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We Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus Brenda Novak Jaclyn Wentworth is on her own with three little kids.She used to be married to the golden boy–former golden boy–of their small Nevada town. The marriage was a disaster because her ex-husband never grew up. And he sure wasn't much of a daddy. Now Jaclyn's living in Reno. And who, of all people, does she run into there but Cole Perrini, bad boy of Feld, Nevada. Former bad boy.He was her ex-husband's opposite in every way–and he still is. Because Cole's made good in every sense of the word. Will Jaclyn and her children get the husband and father they deserve? Not a Scrooge, but a Santa! A Sampling of Praise for Brenda Novak “What a wonderful love story…. An emotional, romantic journey you’ll not want to miss!” —Rendezvous on Expectations Brenda Novak’s “books are must-reads for those hopeless romantics among us.” —Bestselling author Merline Lovelace “In her first Superromance, Ms. Novak has given us a wonderfully warm story. This is a definite keeper!” —AOL Writers’ Club Romance Group on Expectations “…three-dimensional, very real characters with realistic problems. These characters touched my heart and had me reaching for the tissues.” —Scribes World Reviews on Snow Baby Brenda Novak’s “powerful storytelling voice sweeps the reader through a stormy past and a painful present, providing the novel with depth seldom matched in this genre…. I very highly recommend that you read Snow Baby.” —Cindy Penn, WordWeaving “Baby Business is a heart-wrencher with a knock-your-socks-off ending!…One thing is for sure: I know I never, ever want to miss a book by Brenda Novak.” —Suzanne Coleman, The Belles and Beaux of Romance “This one kept me turning the pages. A tautly written suspense plot, an interesting setting, well-drawn characters and an enjoyable romance.” —Jean Mason, The Romance Reader on Dear Maggie Dear Reader, Sometimes we come to a point in life when we have to look honestly at our situation—and the decisions that have brought us to where we are—and face the fact that it isn’t where we want to be. Maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere. Maybe someone else took the turn that threw us offtrack. Either way, changing requires a great deal of strength and determination. In We Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Jaclyn Wentworth is a woman who won’t settle. She digs deep inside herself for the courage to do what must be done, and as she grows in wisdom and confidence, she eventually finds what we all want most—love and happiness. I hope you enjoy her journey. I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me at P.O. Box 3781, Citrus Heights, CA 95611. Or simply log on to my Web site at www.brendanovak.com to leave me an e-mail, check out my book signings or learn about upcoming releases. May we, like Jaclyn, find the courage to make the changes that are best for us! Brenda Novak P.S. Merry Christmas! We Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus Brenda Novak To my mother, LaVar Moffitt, the inspiration for Jaclyn’s strength and spirit. And to Ted Novak, my own self-made man. Cole has nothing on him. CONTENTS PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE EPILOGUE PROLOGUE THIS WAS IT, the absolute last straw. Jackie Wentworth couldn’t take any more. Numb, she sat in her new Suburban, the engine idling, as she stared in sickened wonder at her husband’s 1997 Dodge Ram with its identifying Rodeo bumper stickers. She’d spent hours looking for him, worried when she’d returned home from her friend’s place in Utah a day early to find their bed, their entire section of his parents’ home, empty. Even though it was the middle of the night, she’d driven past his friends’ houses, his two sisters’ houses, and gone all the way out to Sand Mountain, his favorite weekend haunt. But she’d been fooling herself, of course. His dune buggy, or “sand rail,” as they were now called, was still in the garage. She just couldn’t bring herself to believe the worst, at least not at first, not after all the counseling sessions and promises and hard-won confessions they’d been through—and finally, finally the forgiveness she’d managed to wring from her own heart. What a waste. Jackie closed her eyes, hoping she’d see something different when she opened them again. But the scene was just the same. Her husband’s truck sat in the dimly lit parking lot of Maxine’s, one of the legalized houses of prostitution that stood neighborless in the barren desert just outside Feld, Nevada. Behind her, Mackenzie and Alex were wearing their pajamas and fighting over the pretzels Jackie had bought to keep them occupied. Alyssa, the baby of the family at two years old, wailed miserably in her car seat. It was nearly three in the morning. Jackie couldn’t blame them for feeling put out. But she heard the noise they made as though it came from somewhere far away. Her ears were ringing too loudly, her heart thumping too hard, to hear anything clearly. Opening her door, just in case she was going to be sick, Jackie put her head between her legs and took long, deep breaths. It’s okay. You’re okay, she told herself. But she wasn’t okay. She didn’t know if she’d ever be okay again. She only knew she’d leave Terry. She’d take the children with her if she had to crawl on her hands and knees and carry the three of them on her back. And this time she wouldn’t let anything undermine her determination. “Mommy? What’s wrong with you? You look like you’re gonna throw up.” “Mom, Alex is touching me.” “Shut up. You’re such a pain.” “You shut up. You’re the one who started it.” Jackie couldn’t answer. She straightened, thinking of the movie classic Gone with the Wind. She pictured Scarlett O’Hara crying and angry and shaking her fist at the sky, swearing she’d never go hungry again, and finally understood the depth of that kind of resolve. Because she felt the same way. “As God is my witness, I will never let myself become so dependent on another human being again,” she muttered. “Mommy? Why are you talking to yourself? What’s wrong with you?” “Just leave her alone. Can’t you see she’s sick?” Alyssa cried louder. “Out, out, out!” she chanted. “Yes, sweetheart,” Jackie said, turning, dry-eyed, to face the three of them. “We’re getting out. Soon.” Out of Feld. Out of Nevada. Out of her loveless marriage. Her words did nothing to placate the baby. Alyssa had no concept of soon, except that it wasn’t now, but Jackie felt infinitely better. Terry thought he had her where he wanted her. Since the car accident that had killed her parents six years earlier, she had no family to speak of. She’d spent what money she’d inherited attempting to leave him once before. And she’d married him right out of high school, so she had no college education, no marketable job skills—and three young children to care for. What would she ever do without him? How would she make it? They lived with his parents on his father’s ranch. Terry knew he’d inherit the whole operation someday, but they had no real money, not of their own. Her husband hung out with the same guys he’d known in high school, partied nearly as hard and cheated on his wife. And every time he got himself into a scrape, he ran to Daddy. Her life had turned out so differently from what she’d planned. She’d married Terry Wentworth because she believed in his potential, the sweetness in him. She’d wanted to see him rise to that potential. But at eighteen she probably wasn’t the best judge of character. Since then, she’d realized he was too lazy and too weak to fight the influence of having everything handed to him on a silver platter. He had no determination, no ambition, because no problem was too big for Daddy to solve. Except this one, Jackie promised. Burt Wentworth was a formidable foe, but if he gave her trouble over the divorce—and she knew he would—she’d fight him. She thought of marching into Maxine’s to tell Terry so, then decided against it. Why embarrass him? Let him have his fun. Reality would intrude soon enough. But she couldn’t leave without letting him know she’d caught him red-handed. Otherwise he’d claim she’d seen someone else’s truck in the dark. He’d lie and cry and play the martyr. And she was done with all that. Backing the Suburban out of the lot and parking it where the children could no longer see Terry’s truck, she retrieved the large hunting knife they kept in the glove box, got out and methodically slashed all four of Terry’s tires. The wheezing sound of escaping air followed her back to the Suburban. By now the baby was quiet, and her older children had stopped fighting, too busy turning in their seats, trying to see where she’d gone. “What did you do?” Alex asked, as she climbed back in. Jackie put the knife away and started the car again. “I just left Daddy a message,” she said. CHAPTER ONE One year later… JACLYN’S DIVORCE was final today, but she didn’t feel much like celebrating. Her father-in-law and ex-husband had made her life hell with all their legal motions and expensive lawyers. She’d spent almost everything she’d earned waitressing on her own pathetic attorney—had run up a sizable bill, besides—and still she’d gotten no spousal maintenance, a mere pittance for child support and no more custody rights than Terry. But she had escaped. Finally. She’d won in that regard and in one other: the court had given her permission to leave Feld, as long as she didn’t go farther than a two-hour drive. Now she lived in Reno, Nevada, a mini-Las Vegas, self-dubbed the “biggest little city in the world.” With a small strip of casinos, a constant influx of truckers, and slot machines in every gas station and convenience store, it wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind when she left the Wentworth ranch, but it was better than Feld. At least she was free to build a life for herself that didn’t include Terry’s family and their influence, or the sickening knowledge that her husband was warming someone else’s bed. No more nights spent searching for him, wondering where or when he might turn up. No more heated arguments and denials. And no more financial security. For better or for worse, Jaclyn was on her own. And being on her own could be downright lonely, she realized, rinsing off the knife she needed to slice pie for table number five. It was summer so the kids were out of school. Terry had come from Feld to pick them up, and now she was looking at three full days without them. She had to work tonight and tomorrow, but she was off, for a change, on Wednesday. What would she do with herself? Maybe she should offer to take a shift for one of the other waitresses. She was already scheduled for forty hours this week, but heaven knows she needed the money. “I just seated another table at your station,” the hostess informed her. “Can you handle it? Or should I have Nicole punch in?” It was late afternoon, before the dinner crush. Jaclyn was the only waitress on the floor and had three tables going already, but she could manage another. On a busy night at Joanna’s, the manager assigned five tables to each server. Sometimes, when they were slammed, Jaclyn took six. “No problem. I’ve got it.” “Two men,” the hostess responded. “And one looks good enough to eat.” Jaclyn didn’t care if they were handsome. She felt no desire for another relationship, at least not yet. That they were male was significant, though. In her experience, men usually tipped better than women or families or seniors. She delivered dessert to the four older women dining together at table five and approached the newcomers to find them both perusing the menu. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. “I’ll have a cola,” the man on her right replied. Heavyset and about forty years old, he was resisting the loss of his hair by combing the few remaining strands over the dome of his head. He certainly didn’t look good enough to eat. Which meant… The man on her left lowered his menu. He had warm brown eyes, black hair and a ruggedly attractive face with a slightly cleft chin. His dark tan gave the impression that he worked outdoors, despite the business suit that fit his athletic body to perfection. “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” he asked. Jaclyn shook her head. Working in a café-style restaurant open twenty-four hours a day, she heard that line a lot. Only, it was usually after dark, not at four o’clock in the afternoon. Still, she had to admit it sounded better coming from a man who looked as if he could be plastered on a billboard advertising men’s briefs. “I doubt it. I’m new to Reno.” He frowned. “I never forget a face. Where did you live before?” “A little town off the loneliest road in America.” “Highway 50. You’re from Feld,” he said. “You were Terry’s girl.” Jaclyn blinked in surprise. “Yeah. How did you know?” “I lived there for a while.” Even here she couldn’t completely escape Feld or Terry. Jaclyn racked her brain, trying to remember who this man was. He looked about her age. If he’d lived in Feld long, she’d certainly know him. And then it dawned on her. This was Cole Perrini, the boy who’d moved in right before their senior year. The wiry, rangy youth was gone. He seemed at least two inches taller and nearly fifty pounds of pure muscle heavier. But it was definitely Cole. The eyes and that cocky grin gave him away, along with a certain hard-bitten edge that seemed to warn everyone to keep their distance or take their chances. “Oh, you’re Cole,” she said, remembering far more than just his name. The oldest son of a poor mining family, he’d lived in a cheap trailer just outside town and driven a beatup old truck. Terry had been voted most likely to succeed that year. Had there been a category for it, Cole Perrini would have been nominated most likely to get someone pregnant. Which was exactly what he’d gone on to do. The girls loved him because he was handsome and dangerous and, from what Jaclyn had heard, good with his hands. Terry’s crowd hated him—for the same reasons. “You married Rochelle,” she added. He winced. “We’re divorced.” “I know.” The beginning of Cole and Rochelle’s story was common knowledge, at least in Feld. Rochelle had loved Cole to distraction and chased him for more than a year. She’d gotten pregnant, and he’d married her. The rest Jaclyn had heard when she’d run into Rochelle years ago. Cole hadn’t been faithful—which sounded all too familiar—and the marriage had ended in divorce just a few months after Rochelle miscarried. “You still with Terry?” he asked. “No.” Didn’t finding her here tell him that? “I’m sorry.” “It’s okay. My life’s the way I want it,” she insisted. “Right. You were pregnant when I left Feld, weren’t you?” He remembered that? The last time Jaclyn had seen Cole Perrini was at the grocery store about ten years ago, a month before she’d given birth to Alex. Wearing an enigmatic smile, he’d shaken his head at her before strolling outside and driving away. And she hadn’t seen him since. She’d wondered what he’d been thinking, and guessed he was letting her know how crazy he thought she was for marrying Terry. He’d actually told her once, back at a high-school football game, that she’d be a fool to do so. But she’d laughed and asked him who he thought would be better for her—him? He hadn’t answered. “I have three kids,” she said. “Alex is almost eleven, Mackenzie is five and Alyssa is three.” “So the divorce is fairly recent.” “Very. It’s final today.” He raised his brows and looked around the restaurant, obviously taking in the fact that after twelve years and three kids, this was where Jaclyn Wentworth found herself. Shame warmed Jaclyn’s cheeks. Waiting tables wasn’t exactly where she’d hoped to be at thirty-one. She’d wanted to be a wife and mother, to help Terry run the ranch, to grow old and gray with him. She’d never dreamed she’d need to be more than that. But life had a way of sending one scrambling for Plan B. Not that her backup plan included waitressing forever. She was hoping to find something else once she got on her feet, someplace she could work during school hours, instead of nights and weekends. She just hadn’t found anything yet that paid enough to support her little family. She shot a look at Cole’s friend, who was watching her curiously, before asking Cole, “You still driving semis?” He chuckled. “No, I gave that up when I got divorced.” As though her momentary distraction had reminded him that he hadn’t introduced his companion, he said, “This is Larry Schneider with Reno Bank and Trust. Larry, this is an old friend of mine from high school, Jackie Rasmussen.” “Jaclyn Wentworth,” she corrected, smiling a greeting at Larry. Everyone she knew in Feld called her Jackie, but she’d started using Jaclyn when she moved to Reno. She would have switched to her maiden name, too, but she didn’t want her last name to be different from her children’s. “What are you doing now?” she asked Cole, even though part of her didn’t want to know. He looked successful sitting there in his tailored suit. He’d escaped Feld and landed on his feet. For that she was envious. Especially because she’d just taken a flying leap and landed in the gutter. “I build houses.” “You’re a contractor?” Larry gave a genial laugh. “Not quite. Cole takes a pretty hands-on approach to his job, but he’s not a contractor. He’s a developer. And a damn good one. Haven’t you ever heard of Perrini Homes?” Jaclyn shook her head. “I’ve lived here less than a year.” “Well, he’s got a subdivision near the golf course. Four-and five-bedroom homes. You should drive by and take a look if you’re ever in the market.” Jaclyn doubted she’d be able to afford a home of that size in the next twenty years. She barely managed to pay the rent on the house they lived in now. It was only eight hundred square feet and older than the hills, but she’d rented it for the yard. Accustomed to wide-open spaces, she refused to raise her three children in an apartment. “I’ll do that,” she said. “I’d like to build a small development a few miles east of here,” Cole said. “In Sparks. That’s why I’m coming, hat in hand, to Larry, here.” Larry adjusted his silverware and smiled. “And I’ll probably give you what you need. I’ve financed several of your projects already, haven’t I?” Working outdoors with his contractors explained the tan. A meeting with his banker explained the suit. “Sounds like things are going well for you,” Jaclyn said. Cole shrugged in a nonchalant manner. “Well enough, I guess.” The couple at one of her other tables kept swiveling their heads, looking for her and, no doubt, their check. And the food for table two was probably ready. She needed to get moving. “Would you like something to drink?” she asked Cole. “I’ll have an iced tea.” “It’ll be just a minute.” Jaclyn left, feeling Cole’s gaze trail after her. Who would’ve thought she’d run into him again? Especially here, now, when even pride was a luxury she couldn’t afford. She ducked into the kitchen and quickly tallied the tab for table three, but by the time she brought it out, the man was already standing. “We’ve been waiting for ten minutes while you were busy flirting with that guy over there,” he said loudly enough for half the restaurant to hear. Aware of the attention he was drawing, Jaclyn flushed. “I’m sorry.” She wanted to deny that she’d been flirting with anyone, but she handed him his bill and began to gather up the plates, instead. Sometimes it was smarter to simply apologize. She didn’t want a scene, not with Cole Perrini less than ten feet away. And not while Rudy Morales, her manager, was on duty. “I think we deserve a break here—for the wait,” he persisted. “You’ve made us late for a movie.” Then, why didn’t he pay his bill and hurry off? The woman who’d eaten with him lowered her eyes, a sure sign that he was making a fuss over nothing. “I couldn’t have been longer than five minutes,” Jaclyn said. “I just ran into an old friend, that’s all.” “Well, maybe you should visit with your friends when you’re on your break.” “I’ve apologized,” she said. “If it’ll make you feel better, skip the tip.” “I wasn’t planning on leaving a tip.” Jaclyn felt anger course through her. This guy was an opportunist, and he was trying to take advantage of her. Her natural instincts prompted her to stand her ground. But the nagging worry of how she’d support her children if she lost her job kept her voice cool and polite. Rudy was already looking for any excuse to write her up. “What if I send home a couple of pieces of pie with you? Will that help?” she asked. “I don’t want pie. I think you should comp our meals.” “For waiting five minutes?” Jaclyn asked. “You never even told me you were in a hurry.” “I don’t have to give you my schedule when I sit down to eat. Now, are you going to work with me, here, or do I have to speak to your manager?” A knot of unease lodged in Jaclyn’s belly. When she’d first started working at Joanna’s, Rudy had pursued her pretty aggressively. She’d gotten firm with her refusals, and he’d had it in for her ever since. “Fine. I’ll take it out of my tips,” she said. “Why don’t you just go ahead and leave?” “That’s more like it,” the man replied, slinging an arm around his companion and starting for the door. “Jeez, what kind of place are you running here, anyway?” “It’s a restaurant,” a male voice replied. “In a restaurant, you order, you eat and you pay. Then you tip, generously.” Jaclyn looked up to see Cole Perrini towering over them all, and knew her day was about to go from bad to worse. Rudy would hear and…“This is my problem,” she said quickly. “I’ll handle it.” “Yeah, let her handle it,” the guy said. “We were just on our way out.” Cole smiled and lifted his hands, but he blocked their path, and a certain hardness in his eyes belied his casual stance. “That’s fine. You pay your bill before you go, and we won’t have a problem, right?” The man’s face turned scarlet. He sputtered for a moment, looking as though he’d press the issue, but a glance at Cole’s superior size and build seemed to convince him. Throwing a twenty on the table, he grabbed his companion by the arm and stalked out, pulling her along with him. Before Jaclyn could say anything, Rudy appeared. “What’s goin’ on here, Jaclyn?” Jaclyn watched the door close behind the couple, then picked up the money and the bill. “Nothing, why?” Rudy glanced doubtfully at Cole, who smiled and shrugged. “That guy was an old friend of mine,” he said, then made his way back to his seat. WHAT WAS JACKIE RASMUSSEN—Jaclyn Wentworth—doing here, waiting tables? Cole went through the motions of eating and tried to make a halfway-decent pitch for the funding to do the Sparks project, but he couldn’t concentrate. Seeing Jaclyn brought back the most painful years of his life—memories that crept in between each sentence he spoke, wove through the whole conversation like an invisible thread. For the first time in eight years, he couldn’t shut out Feld and the stifling, hot trailer he’d lived in there, the cloying smell of illness, his poor mother, pale and dwindling, his hungry brothers and absent father. And Rochelle. God, Rochelle. Just the thought of her made his throat feel as if it were closing up. In a quick, desperate gesture, he loosened the knot of his tie and undid the top button of his shirt. Larry glanced up at him in surprise. “Somethin’ wrong, Cole?” “No.” Cole took a deep breath and a drink of water. He was free. Feld was history. Rochelle was on her own. His mother and father were gone… “Would you like dessert?” Jackie stood next to him, waiting with her pad. She’d left Feld, too, even though he never dreamed she would. He’d thought she would shackle herself to Terry and live under Burt Wentworth’s thumb forever, or at least until she and Terry inherited his land and his money. All the girls in school had wanted Terry, and the family name and bank account that stood behind him. They’d wanted everything Jackie had just walked away from—for this. Who would have thought it? “I’ll just have a cup of coffee,” Larry said. “I’ll have the same,” Cole added, and Jackie soon returned with two steaming cups. “Will there be anything else?” Cole shook his head. He couldn’t look at her anymore. When he saw her face, he saw Feld and the desert, and felt things he didn’t want to feel. “It was good to see you again, Cole,” she said, slipping the check onto the table. Cole wished he could say the same. “You look great, Jackie,” he said, searching for some scrap of truth to offer. She smiled, but it was only a ghost of the smile he remembered from high school. “Thanks,” she said. “You always did have a way with the ladies.” Cole couldn’t tell by the tone of her voice if she meant it as a compliment. But she walked away then, and he was free to pay his bill and go—and pretend he’d never seen her. JACLYN WATCHED Cole leave and was glad to have him gone. She needed no reminders that her life had turned out far differently from everyone’s expectations, including her own. She faced that fact every day when she put on her uniform, when she had to leave her children with Holly Smith, a young mother who lived down the street, when she wrote a check and knew it would barely clear her account. Why did I have to run into him here? she asked herself, clearing off his table. Joanna’s patrons paid at the cash register, but Jaclyn could see the edge of a crisp bill—her tip—stuck under Cole’s plate. She slid the money out, expecting ten, maybe even twenty dollars, but found fifty, instead. She stared at the 5-0 on the bill, amazed and sickened by what it meant. Fifty dollars was pure charity. Cole understood her situation—and he pitied her. Damn. She was once the prom queen of Feld High. No one had doubted she’d marry Terry and live happily ever after. But she’d achieved no fairy-tale ending. She was divorced with three children and nearly penniless, her situation pathetic enough to make old friends feel obligated to give her money when they saw her. Tears burned behind Jaclyn’s eyes, and she began to wonder if she’d been crazy to try to escape Terry. She could have continued as his wife—but what kind of life would that have been? She had a right to fight for something better, didn’t she? She longed to go back to school and become a nurse or a schoolteacher, something professional, to prove to herself and others that she could pull out of the tailspin of divorce and loss and regret. If only she had the time and the money. She had four mouths to feed and bills that couldn’t wait until she graduated from anything. Heck, she had bills that couldn’t wait until payday. Jaclyn shoved the money in her apron and finished stacking the dishes. Forget Cole, she told herself. He didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except survival. So what if she felt as if the world were closing in on her and she was trying to run through quicksand to escape. She certainly wasn’t the first woman to feel this way. “Jaclyn?” Turning at the sound of Rudy’s voice, she found her manager standing at her elbow. At five feet five inches, he was just tall enough to look her straight in the eye. “Yeah?” He gave her an insincere smile, revealing eyeteeth that stuck out like fangs. It was her first indication of trouble. His words were the second. “I just had a gentleman call me. He claims a friend of yours threatened him with bodily harm when he was here just a few minutes ago. Can I see you in my office?” The table next to them stopped eating to watch, but Jaclyn ignored them. Too much fear prickled down her spine to worry about embarrassment now. “That’s not true,” she said. Rudy nodded his greasy, dark head toward the kitchen. “In my office,” he said, turning away. And Jaclyn had no choice but to follow. CHAPTER TWO “I’M AFRAID I’m going to have to let you go.” Rudy sat behind his desk, gazing up at her with small eyes that were mere slits in his brown, fleshy face. His belly rested in his lap, and Jaclyn’s personnel file was spread out in front of him. Jaclyn stood near the open door, leaning against the wall for support, nearly leveled by shock, and horror, and myriad other emotions evoked by the injustice of his actions. “B-but you can’t,” she stammered. He smiled, proving what Jaclyn had suspected all along. He was enjoying this. This was the moment he’d been waiting for ever since the last time she’d rebuffed him when he’d tried to talk her into coming over to his place after work. “Actually, I can,” he said, rocking back and steepling his fingers. “I’m the boss, in case you’ve forgotten. And the complaint I just received requires serious action.” “Serious action?” Jaclyn echoed weakly. “I’ve been a model employee ever since I started almost a year ago.” “A model employee doesn’t threaten patrons.” “You know I didn’t threaten anyone. And neither did—” He held up a hand for her to stop. “A model employee shows up for all her shifts.” “I’ve never left you hanging—” “It’s all right here.” He tapped her personnel file. “On August fourth, you didn’t appear for work—” “I had strep throat, and I called you—” “You weren’t here, that’s what matters, and you received a written warning. On October tenth, you were late for work. A second written warning. On December ninth, your last and final no show—” “And my third warning,” Jaclyn finished. “But I couldn’t come in that day. My baby was sick, and I couldn’t get anyone to cover for me.” “Because you gave them no notice.” “The chicken pox gave me no notice! What did you expect me to do?” “There’s always some excuse,” he said with a theatrical sigh. “But I have a restaurant to run here. I need waitresses who are dependable.” Jaclyn knew few waitresses were as dependable as she was. She’d missed a few days when Alyssa had the chicken pox, and she’d been late once when the bus had broken down and hadn’t come to pick up Mackenzie and Alex for school. But she never called in sick unless it was a real emergency. She had a stack of customer commendations, and she was just about the only one who took the side work—filling salt and pepper shakers and ketchup bottles, scrubbing down tables and cleaning the kitchen—seriously. Drawing an unsteady breath, she clung tenaciously to her temper. Even with Cole’s fifty bucks, she needed the money she’d planned to make this week. She couldn’t let Rudy, and his vindictiveness, cost her that. “Come on, Rudy,” she said. “That guy today was just trying to get a free dinner. I didn’t keep him waiting more than five minutes.” “It was enough to make him and his wife miss their movie.” “So he says. Give me a break. It’s only five-thirty now.” “He says he’ll never eat here again!” Jaclyn moved closer, but the smell of old sweat pressed her back. Rudy’s office had no windows. It was more of a pantry, really. Small and close, with loaves of bread and other packaged items lining shelves that wouldn’t allow the door to shut, it reeked of him. He was the kind of man with stains under the arms of every shirt. “Then Joanna’s is better off for it,” she replied. “I wouldn’t put it past that guy to plant a fly in his food.” “If he was so bad, why didn’t you come get me?” Because of this, Jaclyn wanted to say. Because I need my job too badly to give you any reason to take it away from me. Aware of the cooks barking back and forth, the burgers sizzling on the grill, and the constant tramp of feet just outside, Jaclyn lowered her voice. “You’ve been out to punish me for a long time now, Rudy. This has nothing to do with the quality of my work, does it. What is it you’re trying to prove?” He laughed derisively. “That’s pathetic, Jaclyn. I don’t need your tight little ass running around this place. Now get your things and go.” For a moment, the kitchen clatter outside faded away, and Jaclyn heard only the beating of her heart. Its quiet tattoo seemed to echo the words: Alex, Mackenzie, Alyssa. As much as she hated to lower her pride any further, especially for a man like Rudy, she thought of all the things her children would need, and knew she had no choice. “Please,” she whispered. “You know I have kids who are depending on me. At least let me work out the week.” He snapped her file shut and hefted himself to his feet. “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he said. “Now, if you’ll go, I have to get back on the floor.” DAMN HIM, Jaclyn thought. She’d run into Cole Perrini for the first time in ten years, and he’d gotten her fired. Just like that. Her eyes blurred as she scanned the want ads, and she paused briefly to wipe away two stubborn tears that rolled, one at a time, down her cheeks. As soon as she’d left Joanna’s, she’d stopped by a convenience store to buy a newspaper. The checker had stared at her red, swollen eyes, causing her to chafe under the unwanted scrutiny, but it hadn’t taken long to plunk down a buck seventy-five, grab a newspaper and a cola, and hurry away. Now she sat at her scarred wooden dining table, the sun fading to dusk outside, feeling the emptiness of her small house surrounding her like a shroud, and was both grateful for the privacy and terribly lonely. Things’ll get better, she told herself. It’s only been a year. But it was hard to have much faith in finding a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, when everything she saw in the paper either paid too little or asked too much. Computer experience required. Medical experience required. Bachelor’s degree required. Technical skills a plus… Her chair raked the linoleum as she rose to stare into the refrigerator. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but with the children gone, there seemed little point in preparing a home-cooked meal. Retrieving a package of instant noodle soup from the cupboard, she set some water on the stove to boil, went to the bathroom to blow her nose, and returned to the kitchen table to resume her job search. She’d never get ahead working as a waitress, she thought. She had to find something else, something with a future. What about becoming a secretary? Though she was probably a little rusty, she’d taken typing in high school, and she still had some nice clothes left over from her married years. Office hours would be ideal, especially during the winter when the children were in school. Problem was, most of the secretarial positions she saw required computer experience. She barely knew how to turn on a computer, let alone run Quickbooks or Excel or Microsoft Word or any of the other programs she saw listed so frequently. Some companies demanded previous experience, as well, and she doubted having changed a million dirty diapers would qualify her. At last, Jaclyn saw an ad that made her pause: Wanted: receptionist. Phones, light typing. $9/hr. No benefits. No benefits? Well, she didn’t have benefits now. Quickly, she did the math. If she worked forty hours per week, she’d make $1,440 a month before taxes. Rent was $850. Her car payment was $350. Car insurance, $100. Health insurance, $340, utilities $180, and the list went on. Even with Terry’s $750 in child support, she’d be in the red before she bought any gas or groceries or clothes for the kids—she still had the credit-card bills she’d rung up while they were married that the court had ordered her to pay. The pressure of tears began to build behind her eyes again, causing a headache. Dammit! What now? She’d have to go back to waiting tables. She had no choice. She could have augmented what she made as a waitress giving piano lessons, but she didn’t have a piano. Terry had kept her baby grand, along with almost everything else, when they divorced. The telephone rang, and Jaclyn looked at it with no intention of answering. But then she thought it might be the kids, that they might need her, and picked up the receiver. “Hello?” “Jackie?” Terry. Jaclyn’s stomach tensed, the way it did whenever she heard her ex-husband’s voice. Their conversations were never very pleasant. “Is something wrong with the kids?” she asked. “No. I thought you’d be at work. I was just going to leave a message for you to call me.” “What for?” “Alex says you returned the Nikes I bought him when he was here last and got him some cheaper shoes.” The accusation in Terry’s voice was unmistakable. Jaclyn closed her eyes and shook her head. She wasn’t in the mood to fight about the shoes. She’d just lost her job, and Terry’s biggest concern was making sure Alex had brand-name sneakers. “I did,” she admitted. “Why? You had no right to do that.” “I had every right, Terry. They were sixty dollars, enough to buy shoes for all three children, and you deducted it from my child support this month.” “That’s what child support is for. To buy clothes and shoes and other things.” “But it’s not up to you to decide how the money is spent. The kids are living with me most of the time, and we had other priorities.” “Like?” Like food and electricity. But Jaclyn wasn’t about to admit that things were quite that dire, even though she suspected Terry already knew. She figured the kids had to reveal in everyday conversation bits and pieces that gave her away, but Terry wasn’t about to make life any easier on her. He wanted her as miserable as possible, and he didn’t seem to care if his children suffered right along with her. “It’s none of your business how I spend the money,” she said. “I don’t have to account to you. Believe me, it takes every dime and then some to give the kids what they need. It’s not like I’m spending the money on myself.” “But they don’t have what they need. I don’t want a kid of mine running around in ten-dollar tennis shoes!” Jaclyn stifled a groan. “That’s great, Terry,” she said. “Then, I have a simple solution. Buy Alex the Nikes and don’t charge me for them. You can buy him whatever you want. Buy him and the girls whole new wardrobes. I won’t stop you, and I won’t take anything back, as long as you don’t deduct it from my child support.” “You’d love that, wouldn’t you? Then you might have the money to get a new dress and a manicure and go on the hunt for another man.” “It’s a tragedy that you won’t be generous with your kids for fear I’ll benefit in some way. It’s the same thing with the piano issue. You won’t let me have my piano even though, if I had it, I could teach the children to play.” He chuckled bitterly. “I bought you that piano, and it cost me thousands. If you want it back, you know where to find it.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “If you don’t like the way things are, you can always change them, Jackie.” “By coming back?” “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.” “You sure have a strange way of showing it.” “Are you kidding? I’ve tried every way. I’ve begged, I’ve pleaded, I’ve promised—” “And drank and philandered and lied…” “I’m sorry about that, Jackie. How many times do I have to say it? I’m damn sorry. I wasn’t thinking straight.” “For twelve years? What’s changed?” “I’ve paid my price. You’ve taught me a lesson. That’s what you wanted to do, isn’t it? Now, come home. I want my kids back.” That’s what he thought the divorce was about? Revenge? Jaclyn could hardly believe it. What about the trust he’d destroyed, the faith, the love, the family ties? If he didn’t understand by now what losing those things had cost them all, he never would. “You get your kids whenever you want them,” she said. “I’ve never tried to keep them from you.” There was a long pause. “I want my wife back,” he said softly. “I still love you, Jackie.” Jaclyn’s stomach hurt so badly she thought she might throw up. “You and your high-priced lawyers have done everything possible to make my life miserable because you love me? That’s not what I call love, Terry. Neither is how you treated me when we were married.” He cursed, growing angry again. “The lawyers were your idea, dammit. I’m not taking the blame for that. I never wanted the divorce in the first place.” Wordlessly, Jaclyn shook her head, feeling the dull throb escalate to a sharp, pounding pain. This conversation was certainly par for the day, but she and Terry had been down this road too many times. She thought about hanging up on him, but she had an issue she wanted to discuss, too, and now was as good a time as any. “What about the decisions we made concerning the kids?” she asked. “What decisions?” “We agreed to make the divorce as easy on them as possible. We were going to speak kindly to and about each other. We weren’t going to place blame. We weren’t going to compete with each other for their affection. I’ve done my part, Terry.” “And you’re saying I haven’t done mine? What exactly are you accusing me of?” He knew, but he was playing his favorite role—the innocent, persecuted martyr. “Every time the kids come home, they seem angry with me, as though they blame me for something,” she said. “And you think it’s my fault that they’d rather we were a family again?” “Don’t twist this. Alex told me what you’ve been saying about me.” Silence. “How can you tell them the divorce was all my fault?” she asked. “Who should they blame, Jackie? I had nothing to do with it. I can’t believe you want me to be the bad guy.” “I don’t think either one of us should have to be the bad guy. That’s the whole idea. We’re supposed to support each other, for their sakes. Don’t you understand, Terry? You’re not doing it for me. When you say bad things about me to them, you make them choose between us. That’s hard on a child. And it’s terribly selfish.” “Well, you should know about that. You’ve ruined all our lives with this divorce. How selfish is that?” “What?” Jaclyn’s blood pressure nearly went through the roof. “You’re acting as though I was the one who was unfaithful to you!” “I was never unfaithful to you, Jackie. Not really. I didn’t care about those other women.” “And that makes it okay to sleep with them?” she asked, but she didn’t wait for his answer. It wouldn’t make sense to her. It never did. And no amount of arguing would change his mind. He wasn’t going to take any responsibility for the divorce. He’d never had to take responsibility for anything in his life. Why start now? She hung up and stared at the phone, breathing hard, letting the impotency of her anger drive away her earlier tears. Come hell or high water, she would not let Terry starve her out. She would find a job, and she would make a success out of her life if it killed her. Flipping off the stove, she ignored the water that had nearly boiled away to nothing and went back to the paper. She’d check each ad, no matter the column, and she’d apply for everything, whether she was qualified or not. Something had to go her way eventually, didn’t it? And that was when she saw it—an ad under Real Estate Sales. Wanted: agent to work out of model homes near Washoe County Golf Course. Must have R.E. license and at least three years’ sales experience. $36,000/year plus commission, full benefits. Call 555-4108. Thirty-six thousand dollars a year sounded like a fortune to Jaclyn, but the salary wasn’t what caught her interest. Below the ad, in big, fancy script, was the logo of the company that had placed it: Perrini Homes. THE NEXT DAY, Jaclyn wiped her sweaty palms on a tissue, straightened her linen dress, checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror and climbed out of her Mercury Sable, hoping she looked professional, capable, poised. It was early yet, not quite eight o’clock, but finding Cole Perrini’s development had been easier than she’d thought. Blue-and-white flags heralded the entrance, along with a huge sign that announced five new model homes open to public viewing. The golf course was less than a quarter of a mile away. Wow, she thought, squinting against the rising sun to better see Cole’s houses. They were big and made mostly of brick. Steeply gabled roofs, dormers with black shutters and lots of white-paned windows gave the development a Georgian grace that was definitely unusual for Nevada, but classy. Very classy. “You’re certainly not sparing any expense, Cole,” she murmured to herself, noting the expansive yards, recently groomed to perfection with brand-new landscaping and white, split-rail fences. She’d driven around the neighborhood when she’d first entered the development, and knew there were at least fifty homes in varying stages of construction on a maze of streets and cul-de-sacs. She suddenly felt foolish for having asked Cole if he was still driving semis. Evidently he’d come a long way since then. Her heels clicked on the aggregate walkway that led up to the first home, set apart from the row of models by a fancy stone fence with Oak Ranch Estates by Perrini Homes carved into it. A sign on the house labeled it as the office. Another sign in the window said Closed. Jaclyn stood on the front stoop, wishing she could turn around and go home. But she wasn’t about to lose her nerve now. Someone would be coming shortly. If Cole could afford to hire a real-estate agent for thirty-six thousand dollars a year, maybe he could afford a secretary to run errands and type and file for far less than that. Then she could learn the business, get a start and she hoped, become a real-estate agent someday. Showing homes was something she thought she might be good at. At least it was a job with a future. A light glowed inside the house, but for all Jaclyn knew it had been on all night. She tucked a strand of fallen hair into the knot at the back of her head, fidgeted with her purse and watched the street for an approaching car. Then she glanced at her watch. Seven-fifty. Ten minutes more and surely someone would— The door swung open behind her and a tall, long-legged man in jeans and a clean T-shirt nearly bowled her over on his way out. “Whoa! Sorry about that!” he said, catching her before she landed in the flower bed. “I wasn’t expecting anyone so early. You okay?” “I’m fine. Didn’t mean to surprise you.” She gave a shaky laugh. “I’m looking for Cole Perrini. Could you tell me where I might find him?” He rubbed his brow and frowned. “I think he might have forgotten you. He didn’t mention having an appointment this morning.” “We don’t have an appointment.” The newspaper sticking out of the side pocket of her purse caught his attention. “Are you here about the sales position?” She nodded. “Well, you’re free to wait inside, if you want. Cole lives here. Kinda convenient, since he works all the time, you know? But the phone rang just as I was leaving, and once Cole gets on a call, he can stay on it for hours. You might want to try the number in the ad and set an appointment. I think Rick’s doing the interviewing.” “Thanks, but I’m sort of an old friend of Cole’s. I was hoping I could talk to him.” Mild surprise lit his features. “Oh, yeah? I’m Cole’s brother, Chad.” He stuck out a big hand, one with plenty of calluses and scars, and Jaclyn took it, feeling heartened by his friendly welcome. “I’m Jaclyn.” She didn’t offer a surname, and he didn’t ask for one. “It’s nice to meet you.” “You sure look like your brother,” she said, noting his wide shoulders, muscular arms and narrow hips. Chad didn’t have a cleft in his chin, but he had the same raw masculinity as Cole, plus a couple of dimples that made him appear more fun-loving, if not more reckless. “He’s only half as good-lookin’ as me,” he teased, holding the door open for her. “Go on in and make yourself comfortable. Rick’ll be here shortly, so even if you don’t see Cole right away, you’ll get to talk to someone soon.” He dipped his head in final greeting and strode off, leaving Jaclyn to search her brain for some kind of memory of him as the door banged shut. Cole had lots of brothers, she wasn’t sure how many—four? five?—but they were all younger, and a high school girl didn’t take particular notice of grade-school-aged boys. She couldn’t place Chad and doubted she’d recognize any of the others, either. Slipping into one of two modern chairs facing an expensive-looking desk, Jaclyn felt her tension start to mount again in the silence and willed herself to relax. No sooner had she taken a deep breath than Cole came rushing down the hall from the back, holding what looked like a set of plans and wearing nothing but a towel around his hips. “Chad! Wait!” he hollered. His hair was wet, like the rest of him, and dripping on the carpet, but he seemed to care only about catching his brother. Flinging the door open wide, he called after Chad again, but Jaclyn knew he’d missed his intended target when he cursed and pulled it shut again. Then he saw her. “Jackie?” His voice revealed his surprise. Jaclyn jumped hastily to her feet, bumping her knee on the corner of the desk in the process but purposely swallowing the accompanying grunt of pain. “Hi, Cole,” she managed to say, staring at all six feet two inches of nearly naked male. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to catch you in the shower.” She tried to keep her eyes on his face, but it was impossible to avoid noting the lean, muscular build that started with bare feet and long legs and ended with an expansive chest sparingly covered in dark swirls of hair and a set of impressive shoulders. It was the thought, however, of what was hidden by the towel that rattled her the most. She hadn’t seen a man this close to naked in over a year—and a year suddenly seemed like a very long time. He looked down as though only now realizing that he wasn’t fully clothed. But he must have considered himself modest enough, because he certainly didn’t run for cover. “What are you doing here?” he asked, instead. Jaclyn forced herself to stand tall and brave a smile. She didn’t want him to know how difficult this was for her, how badly coming to him hurt her pride. “I just thought…well…” She indicated the paper she’d brought. “I saw your ad and thought I’d come over and…” “Apply?” He frowned, his gaze traveling over her blue linen sheath dress and conservative shoes—an expensive outfit she’d bought while she was still married—before returning to her face. “You’re a real-estate agent?” Jaclyn swallowed hard, using every ounce of determination she possessed to keep her smile firmly in place. “Not exactly. I don’t have my license…yet. I just thought maybe you could use a good secretary or something. You know, someone to run errands for you, do some typing—” her voice started to fade away, and she cleared her throat so she could finish strong “—answer phones, anything like that. I’m a hard worker and a fast learner,” she added quickly. “I’m sure you are, but…” He let his breath go in a soft hiss and ran a hand through his wet hair, shoving it back off his forehead. “What about your other job, at Joanna’s?” The story of her firing, and his part in it, hovered on the tip of Jaclyn’s tongue. But the memory of his fifty-dollar tip stopped her from telling it. If Cole had pitied her yesterday, what would he feel today, when he found out she’d lost even that sorry job? “Well, Joanna’s is just a stop-gap, really,” she heard herself saying. “A way to bring in some extra money and get out of the house.” She laughed, praying he’d buy into her little charade, because she couldn’t face the knowing in his eyes if he didn’t. “I may keep it, for weekends,” she went on, “but I need something more…challenging. There’re lots of interesting jobs in the paper, though.” She patted it as if to convince him. “So if you don’t have anything, it’s no problem, really. I just thought I’d ask.” “I’d love to hire you, Jackie,” he said, “but I’m not sure what I’d have you do. Except for a sales agent, I’m pretty well staffed here.” “Oh.” She nodded. “Of course you are.” Disappointment slashed through Jaclyn so strongly that it was a physical pain in her chest. Once the idea of becoming a real-estate agent had taken root inside her, it had bloomed quickly, seeming like the perfect answer to all her problems and raising her hopes higher than she had a right to let them go. She should have known better. She’d been a fool to come. “You’re looking for someone with a license,” she said, keeping the expression on her face as calm and pleasant as she could. But her smile was starting to wobble. She had to get away, fast. “I understand that. I just thought it wouldn’t hurt to check. Anyway, I’ll go so you can dress. I didn’t mean to hold you up.” She grabbed her purse like a lifeline and started for the door, but he stood partially in her path and caught her by the arm as she passed. “What is it, Jackie?” he asked. “What’s going on?” She could barely answer. Her throat constricted and her eyes—damn them!—were already filling with tears. “Nothing, Cole. Everything’s fine,” she insisted, blinking furiously in a last-ditch effort to stop the inevitable. “C-congratulations on all your success. I’m so…happy for you.” Then she twisted away and hurried out of the house, her only thought to reach her car before the first sob hit. CHAPTER THREE “WHO WAS THAT?” Rick asked, maneuvering around Cole to fit through the open doorway of the office. Cole didn’t answer. He was too surprised and confused by what had just happened. He’d run into Jaclyn Wentworth for the first time in ten years just yesterday, and this morning she appeared out of nowhere to ask him for a job. Stranger still, she’d nearly broken down in tears when he told her he didn’t have anything. What was going on? She couldn’t need work that badly. The Wentworths were very wealthy. She had to have received a large settlement from the divorce, and there was always child support. She and Terry had three kids together. Anyway, she certainly didn’t look like she was hurting. That dress she’d been wearing was obviously expensive, and it fit her to perfection, hinting at feminine curves while revealing much of her long, long legs. Her thick russet hair was wound up into one of those sexy twists in back, and her light green eyes…God, those eyes. They were the prettiest he’d ever seen. He’d thought so in high school. He thought so now. “Hello? Are you with me today, Cole?” Jackie’s car had disappeared around a corner, and Cole finally tore his attention away from the road. He closed the door. “I’m here.” “So what’s up?” His brother indicated Cole’s towel and grinned. “You have a guest last night? She must have been pretty good. You certainly stood in that doorway like a lovesick fool long enough. I guess that means things are really over between you and Laura, huh?” Cole gave Rick a look designed to warn him away from the subject, but Rick only laughed. “That evil-eye thing used to work when we were kids, but in case you’ve forgotten, I’m almost as big as you are now.” “Ha! That evil-eye thing never worked on you,” Cole said. “You forced me to take you to the mat on everything. But you’re twenty-eight now, and not likely to get much bigger. I’ve still got you beat by a couple of inches, so you’d better watch yourself or I’ll whip your ass again.” Rick angled himself into a chair and propped his feet on the desk. “Like that time when I was fourteen and I wrecked Dad’s truck?” “I didn’t whip you for wrecking it,” Cole said. “I whipped you for stealing it.” Rick shook his head and put his feet down. “Creepers, Cole. How’d you keep us all in line? We were somethin’, weren’t we.” Cole laughed, because he could—now. The hard part was over. Despite his mother’s illness, their poverty and his father’s long hours in the mine, he’d kept his brothers safe. He’d seen to it that three out of the four of them—all except Rick—received a high-school diploma, that they learned the value of hard work, and that they stayed away from drugs and alcohol. As the oldest, he’d done his best by them, but he’d had to crack a few heads along the way, usually Rick’s. “It wasn’t easy,” he admitted, rubbing his neck. “And you were the worst of the bunch.” Rick started going through the papers on his desk; Cole took a moment to check the messages on the answering machine before heading back to dress for the day. “Yeah, Andrew was the one you liked,” Rick said. “He was always your favorite.” Cole shrugged. “He was the baby of the family and not likely to challenge me.” “And look at him now. He’s going to college, just the way you told him to, right? Andrew’s still a good little boy.” Cole noted the subtle change in Rick’s voice, but wasn’t exactly sure what to attribute it to. Was he jealous of Andrew’s opportunity? Cole couldn’t have afforded to put Rick through college seven years ago. He didn’t have a high-school diploma, anyway. Chad had also missed out on any higher learning, but the younger Perrinis were now at the University of Nevada in Las Vaegs. “You could go back and finish high school, if you want,” he said. “Then go on to college. Brian and Andrew would even let you room with them, if you hurry.” Rick didn’t answer right away. He slammed one of the drawers in his desk and took a calculator out of another. “Maybe someday I’ll overcome my wild past and do just that.” Cole grinned, pausing from his task of writing down the myriad messages he needed to return. “‘Wild past’ is right. Remember Mrs. Tiller? She invited us over for dinner, and you brought all those garter snakes in your pockets. I thought the poor woman was going to have a heart attack when one slithered past her plate.” Rick shook his head. “How could I forget? You gave me a whippin’ the likes of which I’d never had before.” “Hers was about the only good home cookin’ we ever got, besides what Granny Fanny gave us. And Mrs. Tiller never invited us back after that. I coulda killed you,” Cole said, but he felt a prick of conscience all the same. Had he been too hard on Rick? Is that what stood between them? If so, it hardly seemed fair. Cole had been young and desperate to keep them all from winding up in separate foster homes. Maybe he’d forced Rick to knuckle under one too many times—but Rick had been so difficult. Riding him hard was the only way Cole could keep him in line. “I didn’t pound on you because I liked it,” he added, more gruffly than he’d intended. Rick shrugged. “Hell, no. I deserved it.” For the first time in his life, Cole was tempted to share with him how heavy the load of raising his four brothers had been, how young and inexperienced he’d been at the time, how panicked. There were occasions he had gone without supper so his brothers could have more. Other days he took their turn sitting with Mom so they could get enough sleep to be ready for school. But Rick would never understand what life had been like for Cole. No one would ever understand. Which was why those years were better forgotten, along with Feld, the dusty little town where it had all happened. “So, you gonna tell me about your lady friend?” Rick asked. Cole ripped off the sheet of paper he’d been writing on and jammed the pen back into its holder. “She’s just someone who’s looking for a job.” “She got her real-estate license?” “No.” “She a contractor, bricklayer, landscaper or roofer?” “She look like a subcontractor to you?” Rick chuckled. “Hardly.” He punched a few buttons on his calculator and scribbled something down. “She was mighty fine, though. What does she do?” “She married out of high school. She’s recently divorced with three kids. I doubt she’s worked many places.” “So did you give her the ‘boy, did you screw up not getting a college education’ speech?” Cole chose to ignore Rick’s needling. Whatever his brother held against him, he couldn’t change the past. “I told her we don’t have anything except the sales position right now.” “That’s true.” Taking his messages with him, Cole headed down the hall. He needed to get dressed before anyone else arrived. “You think we could use some help here, around the office?” he asked, turning back. Rick looked up. “Another salary wouldn’t translate well on the projected profit and loss statement we need to provide the bank for that new loan.” “Yeah, you’re right. Forget it.” Cole went to his room and dressed in a pair of jeans and a Perrini Homes T-shirt, then settled in his private office, where his primary tool was the telephone. Rick, with his natural talent for numbers, was the company controller and ran the front office, and Chad, as general contractor, handled most of the subs. But there were still a million details Cole felt more comfortable handling himself—like meeting with the county planners, coordinating inspections, dealing with the appraisers, signing the escrow papers when each house closed, approving new building plans and arranging financing for future projects. His days were long, but he loved his work. Nothing was more fulfilling than seeing a family pull into the driveway of a house he’d built, get out and water their flowers, or stand at the curb and talk to their neighbors. But today Cole couldn’t seem to settle into his usual routine. In his mind’s eye, he kept seeing Jackie, the trembling of her lip, the proud tilt of her head, and knew he couldn’t ignore whatever it was that was wrong. Finally he picked up the phone and called information. They had no listing for Jaclyn Wentworth, but they had a J. Wentworth. He jotted down the number and dialed it. An answering machine picked up, and a child’s voice told him to leave his name and number. He hung up and grabbed his keys. It was time to return to Joanna’s Restaurant. COLE DOUBLE-CHECKED the address the waitress at Joanna’s had given him, pulled to the side of the road and sat staring at Jaclyn’s small house. Damn. He’d had to go back to Joanna’s, hadn’t he. He just couldn’t leave well enough alone. And now he knew Jaclyn had been fired and that she’d needed the job she’d asked him for, a whole lot more than she’d let on. Which left him with a decision. He could involve himself further and try to help her, or he could turn around and drive away. His better judgment urged him to drive away. Jackie’s problems weren’t his problems. Lord knows, he’d had a hard enough time pulling himself and his brothers out of Feld, keeping food on the table, supporting his parents until they passed away and trying to build a new life and a business here in Reno. The last thing he needed was to take on more dead weight. It wasn’t as if he had money running out of his ears. Perrini Homes was dangerously over-leveraged. If Oak Ranch didn’t sell well, he could lose everything. But Jaclyn’s getting fired had come on the heels of his interference with that jerk who wouldn’t pay his check yesterday, and he feared he might have cost her her job. Beyond that, he’d once been where she was right now—desperate, alone and new in town. With a heavy sigh, Cole cut the engine and strode to the house. At his knock, the porch light came on. Jaclyn cracked open the door, then stepped back and swung it wide when she recognized him. “Cole. How did you—” “Hi,” he said. “Looks like I’ve found the right place.” “How did you get my address?” “Maddy at Joanna’s gave it to me.” “You went back to Joanna’s?” “Yeah, I was looking for you.” “Oh.” “Can I come in?” She hesitated, seeming embarrassed, but finally motioned him inside. “Of course. I was just doing some housecleaning. The kids are with Terry for a few days, so I thought I’d get some things done around here.” She stripped off a pair of yellow rubber gloves. “Can I get you a drink?” Her auburn hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing a simple tank top and denim shorts without shoes, but she looked even prettier than she had in her dress. Her firm, well-toned legs seemed to go on forever, and her skin, slightly damp with sweat, looked creamy and soft. Cole tried not to notice that there was anything appealing about her. Jackie represented Feld and everything he’d escaped there. “No thanks, I’m good,” he said, moving past her. The house was filled with old mismatched furniture, but it was clean. And it smelled like Jaclyn, a little earthy and definitely feminine, despite the hint of Lysol coming from the gloves she’d cast aside. Whether or not he wanted to admit it, Cole liked the smell. It reminded him of meadows and brooks and warm summer days. But from the looks of things, Jaclyn hadn’t gotten a very big divorce settlement. More bad news. “You renting?” he asked. She surprised him with a grin. “You think I’d buy this dump?” “Beats a trailer.” He smiled back, remembering, in spite of himself, the first time he’d ever seen her. She’d been sitting in his English class at the beginning of his senior year, and just the sight of her had thrown his boyish heart into overdrive. She had to be the only girl who’d ever made his palms sweat. Of course, that was before he knew she was a cheerleader, vice-president of the Honor Society, and captain of the debate team—exactly the type of girl who would never be interested in a tough, poor boy who missed as many days of school as he attended. For a moment, the memories of Feld threatened to swallow him up again, but he focused on what Jaclyn was saying and pushed them aside. “I wanted the kids to have somewhere to ride their bikes and set up a lemonade stand and run through the sprinklers,” she said. “The neighborhood’s not as bad as it looks, really. Mostly old folks on a pension.” She sank into a seat across from him. “Of course, my three kids spice things up a bit.” “I bet.” Cole noted that most of the pictures on the walls were crayon drawings, and wondered what Jaclyn’s kids were like. After raising his brothers, he swore he’d never have any children of his own. He’d had enough of that kind of responsibility. But he’d bet Jaclyn’s were cuter than most. Not that he wanted to meet them. He planned to offer Jaclyn the money she needed to get on her feet, and move on. He cleared his throat. “I guess you know why I’m here.” She stared down at the threadbare carpet. “You found out I was fired yesterday.” “Yeah.” “Well, you didn’t need to come.” She smiled, making another valiant effort to act as if she was fine, but Cole noticed how her hands fisted in her lap. “Now that I’m on my own, I’d better get used to the ups and downs of it, don’t you think?” “How bad are things?” he asked, cutting to the chase. Her eyes widened in surprise. “They’re fine. I’m fine—” “Jackie, I didn’t come here for more of your stiff-upper-lip routine. I’m willing to help you, but I can’t do that unless I know what you need.” “What I need?” She laughed, but there was no humor in it. “I need to go back twelve years, get a college education and not marry Terry. That’s what I need.” She paused. “You once warned me against doing exactly what I did. Do you remember?” He remembered. He also remembered he’d warned her against Terry because he wanted her himself. He’d had plenty of girls following him home from school and coming on to him at dances, and Rochelle calling him night and day, but Jaclyn was the one he’d dreamed about. “I was just a dumb kid. I don’t know why I said what I did,” he lied. She folded her arms and leaned back. “Still, I wish I’d listened. Except, my children are great. I don’t regret them.” The telephone rang, and she put up a hand to indicate she’d be right back. She carried the cordless phone into the kitchen to talk, but Cole could easily hear her, even though he stood and tried to amuse himself by figuring out what the pictures on her walls were supposed to be. “What do you want now?…No, I didn’t say that. I said she’d have to have her birthday party here…That place is too expensive, Terry, you know it is…Why do you always have to ruin everything for me?…Listen, I can’t talk about this now because someone’s here…Cole Perrini. You remember him, don’t you? We went to school with him…What…? She lowered her voice until Cole could barely hear her, but now that he’d heard his name, he strained to catch the rest. “I can’t believe you just said that. We’re not doing anything. You have no right to even ask me that! Cole and I have never so much as kissed…Are the kids there? Did you just say that in front of Alex?…Forget it. I’m hanging up, Terry…” Finally, in one frustrated-sounding burst, she said, “Well, he wouldn’t have to be very good to be better than you.” Then she hung up, leaving Cole wondering what he wouldn’t have to be very good at. On the heels of her previous words, his imagination certainly presented some interesting possibilities. But they were possibilities he refused to entertain, because he knew that anything physical with Jackie would come at a price higher than he was willing to pay. He’d already raised all the kids he was going to raise. He wouldn’t go through that hell again. And he’d already learned that marriage didn’t suit him, either. “Sorry about that,” she said, returning. “No problem. I’ve got to get going, anyway.” He stood and opened his mouth to offer her the money he’d intended to give. He wanted to write her a check and be on his way. He didn’t want to look back. But deep down he knew it couldn’t be that easy. A woman with Jackie’s pride wouldn’t accept charity. So he did exactly what he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do, and offered her the job she’d asked for, instead. “I thought you didn’t have anything,” she said. “Well, it won’t be much to start with. You’ll just have to fill in wherever we need you, and eventually we’ll get you into the sales end of things. Once you get your license and some training, you can work anywhere.” Scowling, she said, “Cole, don’t do this if—” “Everyone needs a little help sooner or later, Jackie. When I came to Reno, there was a man who helped me get my start in real estate.” His mentor. The one person who’d buoyed him up when he thought he’d drowned in responsibility. “I’m just passing on the favor. Besides, this isn’t a handout. You’ll work for your money. The position pays twenty-five hundred a month plus benefits. Can you get by on that?” She nodded eagerly. “When do you want me to start?” “Tomorrow, if you can.” A smile curved her lips. With hair falling from her ponytail in wispy strands, and hope and relief lighting her eyes, she looked incredibly attractive. She sure hadn’t changed much since high school. Deep down Cole feared neither of them had changed enough. She no longer made his palms sweat, but she did strange things to his chest and caused a strong response in regions a little lower. “I’ll be there,” she promised, then surprised him by standing on tiptoe to give him a quick hug. “Thanks, Cole. I’ll do a good job for you,” she murmured. At least, that was what he thought she said. All he knew was that suddenly his nostrils were full of the scent of her, and his arms were full of the feel of her, and he could no longer regret hiring her. He even thought about giving her a raise. CHAPTER FOUR THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING,not on my first day! Jaclyn glanced at her watch, cringed when she saw she had only ten minutes until she was supposed to report at Perrini Homes, and frantically pumped the gas pedal of her Mercury Sable. Come on, baby, start. Start! The engine whined and chugged more slowly than before, then fell completely silent. Another turn of the ignition key caused nothing but a clicking sound. Her battery was dead. She’d have to go to the neighbor’s and ask for a jump. “Of all the blasted times,” she muttered, getting out and trudging to Mr. Alder’s next door. Careful to protect her best suit from the automatic sprinklers watering his lawn, she kept to the far side of the concrete walkway until she reached the porch, then gave his front door a hearty knock. No one answered. She pounded two more times and had nearly given up in favor of Mrs. Lavender’s across the street, when Mr. Alder finally opened up, wearing a tattered terry-cloth robe. He gazed at her in surprise, his white hair sticking up on all sides, the pattern of crumpled bedding imprinted on one whiskery cheek. “Is it garbage day?” he asked. Jaclyn cleared her throat, feeling a twinge of guilt for having dragged him from his bed to ask a favor. Retired for nearly eight years and a widower besides, he spent his time tinkering around his property. His days were probably long enough already. And it wasn’t as though he particularly liked Jaclyn or her children. When they were home, Mackenzie, Alex and Alyssa disrupted the silence of the neighborhood, left their trikes and scooters in the road, sometimes picked his flowers as presents for her and generally pestered him at every opportunity. They considered any man over sixty a potential grandpa and were determined to win him over. But so far their efforts had done more to alienate than endear. Jaclyn had only chosen him as her savior today because she thought he’d be more mechanical than the little old lady across the street. “I’m sorry to wake you,” she said, “but I’m in a tight spot. I’m supposed to be at work in—” she checked her watch again and stifled a groan “—five minutes, and my car won’t start. Is there any chance you could give me a jump?” He angled his head to see her car sitting in her driveway with the hood up, and harrumphed. Then he muttered that he’d be right back and disappeared into the house. When he returned, he was dressed in his customary polyester slacks, short-sleeved, button-up shirt and wing-tipped shoes. A pair of jumper cables was clutched in one gnarled hand. Jaclyn kept a vigilant but despairing eye on the time, while Mr. Alder moved his car alongside hers and hooked the jumper cables to both batteries. It was eight o’clock. She was late already. What was she going to tell Cole? Her tardiness might make him believe Joanna’s was justified in firing her. She thought of going inside to call him, but didn’t want to start her first day offering excuses. With Mr. Alder’s help, she should be there soon. Trying to keep calm, she climbed into her car, waited for Mr. Alder’s signal and turned on the ignition. To her relief, the engine roared to life. “Thanks,” she called, as he removed the cables. “I’ll bake you an apple pie this weekend, if you’d like one. Or maybe you’d prefer some strawberry jam. I make great strawberry jam.” “Just tell your children to leave the rocks along the side of my yard alone,” he said, his voice as gruff and cross as ever. The rocks? What could her children possibly do to hurt some ugly old lava rocks? “I’ll tell them,” Jaclyn said, sighing as she shifted into reverse and backed down the drive. Mr. Alder’s patent disapproval was starting to get the best of her, but she’d have to deal with that later. She had more important things to worry about right now—like turning a seven-or eight-minute drive into no more than two or three. Unfortunately, rush-hour traffic worked against her. By the time she arrived at Cole’s office, it was nearly eight-twenty, and Cole wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Neither was his brother, Chad. But the man she’d passed as she was leaving last time sat in the front office, talking on the phone. He lifted a finger to indicate he’d be with her in a minute, then bowed his head and jumped back into the conversation he’d been having when she entered. “…I’m telling you we need those Sheetrockers there tomorrow. This house doesn’t close by the fifteenth, it ain’t gonna close, you know what I’m saying? Right, and in order to do that, we gotta get rid of these last few stragglers…No, that’s not good enough. The bank’s watchin’ us closely, wondering whether or not to plunk down another few mil. We need to convince them that their money’s perfectly safe with us, and sales are the only way to do that. We have to close some escrows…That’s right…Cole wanted it to happen yesterday…okay, see that it does…you got it…take it easy, man.” He hung up and offered her a hesitant yet curious smile as he rose to his full height of nearly six feet and rounded the desk. “You must be Jaclyn Wentworth,” he said. “Cole told me you’d be coming.” He didn’t add that Cole had said she’d arrive at eight, but Jaclyn feared he was thinking it. “Yes. I’m sorry I’m a little late. I’m normally very punctual, but my car battery was dead this morning and I had to get a jump.” Fleetingly Jaclyn realized she should have left her car running, given it time to recharge the battery. Instead, she’d pulled into the closest parking space, cut the engine and dashed for the office, which meant she’d probably need to get another jump come five o’clock. But there wasn’t anything she could do about it now. “I’m Rick, Cole’s kid brother,” the man said, offering to shake hands. “I’m the company controller, which in our case basically means I run the front office here, manage the cash flow and do the accounting.” “I think I remember seeing you a time or two in Feld.” Jaclyn smiled as she accepted the big hand that momentarily engulfed hers. Unlike Chad, Rick wasn’t the spitting image of Cole. He had the same lean, muscular build, the same angles to his face, but he had dark blond hair and blue eyes that held a certain wariness Cole had lost since high school. Jaclyn could sense other differences, as well, but couldn’t yet place what they were. “You probably did. I was a freshman when Cole was a senior. He said you were in his class.” “I was, but I certainly never expected to run into him again.” “It’s a small world.” Folding his arms across his chest, he leaned one hip on his desk. “Um, just so I understand your capabilities, Ms. Wentworth, do you know how to use Windows?” Jaclyn had seen that program mentioned a lot in the want ads. Everyone wanted a secretary who knew how to run Windows. “I’m afraid I don’t. I haven’t had much experience with a computer. But, please, call me Jaclyn.” “Jaclyn it is, then.” He paused. “So you’ve never done any word processing?” “No, but I can type. I—I took typing in high school.” “Okay. Do you have any accounting skills? Any bookkeeping in your background?” “Unfortunately not.” Until she’d left Terry, Jaclyn hadn’t even balanced her own checkbook. Terry’s father had given them a monthly allowance, handled the credit-card statements and paid all the bills, but she wasn’t about to volunteer that information. Rick’s questions were already making her feel painfully inadequate. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never worked in an office before,” she admitted. “I think Cole hired me more on faith than anything else, because of the Feld connection. But I’m a quick learner and determined to be an asset here. I know it might be frustrating for you at first, but I hope you’ll bear with me long enough to let me prove myself.” Jaclyn knew her sincerity had had an effect when Rick grinned and the hesitation in his manner eased. “I started with less. I think we can work with that.” “Great. Where do you want me to sit?” He indicated a smaller mahogany desk next to a large map of the development. “That’s your spot there, until we hire a real-estate agent and rearrange the place to accommodate three. For the time being, you can collect résumés for the position. Why don’t you do the initial interview, too, then recommend the top three candidates to me? That would free some of my time so I can get caught up around here.” Jaclyn started to say that she didn’t know what type of person they were looking for, but he raised a hand to let her know he anticipated such a response. “Cole told me you’re not familiar with real-estate sales, but you can get some sort of feel for whether a person is reliable and well-motivated, and whether they seem experienced, right?” She nodded. “We’d prefer someone who’s been in the business a few years, but we’d stretch for a new licensee, if they’re exceptionally sharp.” “Okay.” Jaclyn settled behind her new desk, which sat perpendicular to Rick’s so that she saw him every time she looked up. An old-fashioned lamp, a black business phone, and a pad and penholder awaited her use on the polished surface; the drawers were empty, except for the recent addition of her purse and a Reno telephone book that looked as if it had been there since the beginning of time. “Will I be getting a computer?” “I’ll pick one up for you as soon as I can, but here’s the bad news. There won’t be anyone available to train you today until after lunch. I have to go to the county planning department and try to get the tree inspector to sign off on a couple of dying trees so we can have them removed and lay a foundation tomorrow. And Cole is out all day on appointments.” He glanced helplessly around the office, and Jaclyn got the distinct impression that he didn’t quite know what to do with her. “Any chance you could answer phones and do some filing until then?” “Sure.” Jaclyn gave him a reassuring smile that lasted until he headed out. But as soon as the door closed behind him, her confidence fizzled. She was sitting behind her new desk, wearing her best suit, gazing out at the perfectly manicured lawn and expansive Perrini Homes sign, feeling like a complete fraud. How much time would Cole—and Rick—give her to become comfortable with her position? Judging by the vast amount she needed to learn, she feared it would never be enough. Dropping her head in her hands, Jaclyn massaged her temples to alleviate the headache that was already starting to pound there, then turned a doleful eye on the box Rick had set on the floor next to her before he left. It was overflowing with important-looking papers and business documents—profit and loss statements, escrow papers, house plans, bills, letters, litigation for God knows what, and receipts. Obviously, if Rick was the one in charge of the filing before she came, he was way behind. Or he didn’t know what to do with the stuff any more than she did. A daunting thought. Jaclyn hauled the box into the next room and found a large photocopying machine and an entire bank of filing cabinets, just as Rick had promised. Hope momentarily raised its head as she gazed at the gleaming oak cabinets—they looked fairly innocuous—but then she opened the drawers. They were filled to bursting with hanging folders that weren’t even in alphabetical order. And the papers inside them might as well have been written in Russian for all Jaclyn understood about what they were and why they belonged where they did. What made her think she could do this job? she wondered, her insecurities returning full force. Rick had asked her to file, to file, for Pete’s sake—which was supposed to be the easiest job in the world—and she couldn’t even do that. Feeling a little like the poor girl in “Rumpelstiltskin,” who was locked in a chamber and expected to spin straw into gold, Jaclyn eyed the clock on the wall. She had three hours until Rick was expected back. She had to have something to show for them. Tears of frustration brimmed as Jaclyn turned to the cabinet on her left and opened the top drawer, but she blinked them back. She’d wanted an opportunity, and Cole had given her one. She’d figure the filing system out somehow, even if it meant she had to read every piece of paper in the whole darn office. IT WAS WELL AFTER SEVEN in the evening when Cole finally rolled into the driveway of Oak Ranch. He’d had a legitimately busy day meeting with engineers and architects and commercial real-estate agents, but he’d thrown himself even more wholeheartedly into his business than usual, hoping to forget that Jackie Wentworth started work today. After he’d left her place last night, he’d decided, for his own piece of mind, to ignore her as much as possible and let Rick deal with her. But it didn’t look as though he was going to make it through the day without some sort of interaction. Her car was still in front of the office—and Rick’s was gone. What was she doing here so late? Heaving a tired sigh, Cole toted his satchel-style briefcase and day-planner to the door and let himself in to find the desks empty, the place quiet. Where was Jackie? Had Rick taken her out to dinner or something? It was certainly plausible. They were both single and attractive. But Rick and Jackie had nothing in common. And his kid brother was too young for her, anyway. There had to be—what?—three years between them? Cole swallowed hard. Three years was nothing, certainly not the stretch it had been in high school. Slinging his suit coat over the water cooler and loosening his tie, he sat behind his brother’s desk, propped up his feet and dialed Rick’s mobile. Cole hadn’t checked in with the office today as he normally did, but Rick had given him an update on his voice-mail, so there hadn’t been any real need to. “’Lo,” Rick answered. “Hey, what’s up?” Cole asked. “Not a whole lot.” “Where you at?” A pause. “Nowhere special, why?” Cole could hear a dominant male voice and other conversation going on in the background. Was it a mall? More likely a restaurant. “You eating?” “No.” “Jackie with you?” “Who?” “Jackie Ras—Wentworth, our new employee.” “You mean Jaclyn? Why would she be with me?” “Because her car is here, but she’s gone.” “Did you check the copier room?” Just as Rick spoke, someone near him said something about Lady Chatterley’s Lover. At least, that was what Cole thought he heard. Where the heck was Rick? “The what?” “She was still in the copier room when I left,” Rick shouted as the noise around him escalated. “I gotta go.” “Wait—” Cole said, but Rick had already hung up. Puzzled, Cole stared at the phone. His brother used to stay at the office until ten or eleven almost every night. Lately he’d been coming in early but leaving promptly at five. He claimed he wasn’t seeing anyone regularly but never mentioned how he spent his nights…. Something was up, Cole was certain. But what? He shook his head. His brother was an adult now. Whatever it was, Rick could handle it— “Who’s here? Cole, is that you?” Jaclyn’s voice resonated from somewhere down the hall, interrupting his thoughts. “Yeah, it’s me.” Shoving to his feet, Cole went to see why his new employee was still at work. Didn’t she understand that having a salary meant she wasn’t being paid by the hour? He found her in the copier room, just as Rick had suggested, sitting in the middle of a sea of file folders. Her shoes and jacket had been discarded by the door. Her hair was falling from a clip in back and, as he watched, she stretched her neck as though she had a kink in it. All in all, she looked like an overwrought librarian. “What’re you doing?” he asked, glancing nervously at the empty file drawer standing open above her head. A proud smile curved her generous mouth. “I’m getting us organized.” Us? Cole felt his muscles tense. He’d never be able to find anything again! What had Rick been thinking, turning her loose on the files on her first day? “Did Rick tell you to overhaul the whole filing system?” he asked, grappling for patience. She indicated an empty cardboard box not far from her jacket and shoes. “No, he told me to file what was in that box until he had the time to train me. But when he was in the office, he was on the phone, so I kept myself busy in here. Once I got started, I realized this place needed some serious housecleaning.” Housecleaning? Housecleaning? This was his business, for God’s sake, his sweat and hard work, and now…He gazed helplessly at the paper mess. “But you said you’ve never worked in an office before.” “I haven’t.” Her smile brightened even more. “It took me a long time to figure out how it should go, but once I started recognizing common elements, the sorting went much faster.” “I see.” He hated the condescending tone that entered his voice, but he’d been up most of the night before, working on a proposal designed to interest private investors in his first out-of-town housing tract; he was too tired and irritable to deal with such an unexpected calamity. Obviously Jackie meant well and was trying hard to prove herself, but if she didn’t go home soon, she’d learn just how unhappy he was with her little project. He cleared his throat. “Do you know it’s nearly eight o’clock?” “Yeah. My kids are with Terry, so there’s no real reason to go home. I’d like to finish here, as long as you don’t mind.” He did mind. That was the problem. “But finishing could take all night, and then some,” he said. She followed his gaze over the cluttered room. “Actually, I’m almost done. I’ve already made the new file tabs, and everything is sorted into stacks, except this pile here—” She indicated the papers closest to her, the ones she’d been poring over when he entered the room. “This is the stuff that doesn’t seem to go with anything. Should I make a Miscellaneous file, or would you rather look through it and tell me where you want everything to go?” He wanted everything to go back where it had been before the tornado that was Jackie Wentworth had hit his office, but he wasn’t going to say so, not after seeing the pride she was taking in her work. Better to leave while he could still hold his tongue. “Actually, I haven’t had any dinner. I think I’ll go eat. Why don’t you put them in a miscellaneous file for now, and Rick can have a look in the morning.” Right after he gets finished answering to me for letting you tear the place apart. “Okay. I’ll finish up, then, and lock the office behind me when I go.” Cole felt a muscle tic in his cheek with the effort it took him to smile. “That’s fine. There’s an extra set of keys in Rick’s top drawer. You can keep them. Good night,” he said, and left, cursing Rick for giving Jackie a free hand. But deep down, he knew he couldn’t blame Rick. Rick hadn’t asked for Jackie’s help; Rick hadn’t wanted a secretary. Cole had hired her knowing she’d probably be more trouble than she was worth. So he had no one to blame but himself. FINISHING THE FILES took much longer than Jaclyn had expected. By the time she closed the last drawer, it was nearly midnight, but she felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment. She now knew more about Perrini Homes and how it was run than six months of training could have taught her. She’d read the closing papers on the first house Cole developed, the documents for his first loan and the appraisals of each project. She’d studied the maps of his developments, knew their location and size and sell-out information. Going through the files had shown her the history of Perrini Homes—and the past eight years of Cole’s life. Cole had to possess extraordinary business acumen to have built what he had out of nothing, Jaclyn thought, blowing a stray wisp of hair out of her face as she stood. According to Rochelle, he was a philanderer, like Terry, but at least he was a hard worker. At least he had dreams and knew how to make them come true. She was going to make something of her life, too, Jaclyn decided, surveying the now tidy room. Taking Cole’s entire filing system from chaos to order might have been a small step forward, but it made her more optimistic about her future. Heck, she already knew a lot more about real estate than she had fifteen hours ago. “God, I feel great,” she muttered happily, gathering her coat and shoes. She hadn’t eaten since lunch, she was tired and her back ached from hunching over for so long, but the warm feeling she had inside made her smile. She wanted to traipse through the house and find Cole so she could show him what she’d done, but the house had been quiet for some time. Cole was probably asleep. She’d go home and celebrate her victory with a brownie from her own freezer— Suddenly she had a terrible thought. What about her car? Would it start? She’d been so engrossed in her work that she’d completely forgotten about the depleted battery. Fishing her keys out of her purse, she hurried outside and unlocked the driver’s door. Please start, she prayed, slipping behind the wheel. She pumped the gas pedal and turned the key, but nothing happened. The battery was dead, just as she’d feared. She was stranded at work on her first day, half starved and exhausted. Imagining the sad picture she was going to make in the morning when Cole or Rick found her still at the office, wearing the same crumpled suit, she groaned. She had to get home. But how? It was too far to walk. She couldn’t afford a taxi, not if she was going to have to buy a new car battery, too. And she didn’t know how or where to catch a city bus. At this time of night, she wasn’t sure she felt safe traveling on one, anyway. The places she’d lived had been too small for public transit. She’d never taken a city bus in her life. Eyeing the back part of the office, the part that was Cole’s living quarters, Jaclyn wondered if, by chance, he was still awake. His Lincoln Navigator was parked next to her car. If only she had his keys and a pair of jumper cables. She could be on her way in five minutes. Can’t hurt to check, she thought, getting out. She walked around to the back of the house, where she hoped to see a light or some indication that Cole might still be working, but everything was shuttered and dark. Would he mind terribly if she woke him? Motivated by hunger and an intense desire for her bed, she let herself into the office and tiptoed down the hall toward where Cole had gone. Outside a full moon hung bright and low, lighting those rooms that didn’t have the blinds drawn. Jaclyn wandered through a state-of-the-art kitchen, complete with an island, a breakfast nook and white cabinetry, a formal dining room with hardwood floor and a den—judging by the expansive desk, leather furniture and fax machine—to confront a closed door that probably opened into Cole’s bedroom. Raising her fist, she took a deep breath…and knocked. “Cole? Are you in there?” No response. Maybe the door led to a pantry or laundry area, and not Cole’s bedroom. She couldn’t be sure. “Cole?” she called again, rattling the knob. The door was unlocked, and she was halfway through it, thinking he must be somewhere else in the house, when she heard his sleep-filled voice from just a few feet away. “It’s okay, Laura. Come in. I’m glad you’re here.” CHAPTER FIVE COLE SMILED, content to remain half asleep as Laura slipped inside his room. He’d known she’d be back. She claimed she wanted nothing more to do with him, that she planned to marry and have a family with someone who was capable of making that kind of commitment. But she’d said similar things before. After a few weeks, she always called or came around, and they slipped into the same comfortable relationship they’d known for two years. Tonight her timing was good. She’d been gone nearly a month, and he was missing the companionship and physical pleasure they shared. Not that he would have called her. It didn’t feel right to press her if she wasn’t happy with their relationship. But if she changed her mind on her own…well, that was a different story. He was perfectly willing to take up where they’d left off. For one thing, Laura understood and made allowances for his busy work schedule. For another, she’d been patient with him, considering. And he needed the distraction. He’d gone to sleep thinking about Jaclyn Wentworth and how angry he was at her for ruining his filing system. And how stupid he was for hiring her. And how sexy she’d looked with her auburn hair falling down and that tired but happy smile on her face. “Come here. Let me hold you,” he said, reaching out to her. “I’m sorry?” Something was wrong with her voice. Angling his head up, Cole squinted in an effort to see through the darkness, but he’d lowered his blinds before bed and couldn’t make out anything beyond the basic shape of a woman. “Laura?” “No, it’s Jaclyn,” the murky shape responded, hugging the wall as though he might gobble her up whole if she came any closer. “I’m sorry to bother you, but…um…my car needs a jump. I was hoping I could borrow your keys and some jumper cables.” “What?” In one swift motion, Cole snapped on the lamp, then groaned and shielded his eyes from the sudden burst of light. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked. “It’s after midnight. I…I just finished for the day and would be gone by now, but my car won’t start.” Great. Not only had she decimated his file room, she’d stranded herself in the process. “Okay, give me a couple of minutes, and I’ll be right with you.” “I can take care of it,” she said quickly. “Just tell me where you keep your keys and where you might have a set of jumper cables.” Finally able to focus, he watched her gaze dip, which suddenly reminded him that he was wearing nothing but a pair of boxer-briefs under the sheet. During the summer, he rarely wore anything more to bed. It was too blasted hot. Righting the bedding so he could cover himself properly, Cole sank back. He couldn’t help her, regardless. He didn’t have jumper cables. He didn’t have anything like that. If he needed a jump, he called triple A. If he needed tools for anything else, he told Chad, and someone from the construction crew took care of it. Cole relocated too often to collect a lot of extra belongings. He packed light, and he wasn’t particularly mechanical. “I don’t have cables,” he said, looking for the easiest solution. “Just take my truck.” “Won’t you need it in the morning?” “I don’t have any appointments first thing.” At least, not any I can remember right now. “The keys are…” He racked his brain, trying to place them. “Actually, they could be anywhere. I’ll have to find them for you.” She stepped out of the bedroom so he could get up, and he padded to the dresser where he’d emptied his pockets before going to bed. Credit-card receipts, small change, cash, some documents he’d meant to read before going to sleep, but no keys. Yanking on a pair of basketball shorts, he headed to the kitchen to check on top of the refrigerator. Jackie was standing in the hall chewing her lip, when Cole passed. In the light spilling from his room, she looked tired and embarrassed but beautiful—always beautiful. He wanted to tell her to relax, that he didn’t mind her waking him, but he hesitated to be too nice. He couldn’t get involved with her, even as a friend. He was afraid it would evolve into something more. And he already knew that a confirmed bachelor wasn’t what she needed. “I really appreciate your help,” she said, following him into the kitchen. “I’ll get a new battery on my lunch hour tomorrow so this doesn’t happen again.” “Are you sure you need a new battery? Maybe one of your kids left the overhead light on or something.” “I don’t think so—they’ve been with Terry. And my car is pretty old. I don’t know when the battery was last replaced.” “Have the clerk at the car-parts store check to see if it’s still good, just in case,” he told her, wondering why he felt the sudden urge to take over and handle the battery issue himself. It came from years of looking out for his brothers, he decided. But he wasn’t about to extend that responsibility to anyone else, especially someone who might not understand it for what it was—a desire to help, nothing more. Jackie could certainly manage a new battery. A loud growl came from the region of her stomach, and Cole glanced at her. “Haven’t you eaten?” he asked. She shrugged, turning red. “I was too engrossed in what I was doing to stop for dinner. Wait till you see the files,” she added. “You’re going to be so impressed. The documents in each one are organized by date, the oldest stuff at the bottom. The first cabinet houses all your closed and finished projects, in numerical order according to address. The next has your current stuff, organized the same way. The third has land packages and other information on properties you’ve looked into but haven’t bought yet. The final cabinet contains employee records, receipts, bills, banking information and tax information. Each drawer is labeled, in case you forget. And tomorrow I’m going to do an index that will help you find any file you need in seconds.” An attack of conscience over his earlier reaction to her efforts on the files caused Cole to clear his throat and turn away. Discovering his keys on the counter, he dropped them into her palm and forced himself to thank her. “That was a lot of work. I appreciate that you went the extra mile,” he said. “You know I don’t expect you to stay past five o’clock, though, don’t you?” She smiled. “Oh, I know. I wanted to finish. And I’m glad I did. It really taught me a lot. I bet I know more about you now than most people.” When Cole met her eyes, he pictured Terry’s arm slung casually around her shoulders, remembered seeing them dance at the senior prom as king and queen—right before he cut out of the dance for good. She didn’t know anything about him. Not really. And if he could help it, she never would. “I’d offer you something to eat,” he said, “but I usually eat out so my cupboards are bare. I do have a microwave dinner, if you’re interested.” “You eat microwave dinners?” He used to cook every night, but only because he had to. When he was young, he had to feed his brothers. When he left Feld, he was still living on a shoestring and survived on macaroni and cheese and corn dogs—not that he called that cooking. Since then, things had changed considerably. “I don’t have time for anything else.” “Who’s Laura?” she asked. “Your girlfriend?” “Just a friend.” “Doesn’t she cook for you?” “Occasionally,” he said, because he didn’t want to go into the fact that even if she had cooked for him at one time, she probably wouldn’t be doing it anymore. He didn’t like talking about Laura. She was a nice person who deserved a husband and children, if that was what she wanted. And he felt guilty for not giving her that. Sometimes he told himself it was pure selfishness that made him refuse her, but if he’d learned anything from Rochelle, it was that a sense of obligation wasn’t a reliable basis for marriage. Bottom line, he wasn’t walking down the aisle again for anyone. Marriage made him feel smothered, restricted, and only added to his burden of responsibility. “Well, work comes early in the morning,” she said, singling the ignition key out from the others and edging toward the hall that would take her back around to the office. “You can go out the main entryway. I’ll lock the office,” he volunteered. “Thanks.” She followed as he led her through the living room to the front of the house. “I’ll be careful with your truck.” He held the door as she went out, bade her good-night and watched her drive away. Then he locked up and went to do the same in the office. But when he passed the copier room, he couldn’t help stopping in and opening the file drawers. Sure enough, every folder was now clearly labeled and perfectly organized. He’d been wrong to assume the worst. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered, closing the last drawer. “And she did it on her first day.” Maybe hiring her hadn’t been so stupid. Maybe she was just what Perrini Homes needed. Maybe she was just what he needed. No. Laura, or someone like her, suited him better, he told himself. But he couldn’t explain why he wasn’t more disappointed that his ex-girlfriend hadn’t contacted him. Neither could he say why it wasn’t her lips he imagined kissing as he climbed back into bed. LEATHER INTERIOR. Nothing smelled better, Jaclyn decided as she drove the ten miles to her house, coveting Cole’s smooth-riding Navigator. Once she got her real-estate license and started selling homes, she’d be able to buy herself a new SUV. She used to drive expensive cars and trucks all the time when she was with Terry, but it wasn’t the same. Like everything else, their vehicles had belonged to Burt. Jaclyn grimaced as she pictured Burt’s face. If she disliked anyone, she disliked him. He ruled his house with an iron fist, had Terry’s mother, Dolores, completely cowed, and thought Terry should have been able to exert the same kind of control over Jaclyn. When Jaclyn had sued for divorce, it was Burt who headed up the opposition. First he tried to shame her into staying, then he tried to bribe her with a new house and a larger monthly allowance. At last he waged a smear campaign against her on the basis of her parenting skills and tried to take away her children. Fortunately, the judge hadn’t allowed him to take them completely—he’d given her and Terry joint custody. But the courts had cooperated more fully with the Wentworths in the financial realm. The smile on Burt’s face the last time she’d seen him told her the court battles might finally be over, but nothing was set in stone. He thought poverty would eventually drive her back to Terry. But thanks to a little help from Cole and a whole lot of determination on her part, the great Burt Wentworth wasn’t going to get what he wanted. Not this time. Signaling, Jaclyn pulled into the 7-Eleven only a few blocks from her house. It was late and she was tired, but she was enjoying driving Cole’s SUV, listening to his CDs and smelling the lingering scent of his cologne. When they were in high school, she’d never really let herself think about him—her heart had always belonged to Terry, and Cole had seemed too…sensual, too dangerous somehow—but she had to admit he was attractive. She could definitely see how Rochelle had fallen for him. Jaclyn browsed through the store, eventually buying an iced mocha and a microwave burrito for dinner, along with a couple of candy bars for dessert. How long had it been since she’d felt this good? she wondered as she carried it all back to Cole’s truck. Ages. Since before the divorce—years before, when her parents were alive, and she was still hopeful that her marriage had a chance. She sat in the lot and ate her meal to a Santana CD, then tossed her garbage into the trash and headed home. Maybe her life was about to get easier, she thought. But then she pulled into her drive and saw Terry’s truck parked at the house, and knew, for tonight, it was only going to get worse. “What’s he doing here a day early?” she muttered, parking to the side so he could still get his truck out. The door to the house opened before Jaclyn ever reached the porch, and Terry emerged, wearing his usual Wrangler jeans, T-shirt and cowboy hat. “Where the hell have you been?” he demanded, taking one look at her dress, and the high heels she carried in her left hand. “At work,” she said. “Like hell. We went by Joanna’s. They said you don’t work there anymore. They said you were fired.” Jaclyn would rather Terry not know about the firing, but now that the truth was out…“I was,” she admitted. “There was a misunderstanding. But I’ve got a new job now.” He glanced beyond her to Cole’s truck, and his lips twisted into a sneer. “Looks like it pays a whole lot better than waitressing.” Jaclyn’s stomach started to hurt. Maybe she’d eaten too fast. Or too much. Or maybe she felt another argument coming on. “It does. But the Navigator’s not mine.” “Whose is it?” Remembering his reaction the last time she mentioned Cole, Jaclyn decided to keep him out of it. “A friend’s. What are you doing here today, anyway? You weren’t supposed to come until tomorrow.” “What’s the matter? Now that the kids are back, you afraid you’re not going to be able to run around anymore?” “Why are you acting as though you’re doing me some kind of favor taking the children?” she asked. “You’re the one who sued for custody!” “That doesn’t mean I’m going to let you use me to baby-sit while you go out on the town looking for another meal ticket.” Anger made Jaclyn’s hands shake. “I’m not looking for a meal ticket,” she said. “The children are welcome to stay with me all the time. You just say the word and sign them over.” “You’d like that, wouldn’t you. To cut me completely out of the picture?” “You can’t have it both ways, Terry. Either you take them, which means I’ll have some free time, or you don’t, which means you won’t see them. It’s your decision.” “You don’t care either way.” “I care. I wouldn’t want them to miss their father, but you don’t seem to be too concerned about their welfare.” “Oh yeah? Who was watching them tonight while you were out doing God knows what with the man who owns that truck?” Jaclyn clenched her jaw against the desire to tell him to go to hell. It had already been a long day. But the last thing she needed was to poison the neighborhood against her by having a knock-down drag-out with her ex. “Keep your voice down,” she hissed. “I don’t want to wake the children or the neighbors, especially because I wasn’t doing anything with the man who owns that truck. I work for him.” “As what? His personal call girl?” “I do his filing, answer his phones, that sort of thing.” “Right,” Terry scoffed. “You expect me to believe you were doing office work? This late?” “It’s true.” Brushing past her, he strode to Cole’s Navigator and tried to open the driver’s door, but Jaclyn had locked it. When he couldn’t get in, he whirled to face her. “Give me the keys.” Jaclyn was holding them in her right hand. Instinctively she made a fist around them and tucked it behind her back. “No.” “I want to know who owns this truck, dammit.” “It’s none of your business, Terry. I’m home now. You can leave.” “I said, give me the keys.” Grabbing her arm, he twisted, forcing her to let go of them. Then he unlocked the Navigator and checked the registration. “I’ll be a son of a bitch. It’s Cole Perrini’s,” he said. “You’re screwing that trailer trash we went to high school with.” “I’m not screwing anyone. And he’s not trailer trash,” she said. Terry shoved his cowboy hat back to smirk at her. “Coulda fooled me. As I remember it, most days he didn’t even show up for school. Ran around in that beater truck of his drinkin’ and fightin’ and causin’ trouble—at least, until he knocked up Rochelle.” The way Jaclyn remembered it, Terry and his friends had done less fighting, but they’d certainly done more drinking. “I don’t care what Cole was like in high school. It’s in the past. It doesn’t matter.” “It doesn’t matter? It doesn’t matter that he left Rochelle only a few months after she lost their baby? That she was so broken up by how he’d treated her that she tried to commit suicide? What kinda man would leave his wife on the heels of a tragedy like that?” “We don’t know what happened. It’s none of our business, anyway.” Terry acted as though she hadn’t spoken. “And you think he was true to her while they were married?” he went on. “Hell, no. That boy don’t know what it’s like to be true to anyone, except maybe those no-good brothers he was always fighting for.” “You’re one to talk about fidelity,” Jaclyn said, so disgusted she couldn’t hold back any longer. “At least I always loved you, took care of you. Cole didn’t give a shit about Rochelle.” “You’re repeating small-town gossip,” she said. “That’s all.” “You can think that if you want, but there ain’t no secrets in Feld.” God, didn’t she know! Every time Terry had stepped out on her, the whole town knew—usually before she did. She’d walked through the grocery store or post office in the wake of whispers and nods, even chuckling, more times than she could count. It had been downright humiliating. “Regardless, Cole’s cleaned up his act,” she said. “You should see him now. He got out of Feld and he’s made something of himself.” “He has?” Terry spat on the Navigator. “Anyone can finance a damn car. Don’t let this baby fool you.” “At least he owns something that doesn’t belong to his daddy,” she replied. He stared at her, his jaw sagging, and for a moment Jaclyn thought she’d pushed him too far. Her nails dug into her palms as she waited for his shouted response, but when he spoke, his voice was soft, almost pained. “I know where you’re comin’ from, Jackie. I should have fought my father, got us our own place, like you said. He’s just so…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I love the crusty old bastard, but I hate him, too. And I want you to know that the divorce stuff and all that, well, that was more him than me. You know I’m not a bad guy. I’ve made my mistakes, but I’ve loved you since high school, and I’ll love you for the rest of our lives, if you’ll let me. That’s really why I brought the kids home early. I wanted to talk to you about putting all this behind us and starting fresh, somewhere far away from my father. That’s what you always wanted, isn’t it?” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/we-saw-mommy-kissing-santa-claus-39917610/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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