Jada Brooks was pushing her brother in his wheelchair at the farmers’ market on the second weekend in June, a Saturday morning that inspired the cliché “picture perfect,” with nothing but blue skies and the usual mild Southern California weather, when she caught a glimpse of something that made her stop dead in her tracks.
“What’s wrong?” Atticus twisted around in his seat to look up at her. It’d been thirteen years since he’d been shot, so he was accustomed to the paralysis in his lower body and could propel himself with his arms—he was adept at doing almost everything, including driving now that his truck was properly equipped—but it was more relaxing and easier to stick together in a crowd if she took over. Visiting the market while Maya, Jada’s twelve-year-old daughter, helped her grandmother at the cookie store was something they’d become accustomed to doing every now and then since Jada had divorced her husband and moved back to town three months ago.
“I just…” Jada shook her head to clear it of the image that stubbornly remained. Surely, she was wrong about who she thought she’d seen. Maddox Richardson had left town right after she’d gotten pregnant, and there was nothing to draw him back. It wasn’t as if he had family in the area, like she did. The only reason he’d moved to Silver Springs in the first place was because he’d been sent by the courts to attend New Horizons Boys Ranch, a boarding school for troubled teens. And when he left, it was because he’d been enrolled at a different school somewhere else, somewhere she was never even told. After that terrible night, Maddox had essentially been banished at the request and expense of her parents, which hadn’t been an easy thing to accomplish given all the red tape his mother had had to go through in order to accommodate them.
Whether forcing Maddox to go somewhere else was fair to him was another subject entirely. Jada tried not to think about that. She tried not to think about Maddox at all.
Too bad she wasn’t more successful at it. So many little things brought him to mind, especially now that she was living where she’d gotten to know him. Someone who slightly resembled him or laughed like him or had the same cerulean blue eyes. Even a particular song or smell could bring him back to her. His life had intersected with hers in a way she would never forget—both for good and bad.
“Jada?” Atticus prompted.
She blinked, realizing she’d let her words trail off, but continued to study the crowd around her. Maddox wasn’t there. It must’ve been someone of his general size and shape with the same jet-black hair, but she couldn’t see anyone who resembled him now. Whoever it was had melted back into the crowd jostling around them.
“It’s nothing.” She forced a smile and started pushing again. She couldn’t mention Maddox’s name to Atticus, regardless.
“Should we get some kale for our morning smoothies?” Atticus asked.
He still lived with their mother, had never even been in a serious relationship and talked as though he had no plans for that sort of thing. Although Jada had spent all the years since she’d had Maya in LA, she hadn’t rented a place of her own since returning to Silver Springs, so she and Maya were currently living with her mother, too. She’d been trying to find the right situation to be able to move out, but there weren’t a lot of homes for rent in this artsy, outdoorsy, spiritually focused community, and with her mother sick so often these days, Jada was needed at home.
It’d be different if her father was still around, but…
She steered her mind away from Jeremiah. Losing him earlier in the year to a stroke when he was only fifty-five had not been easy, especially because she felt she’d let him down so terribly and never had the chance to make it up to him, as she was trying to do with her mother and brother.
“Sure,” she said about the kale. “Maybe it’ll boost Mom’s immune system. It’s supposed to be really good for you.”
Pausing in front of the closest stand, she chose a particularly healthy-looking bunch of leafy greens and was just handing the vendor her money when she heard her name.
She turned to see Tiffany Martinez, a friend she’d gone to school with from fifth grade on, hurrying toward her in a short-sleeved, button-down blouse, sandals and shorts, similar to what she was wearing herself. Because Jada had had a baby just as everyone else was going off to college, her life had taken a completely different course, one that had put her out of sync with the group of friends she’d grown up with. For the first several years after moving to LA, she’d felt overlooked, abandoned, left behind, while everyone else went away to college and documented all the fun they had on social media. Watching them on her computer while struggling to raise a child when she was barely more than a child herself had only made that period of her life harder. But Tiffany had always been supportive and remained in touch. And everything was changing now that so many of their other friends were getting married and having children. Jada had been able to reconnect with several who still lived in the area.
Tiffany would always be her favorite, though. She was also the only one who knew Jada’s most guarded secret.
“Hey, Tiff.” She put the kale into her reusable tote and hung it on the back of Atticus’s wheelchair. Jada had told Tiffany she was going to the farmers’ market when they spoke on the phone last night, which was what had prompted Tiffany to come, too. Like Jada, she was recently divorced, only she didn’t have any kids, so she was always looking for things to do when she wasn’t working at the regional hospital as a nurse. They would’ve come together—they did a lot together—but Tiffany hadn’t wanted to change the chemistry of Jada’s morning with Atticus. “Glad you made it.”
“I’ve been here for a while. I was just leaving when…” She tucked her curly red hair behind her ears as her eyes—so green and clear they were almost startling—darted to Atticus, a captive audience in his chair. “When I saw something that… Well, that reminded me of you and made me wonder if you were still here.”
So Tiffany hadn’t accidentally spotted her and come over to say hello? She’d come looking for her? “What was it?”
Again, Tiffany glanced uncomfortably at Atticus. “A person actually. Someone we knew a…a while ago.”
Jada’s heart began to pound as her friend’s behavior connected with the scare she’d had only a few minutes earlier. With the way Tiffany was acting, so flustered and overly aware of Atticus listening in… “Atticus, would you mind grabbing some purple onions while I talk to Tiffany?”
“Sure. No problem.” Seemingly relieved to escape the girl talk, he rolled away as Jada led Tiffany a few feet in the other direction, just to be safe.
“What is it?” she whispered. “Why do you look as though the world’s about to come to an end?”
Tiffany grabbed her forearms. “You don’t know? You haven’t seen him?”
Suspicion turned to outright fear. “Him? You don’t mean Maddox…”
“That’s exactly who I mean!”
Shit. She had seen him. The question was…had he seen her? And why was he in Silver Springs?
Jada swallowed hard. Had he returned because he’d learned about Maya?
That couldn’t be, could it? Her family had kept her pregnancy so quiet. She had easily been able to hide her rounding stomach beneath baggy clothes as school came to an end. Her parents had kept her home throughout the summer, her final trimester, so almost no one saw her looking unmistakably pregnant. And then she moved to LA with her newborn. Other than Tiffany, the few friends she’d kept in contact with over the years, and loosely at that, knew she’d married almost right out of high school, that she had a child and had recently divorced. But they didn’t know exactly when she’d met her husband or had Maya. Most assumed Maya belonged to her ex.
But if anyone really pressed for details—when and where Maya was born—they could possibly put two and two together…and Jada was afraid Maddox might do exactly that.
“Are you okay?” Tiffany asked.
Jada felt dizzy, faint. “Why?” she asked instead of answering. “Why is he back?”
“I don’t know. But he is. I just saw him.”
“You’re sure it was him.”
“Positive. There could be no mistaking Maddox Richardson.”
Maddox had always stood out, been unique, charismatic, appealing—and sexy as hell. She’d never met a man who could make a woman feel warm and tingly simply by looking at her.
Tiffany had also known him in school, and she clearly remembered what he was like, as well. She’d been interested in Maddox’s brother, Tobias, who wasn’t as enigmatic and appealing as Maddox but came awfully damn close, despite his terrible reputation and the behavior that had earned it. She’d been at the party that fateful night, too.
“Did he see you?” Jada asked.
“He did, but I don’t know if he recognized me. Our eyes connected for a second. Then he looked away and kept moving.”
He had to have recognized Tiffany. Not many people had her shade of hair and unique, slanted green eyes. So…what did that mean?
Tiffany bent to adjust her sandal. “Do you think Tobias is out of prison?”
“I have no idea.”
“He should be. He only got eight years, and it’s been thirteen.”
“But my father told me he did something on the inside—got in a fight or found some other trouble—and they extended his sentence. I’m not sure by how much.” That was the last thing her father told her about it before he died, and she wasn’t willing to ask her mother, wasn’t willing to go anywhere near the subject with her.
Tiffany looked as conflicted as Jada felt. “I wonder what he’s like now…”
“I can’t imagine prison has improved him. I have no idea what the past thirteen years have done to Maddox, either.”
“You two have had no contact?”
“None whatsoever. You know that. But I thought I saw him, too, a few minutes ago. I’d just talked myself out of it when you came up.”
Tiffany looked back over her shoulder. “I’m sorry. You can’t be happy about this.”
Jada was facing the opposite direction. She could see that her brother was still paying for the onions. Maddox was nowhere in sight. “I’m not,” she said. And yet there was a small, rebellious part of her that was feeling an unwarranted rush of excitement and expectation. What did Maddox look like these days? What was he up to? Had he gotten married? Was he happy?
She’d often tried to look him up, had been dying—for years—to catch a glimpse of him or find out the smallest detail of what was happening in his life. But he wasn’t on social media.
“What will you say to him?” Tiffany asked.
Jada had no idea. What could she say to him? If she’d never gotten involved with him, her brother would be a fully functioning adult. “I’m going to avoid him, if I can.” Because of Maya, that was the smartest way to handle the situation. If she drew Maddox’s attention, he might figure out the truth—if something or someone hadn’t tipped him off already.
“That’s probably for the best,” Tiffany agreed. “The mountains and hills that close off this area make Silver Springs feel like such a small town. But there are seven thousand people here. That’s not so small that everyone knows everyone else. You might get lucky and never cross paths with him.”
That wasn’t very likely. She was running her mother’s cookie store downtown much of the time. They’d at least see each other. Unless…
“Hopefully, he won’t be staying long,” Jada murmured, but she couldn’t be totally committed to wishing him gone. She’d loved him so much, hadn’t felt anything even half as powerful since, which was a sad testament to what her marriage had been like. She’d screwed up her life in so many ways—dating the boy her parents had warned her not to get involved with, getting pregnant at seventeen, marrying the wrong man while rushing to find the same kind of all-consuming love she’d lost. And now, just when she was putting the past into perspective and settling in to rebuild—slowly and with some caution this time—Maddox popped up in Silver Springs?
“Yeah, maybe he’s just passing through.”
“He could have come to see Aiyana,” Jada offered. Aiyana Turner had founded the boys’ ranch he’d once attended. Almost all of the students who went there adored her. She’d done a lot for troubled young men over the years and deserved the accolades. “There could be some sort of reunion going on,” she added, to bolster the argument. “After all, it is June, when schools are celebrating graduation.”
A skeptical expression gave Tiffany’s true feelings away. “But does he know Aiyana that well? He didn’t attend New Horizons for even one full school year. And he went on to graduate from somewhere else.”
“Still… You never know.”
“That may be true.”
Jada put up a hand to alert Tiffany to the fact that Atticus was wheeling his way back toward them.
“Should we get anything else?” Atticus asked as he rolled up.
Jada couldn’t help glancing around. “No, we’ve got enough. We should get going.”
Atticus’s thick dark eyebrows jerked together above his milk-chocolate-colored eyes. While Jada had sandy-blond hair, her eyes were the exact same color, which was part of the reason everyone told them they looked just alike. “You’re done shopping? I thought we’d get a hot dog and a lemonade over at that stand.” He jerked his head to indicate what he meant.
She didn’t dare risk running into Maddox, especially while she was with Atticus. How was her brother going to feel when he learned Maddox was back? While it was true that Maddox wasn’t directly responsible for putting Atticus in a wheelchair, he’d been very much involved in what went down that night. Nothing would’ve happened without him first setting those events in motion. And he’d immediately tried to protect his own brother, Tobias, who had been directly responsible.
“I thought so, too,” she said, “but I feel a headache coming on. I should get home and take a painkiller so it can kick in before I go help Mom at the store today. Do you mind?”
He lifted his hands. “I guess not.”
Jada felt bad for cutting their excursion short. She and Atticus were just beginning to find common ground. He’d been so sullen and fatalistic since he lost the use of his legs. It’d been difficult to even talk to him while she was living in LA. Her mother complained that he wouldn’t come out of his room for days at a time, that he couldn’t seem to get on top of the depression that coincided with the loss he’d suffered. So Jada was glad he was finally starting to function more normally and live as well as he could. She hated to put a damper on his recovery, even by saying no to something as small as getting a hot dog together. But if he saw Maddox, she was afraid it would throw him into another tailspin, and he’d lose all the ground he’d made up. “Okay. We’ll be sure to get lunch next time we come,” she said and, with a quick wave to say goodbye to Tiffany, wheeled him out of the market.
* * * * *
Maddox Richardson couldn’t get away fast enough from the spot where he’d seen Jada Brooks. When he agreed to come to Silver Springs to become the principal of the brand-new girls’ school Aiyana Turner was opening right next to the original New Horizons Boys Ranch just outside of town, he’d been assured Jada didn’t live in the area anymore. Aiyana had told him Jada was married, with a child, and living in LA!
So…had she and her little family moved to Silver Springs? Was he going to have to deal with the possibility of running into her whenever he was in town?
Or was she just visiting?
He stood behind the corrugated metal building that sheltered the vendors so he couldn’t be spotted and called his new boss.
“You’re not going to believe who I just saw,” he blurted out the second Aiyana answered.
“Maddox?” She sounded surprised by the lack of a hello or other lead-in. Or maybe she was reacting to the emergency in his voice.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Who did you see?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer before she added, “Please don’t tell me it was Atticus Brooks. He hardly ever leaves the house.”
That was what she’d told him before! “It was Jada. But Atticus was with her.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Did she see you?” Aiyana asked at length.
“I don’t think so. I slipped into the crowd as soon as I realized, but while I was trying to put some distance between us I almost bumped into that friend she used to hang out with all the time—Tiffany something.”
“That’s the one. Jada might not have focused on me long enough to really see me, but Tiffany definitely recognized me.”
“And she’ll tell Jada.”
“No question. So…what’s going on?” When Aiyana had been encouraging him to accept the position, she’d told him that Jada’s father had died. She’d said Jada’s mother and brother were still in the area, but if he did his job and didn’t bother them, didn’t approach them at all, they probably wouldn’t even realize he was back. Not only had it been almost thirteen years since the terrible incident that had disrupted so many lives, including his own, he wasn’t the one who’d caused the damage! And the opportunity she was offering was simply too good to pass up, especially for someone with a checkered past, like him. It took a person like Aiyana to be able to see beyond the confusion and anger of his childhood to discover his potential as an adult.
Besides, he owed her. She’d stayed in touch with him over the years, arranged a scholarship for his college education from a wealthy benefactor (he suspected it was the professional football player Hudson King, who did so much for the school, but the person writing the checks had chosen to remain anonymous). She’d also helped him get his first job at Westlake Academy in Utah by recommending him to her friend, who was in charge at the time. He’d been excited to come work for her, to take charge of the new girls’ school and do all he could to give back to her by giving back to them.
But now… He was beginning to wonder if he’d made a mistake.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I’ll have to make a few calls.”
“You haven’t heard anything about Jada moving back to town…”
“No, but it’s not like that sort of thing would be reported in the paper. And I’ve been so busy getting the students here ready for graduation I haven’t been keeping in touch with what’s happening around me.”
“She’s probably just visiting…”
“That’s my guess, too.”
“So it’ll be okay.”
“I’ll call you as soon as I find out.”
“I appreciate it.” He disconnected, scrubbing a hand over his face as he stared out toward the Topatopa Mountains. He’d already signed the lease on the house where he was living and taken the reins at the school. It wasn’t as if he could easily change his mind.
But perhaps he was getting worked up for nothing. Since Jada’s mother and brother lived here, she was going to visit occasionally. And if she wasn’t here very often, maybe he could manage to avoid her.
Letting his breath go in a sigh, he started toward the parking lot but had barely cleared the shade of the building and stepped into the sun when Aiyana called him back.
“What’d you find?” He stopped walking and plugged one ear so he could hear above the throng of people chatting around him.
“I think you’d better sit down,” she said.