The old Victorian looked nothing like the pictures she’d viewed online.
Dr. Natasha Gray sighed as she stood in the entryway, peering at the place she’d rented, sight unseen. No wonder her landlord had been willing to leave the key in the mailbox. She’d assumed it was because the town was so safe he wasn’t worried about someone else finding it. Now she understood that a key wasn’t necessary—a large window on the side had been broken out. Although the hole had been taped off with black plastic, the barrier would do little to stop anyone who really wanted to get inside.
“This is where we’re going to live?” Her six-year-old son, Lucas, had slipped past her and was turning in a circle, surveying the dilapidated interior.
She could understand his disappointment. Living here would be different, in every way, than what they’d known in Los Angeles. There, they’d had a nice upper-middle-class home in the suburbs. This was an old, one-of-a-kind house located in a small town ninety minutes to the northwest of the sprawling metropolis they’d called home, with the town’s main drag in front and a small patch of worn grass in back. But it was all she could currently afford. And they were far enough from where they’d lived before that she’d no longer have to face the stigma of everything that’d happened this past year.
“This won’t be so bad once we get it fixed up,” she heard herself say, but she’d expected much more after seeing the darling pictures online. They must have been taken a while ago, because it was obvious the house had been vacant for some time. Whoever had cleaned up the glass from the broken window had left footprints in the dust on the hardwood floor.
“Who will I play with?” Lucas asked.
Since there were only commercial businesses in the immediate vicinity, they’d have no neighbors—none with children, anyway. “Silver Springs might be small, but there will be other kids,” she told him. “You’ll make friends once school starts.”
“When school starts! It just got summer,” he said in a sulky voice.
She tamped down her own disappointment. “It’ll be fall before you know it. You’ll see.”
The way he shoved his hands in his pockets and bowed his head let her know he wasn’t even slightly mollified. But she hadn’t asked for what’d happened; she and her family had been victims of it. The nightmare that had destroyed her practice had also wiped her out financially and proved to be the death knell for her marriage.
But there were others who’d been hurt—and some of them had suffered much worse. She couldn’t think of them without wanting to cry.
If only she could’ve figured out what was going on sooner…
“Why can’t I live with Daddy until school starts?” Lucas asked.
Natasha wished she could let him. As much as she’d miss him, she had no doubt spending the summer with his father would be easier on him—less lonely—than spending the summer with her in this strange new place. His father didn’t give him a great deal of attention. Ace never had. But Lucas would have been able to associate with his grandparents, who were more hands-on, and some of his friends had he stayed in LA. Natasha might’ve considered leaving him with his father for a month, just so that the summer wouldn’t seem so long and lonely for him. Except she and Ace had lost the house when her practice failed, and he’d made it clear that there wasn’t room for Lucas to stay with him in the condo he was now sharing with two roommates—not permanently. Visits would be crowded enough.
“I’d rather you stick with me and we both get settled here,” she said. What else could she tell him? Not only had Ace agreed to let her move to Silver Springs, he’d only requested two weekends a month and every other holiday for visitation. Natasha suspected her ex preferred to be free to play the field, so he could find another woman.
“But I don’t like it here.” Lucas pinched his nose. “It stinks.”
He was right. The scent wasn’t strong, but it was distinctive. “Smells like a skunk to me.” Had one died under the house? She couldn’t say until she looked, but she wasn’t ready to brave what she might find under there, not when the part of the house that was supposed to look good didn’t. “A thorough cleaning will make a big difference,” she insisted.
The dust and dirt she could contend with. Natasha was more worried about the integrity of the roof and the rat droppings she spied in one corner. Did they have a rodent problem?
This was hardly the sanctuary she’d envisioned. But since when had anything ever been easy for her? With a mother who’d dragged her all over hell when she was a child and consistently put her own needs first, Natasha had always had to fend for herself.
She’d get through this, too.
“Maybe you should play on the porch while I sweep,” she said.
He peered out the door. “When will Uncle Mack be here?”
“Uncle Mack” was driving the rental truck that carried all of their belongings, other than what she’d been able to squeeze into her car. He wasn’t really her son’s uncle. As far as she was concerned, a long-ago marriage that had, for a fleeting time, joined her family with his didn’t qualify. It wasn’t as if they’d grown up together. He’d been twenty-five when they first met, and she sixteen. Neither did they get together for the holidays or anything like that. His father was just another man in the long line of men who’d been in her mother’s life, except that he’d had five sons who’d stepped in to help her at a critical point when she was a teenager.
But she and Mack had always struggled to figure out exactly what role they should play in each other’s life. Ever since she’d lived with him and his brothers before she went to college, she hadn’t had a lot of contact with him, especially since her son was born. So she’d been surprised when he’d called, out of the blue, and insisted on coming to help her move.
No doubt he’d heard about what’d happened to her practice and her marriage and felt sorry for her. She hated being the object of his pity, once again, especially after all she’d done to make something of herself. Not only had she put herself through medical school, she’d survived the insanely long shifts required during residency—while raising a young child, no less—and, after eleven years of pushing for all she was worth, had finally achieved her dream. She’d become a pediatrician and started her own practice—only to be leveled just when she’d thought she was home free.
“He left when we did,” Lucas said.
“He can’t travel as fast in that big truck,” she explained. Her son had taken to Mack instantly. Maybe it was because he’d lost his father and his friends all at once, but the relationship worried her.
“Maybe he doesn’t know how to get here,” Lucas said.
“He has his phone, and GPS will lead him right to us.”
She went out and got the cleaning supplies from her Jetta, which she’d parked in the unattached garage. She was eager to get started on the house.
After setting the supplies inside the door, she gingerly picked her way up the stairs. Because she was afraid they wouldn’t hold her weight, she made Lucas stay in the living room until she’d scaled them first. But they seemed sturdy, so she let him come up.
Fortunately, the bedrooms weren’t as bad as the living room. There were no broken windows, no water damage, no rat droppings. She tried to tell Lucas that his room would soon look as good as the one back home, but he wasn’t buying it. He trailed slowly after her, so dejected he could hardly put one foot in front of the other, but he didn’t want to be left in a different room, either.
The rumble of a large engine sounded as they were checking out the laundry facilities, which were—along with a plethora of spiderwebs and Lord knew what else—in the musty, unfinished basement.
“There he is!” Lucas exclaimed and ran up to greet him.
Natasha took a few seconds to compose herself. She didn’t want Mack to know how disappointed she was in the condition of the house, just as she didn’t want him to know that she wasn’t bouncing back as readily as she’d hoped from everything that’d happened in LA. She didn’t have a lot left, but she had her pride.
“This is it?” Mack said, as she met him in the living room.
“It won’t look so bad once I get it fixed up,” she replied.
He removed his sunglasses. About six-two, he had powerful shoulders, dark hair and large brown eyes that were currently filled with doubt. “Really? Because it looks like a bulldozer would be the best way to fix it.”
“It’s structurally sound.” She wasn’t sure she fully believed that, but she preferred to pretend that she’d known what she was getting into when she rented this place—that it hadn’t been the act of a woman so desperate to escape her current situation that she’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. She had to convince him that she was going to be fine so that he’d leave. The sooner, the better. Then she could get on with the business of rebuilding her life, wouldn’t have to deal with the conflicting emotions he evoked.
He’d been with her for three days, and she still wasn’t entirely sure why he’d come. To help, certainly. He’d done plenty of that. But why did he want to help her? That was the question. Since when did what happened to her matter to him?
Actually, that wasn’t fair. Mack, like his brothers, had tried to look out for her during those few years when her mother was married to his father. He was the baby of the family, so although she was nine years younger, she was closest to him in age. After she graduated from high school and confessed her love for him, however, he’d pulled back a great deal. Although he’d continued to check in and let her know he cared about her, and she would visit him and his brothers whenever she returned to Whiskey Creek, he wouldn’t allow their relationship to go any deeper, especially after that one night during Victorian Days. And after she got married, she’d actually heard from his brothers—Dylan, Aaron, Rod and Grady—more than she heard from Mack. She wasn’t even aware of how he’d learned that her life had imploded. The news hadn’t come from her own lips. If she could’ve hidden it from him, she would have.
It was possible he’d read about it, though. It’d been such a shocking and horrible situation; the media had been all over it.
Or her mother could’ve told him. Although Anya had divorced Mack’s father years ago, she was still in Whiskey Creek. Mack and some of his brothers still lived there, too, where they ran the original location of their family business, Amos Auto Body. Knowing her mother, Anya stayed because she considered them the only family she had, and even though Natasha doubted they felt the same way, they continued to help Anya whenever she got down on her luck.
Natasha refused to lean on them the way her mother did. She preferred to stand on her own two feet, had decided long ago that if she couldn’t have Mack’s love, she’d at least have his respect. That was why it was so difficult to let him see her now. This should’ve been a moment of triumph, when she faced him as a practicing pediatrician who no longer needed him.
Instead, because she’d hired the wrong nurse, she was standing amid the rubble of everything she’d established so far.
“Well, structurally sound or not, I can’t bring in the furniture,” he said, hooking his thumbs into the waistband of his faded jeans, which had a hole in one knee, as he surveyed his surroundings. “Not until we get a few things done in here, anyway. And—” he wrinkled his nose “—it stinks.”
“That’s a skunk,” Lucas piped up. “Oh, look! A potato bug!” He dropped down on his stomach so he could examine the insect crawling on the floor.
At least he wasn’t by the rat droppings.
“I’ll be okay,” she said. “I’ll check under the house to see if we have a dead animal there. It’s probably nothing, just residual spray—”
“Which means we can’t do anything about it,” he broke in.
“It’ll fade with time,” she said. “And I’ll work around the furniture, once we bring it in, so that you can take the truck back to LA.” After all, she didn’t have that much; her ex had taken their bedroom and living room furniture and their washer and dryer. “I can get this place fixed up on my own, a little at a time.”
He gave her a look that said she must be crazy. “You want me to leave you alone with this mess?”
“Have you ever put in a window?”
She had no idea what she was going to do about the window. She’d poured everything she had into becoming a doctor. When would she have had the time or the opportunity to learn anything about home improvement? “I can probably get the landlord to handle that much.”
“You told me the lease you signed was ‘as is.’ That the landlord had no money for repairs, which is why he gave you such a sweet deal.”
“That’s true, but…he can’t leave me without a window.” The landlord had mentioned that the house needed work, but this was ridiculous.
“Why fight with him when I can fix it?” Mack asked.
“Because it’s not your job to fix it. I can hire someone.”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “With what money?”
He’d been there when she’d tried to rent the truck and her debit card had been rejected. She still cringed when she remembered him stepping forward to front the money.
“I have a job,” she said defiantly. She’d been lucky enough to land employment nearby, which was why she’d moved here. She’d be the medical professional at New Horizons Boys & Girls Ranch, a year-round school for troubled teens located not far outside of town, until she could save up enough money to once again open her own practice. She was overqualified for the position. Aiyana Turner, the woman who ran the school, had stated as much in her interview. Mrs. Turner had been looking for a nurse, not a doctor. But at least the school would have someone on hand who could provide expert medical care, and Natasha would soon have a steady income. She was grateful for the stopgap. And she’d pay Mack back as soon as she received her first paycheck.
“Your job doesn’t start for another week,” he pointed out. “And then it’ll take at least two weeks to get paid. You’re staring down the barrel of three weeks without income. You realize that.”
“I’ve got a few bucks in my purse.” She hoped he’d let it go at that, but he challenged her instead.
“Oh yeah? How much?”
“Enough to get by,” she retorted. No way was she going to reveal the specific figure; then he’d know just how poor she really was.
“Probably three bucks exactly,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t know who you hired to do your divorce, but your ex must’ve paid him a lot more than you did.”
“Her. It was a woman,” she said. “And that’s not funny. After what happened, there wasn’t much to divide between us.”
“I heard you on the phone yesterday when you were talking to your mother. You admitted you agreed to pay alimony, for heaven’s sake, even though you have primary custody of Lucas. Why would you ever agree to spousal support?”
Although she’d seen the scowl on Mack’s face when she’d made that revelation, he hadn’t said anything about it until now. “Once he told me he wanted out, I decided not to prolong the split by fighting over possessions.”
“Why would he fight over them? That’s my question. Especially after everything you’ve provided already—and everything you’ve been through?”
“Because they mean more to him, I guess.” And because he wasn’t working. He hadn’t worked for a number of years, which made it much less likely that he’d be able to replace those items—unless he found a job or another wife to take care of him. Ace wasn’t the most motivated person. He’d sold her on his dreams, droned on and on about all he was going to accomplish in the future. But once it became apparent that was all talk, that he’d probably never accomplish anything, she’d consoled herself with the fact that it would be nice to have him home with Lucas, and it didn’t really matter if he contributed financially as long as she could earn enough to support them.
It wasn’t until Lucas started preschool that it began to bug her that Ace was spending most of his time gaming. At that point, she’d asked him to come in and run her front office so that she wouldn’t have to hire someone else, but he did such a lackadaisical job she would’ve let him quit even if everything hadn’t gone to hell right about then for an entirely different reason.
“Is he unable to work?” Mack asked.
“No.” She lowered her voice so that Lucas wouldn’t be able to hear her. “He comes from a wealthy family and has never had to work for anything.”
“So he’s lazy.”
She checked Lucas again, who was, thankfully, still absorbed in examining that bug. “Stop. I don’t want to talk about Ace.” She’d just had a baby when she married him. Because she’d been frightened to be a single parent, especially one who was juggling so much, she’d made a bad decision. But she’d been willing to compromise as much as possible to make the marriage work. So it was pretty ironic that he ended up finding fault with her and felt he’d be better off on his own. “I can get by. And if I have to, I can sell what he did let me have to bring in some quick cash. It’s not as though I have any kind of sentimental attachment to these things. There’s no need to hold you up any longer.”
“God, you’re stubborn,” he said with a scowl. “I can see that hasn’t changed.”
“You’re just as stubborn as I am,” she retorted, pretending to be irritated, but really she was just trying not to admire the handsome face that’d fueled so many of her dreams over the years.
“Damn right,” he said with an unrepentant grin. “Did you bring any tools?”
She dragged her mind back to the focus of the conversation. She couldn’t allow herself to admire Mack, couldn’t fall into that trap again, especially after the Christmas before she got married. But it was difficult not to at least acknowledge that he’d only gotten better with time. Although he’d recently turned forty-one, he didn’t look that much older than when she’d first met him. “What do you think?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say Ace got those, too, which means I’ll have to buy some, because I’m not going to leave you like this.”
She wanted to tell him to just walk away. He was good at that. But she didn’t feel the barb was warranted—at least not right now, when he was trying to help. Maybe this was about penance for the pain he’d caused before. Maybe he was looking for forgiveness or something. But she didn’t dare let him into her life now—not in any big way. She couldn’t pile more hurt on top of what she’d endured so recently. “The truck has to be back by the end of the day, or they’ll charge me—er, you, until I can pay you back,” she said. “You don’t have time.”
“So I’ll pay the extra thirty bucks.” He shrugged as if it was nothing. “Give me the keys to your car. Lucas and I will go find a home improvement store.”
“What?” She blinked at him. Surely he wasn’t planning to stay any longer. She’d already let him off the hook. “Seriously,” she said. “You’ve spent three days getting me out of the house in LA. I appreciate your help—truly—but there’s no need to hold you up any longer.” She started for the door. “Come on. Let’s unload so that you can be on your way.”
He caught her by the wrist. “You need the help, Tash, and I’m standing here, offering it. Why won’t you let me? Are you really that angry with me? After seven years?”
Yes, she was. So angry that she couldn’t believe he’d even bring it up. She might forgive him. Since when had she ever been able to hold a grudge against Mack? But she would certainly never forget. “I just don’t want to inconvenience you any longer,” she said.
“It’s not an inconvenience. I’ve been planning to visit LA for a while now to scout a good location for another shop.”
He and his brothers had been talking about expanding into LA for years. Aaron, the second oldest, had opened an Amos Auto Body in Reno, Nevada, but he was the only one who’d broken away so far. “LA’s ninety minutes from here.”
“That’s not very far. I can take a week to get you set up before I go back.”
He still hadn’t let go of her wrist. Her whole arm tingled at his touch, and a memory danced around the edges of her mind—a memory she’d banished long ago. “Who would run the new shop?”
“You’d live in LA.”
Which meant he’d be much closer to her. Whiskey Creek, where he and his brothers had grown up, and she’d once lived with them, since they’d taken her and her mother in while their father was in prison, was six hours away, not far from Sacramento.
“Are you going to stay with us, Uncle Mack?” Lucas cried, finally abandoning the poor bug so he could hurry over.
As soon as Mack let go of her, Natasha stepped out of reach.
“For a few more days,” he said.
“Yay!” Lucas yelled and launched himself into Mack’s legs.
Mack laughed as he tossed him up and over his shoulder like a sack of flour and her son squealed in delight. “You got those keys?” he asked her.
She almost refused. But on what grounds? That she wasn’t sure she could deal with their history?
She’d die before she’d ever admit that—to him or anyone else—so she retrieved her purse and handed him the keys.
Mack glanced at Natasha’s little boy in the rearview mirror, but he was driving, so he couldn’t let his gaze linger as he was tempted to do. This was the first time he’d ever been alone with Lucas, the first time he’d been able to study the child without having to worry that Natasha might figure out what he suspected.
Did the boy look like him?
It was hard to tell. He’d watched Natasha’s son carefully ever since he first met him three days ago, but it was hard to say. He’d never seen Natasha’s ex, hadn’t run across a single picture of the man while they were packing. Maybe the boy resembled Ace so much the answer would be apparent, but from what he’d seen so far, the boy was the spitting image of Natasha.
He pulled into HD Home Supply, parked and walked around to let Lucas out of the car.
The kid had already unfastened his booster seat.
“Good job,” Mack said. “Let’s go.”
Lucas insisted on taking a plastic sword into the store, and Mack couldn’t help smiling when he brandished it at everyone they encountered. Maybe the boy didn’t look a great deal like him, but he couldn’t hold still for two seconds, which was exactly how Dylan described Mack as a child.
Mack let his gaze run over the boy again. Was this his son?
“On guard!” Lucas yelled, frightening an old lady who was trying to purchase some paint.
“Let’s take it down a notch, okay, buddy?” Mack said with a chuckle, ignoring the dirty look the woman gave him.
“Why are we here?” Lucas asked, sword fighting with phantom opponents once they reached the main aisle, which was momentarily clear.
“We’re getting supplies, remember?” Mack told him.
“What kind of supplies?”
“A window, if we can find one that’s the right size. But as old as that house is, we’ll probably have to order a custom one. I’m also going to need a hammer and some nails. A socket wrench. A drill. A saw. A Shop-Vac. Those sorts of things.”
“My dad has a hammer,” he announced.
Mack wished he could borrow it and any other tools Ace had. It seemed silly to purchase everything again when it was unlikely Ace would need them in the near future. But he wasn’t going to ask, even if he was willing to make the drive to get them. Any guy who could leave his wife in the situation Natasha was—heartbroken over what’d happened to her practice, barely able to eat or sleep because of the pressure and worry of everything that was going on in her life, and alone with a child to care for and no money—was a total douchebag. That Natasha didn’t expect any more from her ex spoke volumes. Maybe that was why Mack felt completely justified when he took advantage of this opportunity to speak to her unsuspecting little boy and, hopefully, satisfy some of his curiosity. “What’s your dad like?”
“What types of things does he do?”
“Plays video games on TV.”
Lucas would’ve knocked a stack of batteries off the shelf if Mack hadn’t reached out to redirect his sword. “Anything else?”
“Where does he work?”
“I don’t know. On the TV, I guess.”
Ace should be set, then. Mack didn’t remember loading a TV into the truck, which meant any that Natasha and Ace had owned together had stayed with him.
The aisle where he could find the windows came up on their right. Mack took hold of Lucas’s free hand to guide him down it. “Can you tell me when your birthday is, buddy?”
“So? When is it?”
The boy screwed up his face as though he was thinking hard but ultimately shook his head. “I can’t remember.”
It was in the fall. Mack knew that much. The instant he’d learned that Natasha had had a baby, he’d counted back the months, and would never forget how hard his heart had started to pound when he realized he’d been with her about the time she’d gotten pregnant. She’d returned to Whiskey Creek to see her mother for Christmas, they’d bumped into each other at the annual Victorian Christmas Days Celebration, and things had moved quickly from there—years of pent-up desire had exploded all at once.
“Look at all these windows,” Lucas said, obviously impressed.
“Pretty cool, right? Now we just need to see if we can find one that will fit.”
Before he could check the various sizes, Mack’s cell phone vibrated in his pocket.
He pulled it out to see that his oldest brother was trying to get hold of him.
He punched the talk button. “Hey, Dyl.”
“What’s up, man?”
“Not much. We made it to Silver Springs. But you should see the house.”
“Is it nice?”
“No, it’s a piece of shit.”
Lucas’s eyes widened. “Oh… I’m going to tell Mom!” he said, covering his mouth. “You’re not supposed to say that word.”
Mack gave the boy a sheepish look. “Don’t tell on me,” he whispered.
“Okay.” He grinned as though he liked having a secret, but then he started saying, “Shit. Shit, shit, shit,” to himself, as though he was practicing it.
“Who’s with you?” Dylan asked.
Hoping Lucas would forget what he’d learned before they got back to the house, Mack returned to his conversation. “Natasha’s boy.”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s a cool little dude.” He didn’t add that Lucas might be his cool little dude. He wasn’t going to tell anyone that, not until he knew for sure.
“I’d like to meet him,” Dylan said. “I’m surprised that Natasha has never brought him back to Whiskey Creek.”
So was Mack. That she’d stayed away felt intentional, and he thought he knew why. “She was busy with her residency, then starting her practice.”
“It’s amazing what she’s achieved, especially considering what she started with. I thought she was in the clear, you know? I can’t believe what’s happened. How’s she handling everything?”
“She’s lost weight, isn’t sleeping well.” He’d heard her walking around the house late at night, could see the weariness in her movements and the dark circles under her eyes as they packed up the van. “What happened would be a nightmare for anyone. But she’s tough. She’ll pull through.” He planned to see to it. That was another reason he’d packed up and headed to LA almost as soon as he learned about her divorce.
“I wish there was something more we could do.”
“I’m doing what I can.”
“Whatever happened to the woman who destroyed her practice?”
“She’s in prison and she won’t be getting out.” He dodged a sword thrust that would’ve hit him in the nuts and couldn’t help laughing as he once again guided Lucas’s sword in a safer direction.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. This kid—Never mind. Has Natasha ever mentioned to you what went wrong in her marriage?”
“No. I called her when the news about her nurse first broke, and we discussed the stress it was putting on the relationship. She admitted things were getting rocky, but that’s it.”
“She didn’t say why they were rocky?”
“Even if she did, I couldn’t go into it, Mack. She wouldn’t like me discussing the details with you, and you know it.”
“With me specifically? Why not?”
“Come on. Things have always been…complicated between you two.”
That statement bothered Mack, but he didn’t want to examine why, so he let it go as Dylan followed up with, “When are you coming back?”
“Do they have the window?” Lucas asked at the same time.
Mack smoothed the hair off the boy’s face. “We’ll check in a sec,” he told him. Into the phone, he said, “I’m not sure that I am coming back.”
“What? You live here, remember?” Dylan sounded shocked.
“I’ll get my stuff, of course, but I think it’s time we go ahead and expand into LA.”
“No reason, I guess. Just seems sort of sudden. It isn’t because Natasha would be close by and you could help her get back on her feet, is it?”
Mack heard the wry tone of his brother’s voice, but he wasn’t going to apologize for wanting to take care of Natasha. “That’s part of it. She needs me,” he said simply. “Her bastard ex took almost everything.”
“That makes me defensive, too, but I don’t know that you’ll be doing her any favors if you stay.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve always done my best to look out for her.” There was only that one time when he’d screwed up. Surely that night didn’t negate all the good things he’d tried to do over the years.
Or did it?
“You’ve done a lot,” Dylan conceded. “But all she’s ever really wanted was for you to love her.”
Mack straightened in surprise. His brother would say that now, after all the pressure he’d been under to stay away from her? “I couldn’t love her,” he said. “She was only sixteen when she came into our lives. I was twenty-five. And our father was married to her mother!”
“I know,” Dylan said with a sigh. “I’ve felt bad for you both from the beginning. And I’ve always admired you for not taking advantage of her feelings. You had to have known how much she adored you—there was no way you could miss it. She followed you around like a lost puppy, tried to get close to you at every opportunity. I’ll never forget one night I went into the kitchen to eat, and she told me dinner was gone. But then you came home and I found out the food wasn’t gone—she’d just saved all that was left for you.”
Dylan chuckled at the memory, but Mack couldn’t laugh. Natasha had made her feelings plain, all right, and, Lord help him, he’d managed to keep his own feelings under control for many years. But all the wins didn’t matter; he’d succumbed in the end—and Lucas could be proof of that.
Did Natasha get pregnant without telling him, and then marry someone else? Once he’d learned of the pregnancy, he’d tried to ask her, but she’d insisted the child belonged to Ace—and if they were happy together, he couldn’t get in the way of that.
“I’ve got to go.” Mack was suddenly anxious to get off the phone. Today, everything his brother said seemed to upset him. “We’re in a store.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you later. Give Natasha my love.”
“Sounds like you two stay in touch.”
“I guess you can do that yourself.” After he disconnected, he regretted the curtness of his response. If not for Dylan, he would’ve been put into foster care when he was just a boy. He loved and admired his oldest brother more than any man in the world.
Besides, the way he’d acted just now would only confirm that Dylan had hit a tender spot. But Mack had always been torn when it came to Natasha. The way he’d met her, and her young age at the time, had set them both up for a tug-of-war that had left him facing something he’d never anticipated.
“Are we done with this shit?” Lucas asked, once again hitting one of the racks with his sword.
Mack couldn’t help smiling in spite of being all twisted up inside. What a little hellion. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you are my son,” he muttered to himself and started going through the windows.
* * *
It felt nice to have a break from Lucas. As much as Natasha loved him, it was so much harder to deal with her own emotions while she was also trying to make sure he was happy, well cared for, entertained and shielded, as much as possible, from the more difficult aspects of the divorce. She’d thought her ex would help more, but the divorce had brought out the worst in Ace. Determined to be free to focus on his own life, he was pretty much expecting her to take care of Lucas, even when it came to child support, since he didn’t have a job. His wealthy parents were helping him get by, and she had no one to lean on until she could get back on her feet, but he didn’t seem to care whether she had money, even though it wasn’t just she who would suffer if she couldn’t buy groceries.
She supposed she shouldn’t be too critical of him when it came to money matters, however. After all, she’d been the primary breadwinner. It made sense that he’d expect her to take care of herself. But he knew that she was struggling, and he knew why. That should’ve made a difference.
He just didn’t care. That was the bottom line. And she suspected he preferred she be the one who had to babysit so she wouldn’t have the opportunity to find someone else.
Little did he know, she didn’t want to get into another relationship. She’d never marry again, never risk her peace of mind or her financial well-being, let alone her heart. She was so done with that. Since she was sixteen, she’d tried to give Mack everything she had, and he hadn’t wanted it. So she’d tried to give Ace everything she had left. And it hadn’t been enough.
She refused to keep trying, to wind up as a carbon copy of her mother, who’d been with so many different men over the years that Natasha couldn’t even remember them all.
Exhausted, she stopped sweeping and rested her head on her hands. How many “fathers” had she had? Some of her mother’s lovers had only been around for a few weeks, and yet Anya had insisted Natasha call each one Daddy. It was a pathetic attempt to draw the man in and get him to commit. But it never worked—at least, not for long. J.T., Mack’s dad, was probably the longest relationship she’d ever had, and that was because he was in prison for the first part of the marriage.
Natasha was going to live her life differently—with some dignity—even if it meant being alone.
All she wanted to do was collapse into a chair, but, drawing a deep breath, she summoned the energy to finish sweeping. She had to keep putting one foot in front of the other and appreciate all the little things. That was how she’d get through this dark time. In this moment, she could clean without having to worry about Lucas getting near the rat droppings or trying to escape out the front gate, where he could get into the street. That was something.
Actually, she could thank Mack. He was the one who was helping her—the only one who’d come to her rescue. That meant it would be difficult not to be too grateful to him. Having his support when she felt so lost and broken would naturally soften her heart toward him. He always did things like that, things that made her believe he cared.
He probably did care to some degree, or he wouldn’t do anything, but she had to remember that it wasn’t in the way she’d always wanted him to care. She couldn’t let the nice things he did cloud her judgment. No way would she put her son through anything remotely similar to what she’d been through as a child. The only father Lucas knew was Ace, and it was going to stay that way.
She’d opened the windows to air out the place, so she could hear the car when Mack and Lucas returned. She wished the errand had taken them longer, wished for an additional couple of hours in which she could take a nap. But at least she’d had ninety minutes of silence in which she’d been able to accomplish a few things.
“Mom! We’re back!” Lucas yelled as he came running up the steps and into the house, letting the screen door slam behind him.
“Were you able to find the right window?” She turned, expecting her son to rush into her arms, but he had his hands full, and he was so eager to reach her that he nearly tripped.
“No, but we got you these!”
He was holding a bouquet of red and white tulips. Her favorite.
The sight of them—the simple beauty of them—made her throat grow tight.
It was the exhaustion, she told herself. She hadn’t gotten enough sleep for months, and it was beginning to bring her emotions to the surface.
Afraid Mack would be able to tell that she’d choked up for no reason, she was careful not to look at him when he came in.
“Thank you,” she told Lucas as she took the flowers. “They’re beautiful.”
Her son smiled proudly. “Uncle Mack said you used to plant them in the front yard when you lived with him.”
She’d forgotten about that. She’d tried to add a few feminine touches to the all-male home—had cooked and cleaned and planted flowers to spruce up the place—in an attempt to repay them for taking her and her mother in. They’d basically been homeless. What would’ve happened to her if Mack and his brothers hadn’t done that? Her own mother had been too caught up in getting her next fix, whether that was a man or the drugs she used, to keep a roof over their heads or even notice what her daughter needed.
Mack was carrying a bag of groceries in each arm, which he put on the kitchen counter. “We couldn’t find the right size of window,” he said to her, “but I’m going to check online. You hungry? I got stuff to make sandwiches.”
She was starving. She hadn’t had anything to eat today except the carrots Lucas had refused to finish from the sack lunch she’d given him on the drive. But she didn’t want to rely on Mack in any way, not more than she could help it, at least. “No, I’m fine. I ate on the drive,” she lied and pretended to be completely uninterested in what he’d purchased as she searched for a container for the flowers.
There were a couple of dusty old mason jars in the pantry. She rinsed one out and carefully arranged the flowers before putting them on the counter with the groceries. She had to admit, the splash of color lifted her spirits. As insanely busy as she’d been, she hadn’t stopped to admire a bouquet of flowers in…forever. With summer coming on, she’d all but missed spring.
As she set to work cleaning the kitchen, Mack made her a sandwich anyway. He used a plastic fork to spread the mayonnaise and mustard and put the finished sandwich on a paper towel on the counter.
Since she was hungry, and it would go to waste if she didn’t eat it, she took it and sat on the floor, where she could use the wall to support her back while she ate.
The sandwich was made with sourdough bread and filled with thin layers of honey ham, and she’d never tasted anything better. She hadn’t quite finished when a bottle of beer came into focus. She’d been enjoying her food so much she hadn’t realized Mack was standing over her, trying to hand her a drink. “Hasn’t been in the fridge long enough to be cold quite yet,” he said, “but it tastes okay.”
This time she didn’t even try to refuse. He’d already popped the top.
Once she finished her sandwich, she just sat there, slumped against the wall, watching him play with her son while slowly drinking her beer.
“You all set?” he asked, after she was done, and offered a hand to help her up.
Surprisingly, she’d regained some of her strength. Who knew a sandwich could make such a difference? But she still had a problem with the fact that she was once again relying on Mack Amos. The last time she’d accepted his help, she’d fallen so deeply in love he’d ruined her for all other men.
But she was going to be much smarter this time.
They needed to get far enough on the cleaning that they could unload the beds, at least, so they’d have somewhere to sleep tonight. Telling herself that his touch did nothing for her, she let Mack haul her to her feet.