice a tired rumble.
Jake took a seat in the booth across the table from Max. "You know what?" he said in a low voice.
"I don't have the heart for this anymore. I've got enough on my plate just trying to make up for my past and hoping to hell I do a decent enough job to get to know my kid. I don't have enough energy to fight you, too."
Max gave him a puzzled look. "You do get that you're handing me a whole shitload of ammunition, right?"
Jake shrugged. "You're gonna do what you're gonna doit's not like I can stop you. So fuck it."
"Right." Max shifted in his seat. "Fuck it. We're not in high school anymore." He leveled a look on him. "Don't get the idea you're ever gonna be my bud, little Bradshaw. But I can probably stomach being around you now and then."
Jake had to swallow a grin at the "little Bradshaw" crack. That was a good one. He wasn't particularly small: he missed the six-foot mark by a fraction of an inch. But Max was a good six-three and twenty pounds heavier. "Give me a minute," he ordered. "I'm kinda overwhelmed here. I'm not sure I know how to handle so much enthusiasm coming my way." He shook his head as he met the gaze of the man across the table. "The thrill of it all just may kill me."
"We can only hope."
A cardboard Anchor Porter beer coaster landed on the table in front of him and he looked up at a cheery, college-age blonde.
She gave him a toothy grin. "Well, hey there, new blood. Haven't seen you before. Trust me, I'd remember." Then she waved the mild flirtation aside. "Get you boys something?"
"Him another table," Max said.
Jake flashed the waitress a smile. "My brother's such a kidder."
She did a double take. "Shut the front door! You two are brothers?"
"Half," Max emphasized. "We're half brothers."
"Half, whole." Jake shrugged. "What's the diff? Blood's blood, right?"
Max gave him a disgruntled glare. "Give it a rest, Jake
before I'm tempted to spill yours."
"Whatever you say, my brotha." He winked at the blonde. "Give old Bradshaw here another of whatever he's drinking and I'll have a Fat Tire."
"One Bud tap and a Fat Tire coming up."
"Budweiser?" Jake asked, turning his attention back to Max as the girl headed to the bar. "Seriously?"
Max rolled his muscular shoulders. "It's a good American beer. And it doesn't have a stupid name. Hell, I could've given you a fat lip for free."
"And have, on more than one occasion. But it's Fat Tire, philistine. I'm guessing you don't get out of this burg very often."
"Why would I want to? I've got everything I need right here."
Jake shuddered. If he had to stay in Razor Bay a second longer than it took to make Austin trust him, he'd open a vein.
The waitress was back with their beer almost before their exchange ended, and he dug his wallet out of his hip pocket, paid for the order and dropped a hefty tip on her tray.
Max studied him. "It's easy to tell you live in a big city."
"Why? Because I tip?"
His half brother scowled. "I tip. Maybe not fivers for a four-dollar bottle of beer, but I tip. But I was talking about that metrosexual thing you've got going."
"The hell you say!" He might like the amenities of a big city but, he'd never had a manicure or facial in his life.
"I do say." Max gave him a feral grin. "You're a pretty boy."
"I'm ruggedly handsome." He bounced a fist off his chest. "A manly man." Then he shrugged. "Still, you're right about the big city. I own a loft in Soho."
"We talking New York City?" Max grimaced, then unknowingly echoed his own sentiments. "Christ. I'd open a vein if I had to live there."
"How do you know? Have you ever been?"
"Nope. I've never had my balls waxed either, but I can tell you without a doubt that I wouldn't like it."
Unable to help himself, Jake laughed even as he hunched in a little over his own cajones. "Yeah, because the two things have so much in common. You ever been anywhere, Max?"
"Sure." He hitched a shoulder. "California. North Carolina. Afghanistan. Iraq."
"Of course. What else would a law-andorder type do but join thewhat?" A laugh escaped him. "No, wait, this is a no-brainer. You couldn't be anything but a jarhead. Or I suppose one of those Navy SEALS or Green Beret dudes."
"Please. Like I'd join either of those pussy branches of the service. I was one of the few, the proud, boy."
"And now you're the sheriff of Nottingham."
"Deputy of Nottingham. The sheriff's about a hundred years old."
But Jake was barely listening. Hearing a raunchy feminine laugh on the other side of the room, his head snapped up. That couldn't possibly be.
His gaze cut through the crowd that was beginning to fill the watering hole, tracking the sound to its source. And discovered thathellnot only could it be, it was. Jenny Salazar was at the bar, laughing with the bartender and another woman.
She looked different tonight. Not at all like the little girl he'd first mistaken her for. Her lips were red and soft looking. Her hair without those braids was longer than he'd realized, a shiny rippling curtain of dark against the red sweater she wore. And her
"What the hell are you staring at?" Max twisted in his seat to look over his shoulder. Then with a nod he settled back. "Ah. Tasha. She has that effect on guys. Not sure whyit's not like she's drop-dead gorgeous. Still, she's got a way of stopping the show."
Jake tore his gaze away. Gave himself a mental smack to get his head back in the game. And discovered that even then he didn't have any idea what Max was babbling about. "Who?"
"Tasha Riordan. The strawberry blonde? That's not who you're looking at? Who thenJenny?" He narrowed his eyes. "You don't want to go there."
That got his full attention. "I don't? That is, I really don'tmy interest in her isn't like that." At least not much. He gave his head a shake. "But just to clarify, why don't I? Is she yours?" He didn't question too closely why the idea bugged him.
But his half brother seemed almost appalled by the idea. "No!"
"Okay. Some other guy's?" He shook his head. "She's a nun, then."
Max gave him a what-the-fuck? look. "Here's a thought. How 'bout you try not to be any more of an idiot than you already are."
"I'm groping in the dark here, bro. She a lesbian?"
"Jesus. No. She's just
sweet. Loyal. A good friend to everyone. Not someone for a guy like you to be messing with."
"Yeah? Does she roll over and wag her tail when you scratch behind her ears, too?"
Max scowled, but Jake was too familiar with the expression to be intimidated. "What? She's a woman, big B. You make her sound like an old dog."
"You don't understand."
"No shit. I thought she was a kid when I met her this afternoon, but she herself disabused me of that notion right from the get. I take it she's single, so I don't see the problem if some guynot me, but someonewanted to slap the moves on her. So if she's none of the things I've already mentioned, what does that leave? Terminal?" He shook his head. "No, the conversation I had with her didn't leave me with that impressionshe's not inward looking enough. Leper?" He was enjoying his brother's disgust at his guessing game, until a sudden thought turned his blood to ice and drop-kicked the smile right off his face. "Christ. Rape victim?"
"No. Where do you come up with this shit?"
He shrugged. "I'm a journalist. I've seen things."
"I thought you were some hotshot photographer for National Explorer."''
"I am. Well, a photographer anyway. The hotshot part's still a work in progress. But just because most of my work is told through the lens of a camera, doesn't mean I'm not a questioning kind of guy." Jake glanced over at the woman under discussion once again. She and her friend had migrated to a table. The friend, who had taken a chair facing him, did have something, he admitted. But it was Jenny, sitting in profile to him, who commanded his attention.
Well, of course she did. She held considerable sway over any relationship he might forge with Austin.
He looked back at Max. "I talked to her for all of maybe fifteen minutes this afternoon. So tell me about her. How does she fit into Austin's life?"
"She's like his sister."
"Yeah, I got that. What I don't get is, how did that happen? No way in hell they're related. Kathy was an only child, and Emmett had one older sister who never married."
Max shrugged. "She came here when she was fifteen" He paused for a moment, thinking. "Sixteen?" He shook his head. "The exact age doesn't really matter. She came here as a teen in the midst of a huge scandal. I was home on leave when she hit town."
That caught Jake's attention, but his brother immediately gave the air a negligent swipe with one big-knuckled hand.
"Not her scandal. It was her old man's. He'd been all over the news because of some big swindle that crashed down around his ears and landed him in Monroe. Jenny came here with her mother." Max's face hardened. "Who, as far as I could tell, planted her skinny socialite ass in bed from the shame of it all, while her underage kid kept the two of them off the streets by doing housekeeping at The Brothers after school and on weekends."
"And Emmett and Kathy just invited two strangers with a questionable past to move into their home?" In a way it sounded like something they'd do. But in other ways, it wasn't like them at all, especially in light of Kari's death, which couldn't have been more than a year or two before that time.
Max shook his head. "That was a while later. When they first got here, Jenny and her mother rented the Bakers' little place."
"Christ." He shifted uncomfortably. "That old re-habbed chicken coop?"
"Yeah. Where her mom just curled up and died. I'm talking literally. From what I heard, the woman couldn't live with her loss of status and just willed herself to die. But it took her a while. By the time she passed, Jenny was a senior and had been working for the Pierces almost two years."
"Sowhat? They just replaced Kari with her?" Even as the words left his mouth, he knew he was the last person with any room for righteous indignation.
But somehow that didn't stop him from feeling it.
Max gave him a look that suggested he was thinking the same thing. But he merely said, "The one time I went to their house to see Austin, I was strongly discouraged, so I'm hardly an expert on their mind-set."
That sidetracked Jake. "You wanted to see Austin?"
"I thought I should meet my nephew."
He simply stared at Max for a moment before admitting, "It never occurred to me you were his uncle. But you are, aren't you?"
"Not as far as Emmett and Kathy were concerned," Max said drily. "They said considering my background with you and the fact that the little dude didn't know me from Adam, they didn't see the point in my spending time with himthat he'd only be confused." He shrugged. "They were probably right. I mean, you and I never acted like real brothers. Why should my relationship with your get be any different? But I always wondered if maybe I shouldn't have pressed them a little harder. Done more. Hell, I put more effort into getting to know the boys over at Cedar Village," he added, naming the home for delinquent boys on Orilla Road outside town.
Then he shook his head. "That's not what we were talking about, though. Because one thing I do know about the Pierces is that they sure as hell mourned Kari. So I doubt replacing her with Jenny entered into the equation. I think they saw a hardworking girl who was the age their daughter had been when she died and who was struggling to make ends meetand thought they could help. In the end, I believe they came to think of Jenny as the next best thing to a daughter."
"What about her? What did she get out of the relationship, besides the obvious?"
Max's eyes narrowed. "I don't like what you're implying, bro."
"She went from the Bakers' chicken coop to the Pierces' big Craftsman."
"Where she refused every enticement to live a life of leisure." Max looked him in the eyes. "And you know she could have. But Jenny kept working at the inn and, after graduating, put herself through college.
With no help from the Pierces, from everything I've ever heard. She earned her promotions with good, old-fashioned hard work. And she moved out of that big Craftsman. Bought the little cabin she lives in from Emmett." Max gave him a hard look. "So, you don't want to be calling that kettle black, pot."
Jake scrubbed his hands over his face. "I know. I know."
"I'll tell you what I think she got from her relationship with Emmett and Kathy. They were considerably older than her own parents, and I think she looked on them as sort of grandparents. You gotta know how they spoiled Kari"
He nodded. God, did he ever.
"They did the same thing with Austin, but Jenny curbed it wherever she could. So the kid is less spoiled than his mother was. And she flat-out refused to let them spoil her."
"Yeah, she's a goddamn paragon," Jake muttered, staring across the room at her profile.
"Pretty much," Max agreed cheerfully. "A helluva lot more than you can ever hope to be."
Jake abruptly became aware that the strawberry blonde was watching him watch Jenny, and even as he noticed, she leaned into the table to say something to her friend. Jenny turned to look his way, a friendly, interested smile on her face.
It turned cool as the evening wind when she saw him.
Max glanced over his shoulder, then looked back at him with raised eyebrows. "And you call yourself a big-city sophisticate? Hell, even us rubes know if you stare at a female like a dog at a juicy bone long enough"
"The hell I did!"
Max thrust an authoritative forefinger at him. "Dog." The finger thrust in Jenny's general direction. "Juicy bone." He shook his head. "Jesus, kid. I'm embarrassed to acknowledge some of the same blood runs in our veins. It was only a matter of time until you were busted."