Shooting the Moon Brenda Novak When Harley Nelson got on his motorcycle and drove out of Portland, Oregon, ten years ago, he left behind a bad reputation–and a baby.Audra Worthington was the reason for both. Well, the baby, anyway. The reputation he already had. It's why rich girl Audra fell for him in the first place. Now Audra's dead. His son, Brandon, is being raised by her family–good girl Lauren, the perfect daughter, and her uncompromising parents.But Harley's a self-made success down in California and he's ready to take responsibility for his son. And Harley Nelson's trouble. He's shown up at her door, saying he wants to get to know his son–ten years too late, in Lauren's opinion. Too bad he didn't stick by her sister, Audra, when he got her pregnant. (At least, that's the story Lauren's always heard.) And too bad he still looks so good in that black leather jacket… “You got my sister pregnant, remember? I know what kind of man you are.” He laughed, the sound rumbling from deep in his chest. If Lauren had been anyone else, someone who didn’t know who or what he was, she would have smiled automatically. He had that kind of charisma. She hated him, yet he appealed to her on a very basic level. “Last I checked, it took two to make a baby,” he said. “But you must be like your father. He never saw things that way, either.” “My father was trying to look out for his daughter. He was trying to get Audra out of the mess you got her into.” “I didn’t need his help. I was willing to take care of my own messes.” “Which is why you took the money my dad offered you to get out of town and did exactly that, right?” Harley’s eyes narrowed and all traces of the smile he wielded so effectively disappeared. Lauren pressed her advantage. “Who do you think has loved Brandon and cared for him all these years, practically raised him?” “Regardless of who’s raised him, his mother’s dead,” he said. “And I’m here now. I’ve come to collect what’s mine.” Dear Reader, As a writer, I’m often asked about “favorites.” What story is my favorite? Which characters? Which setting? Well, Shooting the Moon definitely has a place on my list of favorites. It’s one of those stories that flowed easily from my heart and came naturally to my pen. I’m not sure if it was the characters and their intriguing blend of strengths and weaknesses, or the conflict, which was very poignant and real for me. But as Harley and Lauren revealed themselves to my imagination, I grew to respect and like them more and more. I hope you’ll have the same experience. I love to hear from readers. You can contact me at P.O. Box 3781, Citrus Heights, CA 995611. 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 my upcoming releases. May we all, in the end, achieve the ultimate or “shoot the moon.” Brenda Novak Shooting the Moon Brenda Novak To my oldest daughter, Ashley, for already exhibiting the self-possession and integrity I so admire. Your presence in my life nourishes my soul in a way I could never explain. If you forget everything I’ve ever taught you, remember this: My love is everlasting. CONTENTS 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 EPILOGUE CHAPTER ONE NOT HIM! NOT NOW! A wave of nausea hit Lauren Worthington as she gaped at the man on her front doorstep. She’d known this day would come. Over the past few years her parents had grown complacent, had insisted Matt “Harley” Nelson was out of their lives for good, but deep down Lauren had always known better. His leaving them alone indefinitely would be too simple, too easy. And from what she knew of Harley, he was not a simple man. Neither did he do anything the easy way. It had been ten years since she’d seen him, but she remembered that much. “What do you want?” she asked, lowering her voice and closing the door between them until only a crack remained. The last thing she needed was for her nephew Brandon, who was watching television in the other room, to see Harley, or for their conversation to somehow catch the boy’s interest. “What do you think I want?” he asked, hands on hips, one leg cocked as though he was perfectly comfortable knocking on their door after all these years. Why had she answered the bell without first checking the peephole? Lauren berated herself. But the answer was clear. She lived in Hillside Estates, a gated, upscale community of homes not far from Portland, Oregon, worth half a million dollars or more. They had security. They had cameras. They had little or no crime. Besides, it was barely ten o’clock on a Saturday morning. Who worried about peepholes on a Saturday morning? Lauren had felt perfectly safe opening her house without a second thought, but now she feared what her mistake would cost her—and Brandon. She could only see a slice of Harley Nelson through the crack she’d left in the door, but it was enough to know that her sister’s ex-boyfriend hadn’t changed much. About six feet tall, he was still thin but muscular, still handsome as the devil, still wearing black leather, and still riding the kind of motorcycle that had given him his nickname. Lauren knew because a beautiful new Harley was parked in the driveway behind him. “Audra isn’t home,” she said, bluffing. She needed him to leave so she could figure out what to do about his sudden reappearance. Her parents would know how to handle this—her father could solve anything—but he and her mother were in Europe for another four weeks, and without them, Lauren was completely on her own. Somehow she had to regain her equilibrium. Think. Get Harley to go so she could…what? Hide Brandon until she came up with a smarter plan? Unfortunately Harley didn’t seem too eager to give her the chance to do that. He stayed right where he was and didn’t look as though he was going anywhere, at least anytime soon. “Considering the fact that Audra died in an alcohol-related car accident nearly six months ago, I’d be pretty surprised if she was here,” he said. He knew. Oh no, he knew about poor Audra. What was she going to do? “I-I’m sorry. I have to go. I’m expected at—I’m expected.” She tried to close the door the rest of the way, but his booted foot whipped out and wedged in the opening before she could latch it. Lauren inched the door open again but still blocked the entrance with her body. “I’m getting the impression you’re not very excited to see me. Are you trying to hurt my feelings?” he asked, giving her a glimpse of his send-the-girls-wild smile, the one she’d drooled over in high school. Fortunately it didn’t do anything for her now. Lauren was too worried about the confidence in Harley’s face and bearing. The longer she talked to him, the more she noticed that in some ways he had changed. The reckless teenager she’d known had transformed himself into a calm, self-assured adult. Which frightened Lauren more than anything, because it made him so much more of a threat. “I’ll call the police if I have to,” she warned. “If that’s what you’re planning to do, you’d better go and do it,” he said. “Because I’m not leaving until I get what I came for.” Lauren could scarcely swallow for the fear clutching her throat. Please don’t let it be what I think it is. “And what is that?” she managed. He must have heard the panic in her voice because he hesitated for a moment and studied her, his eyes unreadable. “You must be Audra’s baby sister.” Lauren was surprised he remembered Audra had a baby sister. She’d seen him around school lots of times, but he’d never spared her a second glance. “The name’s Lauren,” she informed him. “I’m sure you never knew that.” “Why, did I call you something different?” He hadn’t bothered to call her anything. He was too starstruck by her sister, once they became an item, and too busy flirting with all the other popular girls before that. Someone like Lauren, an honor student, a bookworm, held no attraction for him. She used to admire Harley from a distance, but after he’d gotten her sister in trouble, she’d been glad he’d passed over her. Not that she’d expected anything else. Most guys had preferred her blond bomb-shell of a sister. Audra had been beautiful, popular, fun-loving. Lauren was plain, quiet, studious. “We didn’t know each other,” she said, “which is why you’ll have to excuse me. I don’t feel comfortable having a strange man at the door.” “We knew each other,” he said. “We just didn’t know each other well. I wasn’t allowed to come to the house, remember? And I’ve been called a lot of things, Lauren, but strange generally isn’t one of them.” “That’s because there are so many more applicable epithets to choose from,” she said, unable to resist. Lauren expected her remark to make him angry, but he simply raised an eyebrow, then gave her that crooked smile of his. “Epithet?” he repeated. “Evidently all those hours you spent in the library did your vocabulary some good, though I doubt it did anything for your social life.” He looked her up and down. “And I’ll bet your excitement factor hasn’t notched up any. Not with you going around spouting things like applicable epithets.” “Maybe you should’ve spent a few more hours in the library. It might’ve done you some good.” “You spent enough time there for both of us. Besides, you were always too busy hiding behind your glasses and reading a thick textbook to know what was going on around you, so how would you know what’s applicable to me and what isn’t, especially after ten years?” “Some things don’t change,” she said. “And some things are more apparent than others.” “Especially to the gifted Lauren Worthington, huh?” He said her name in an uppity, nasal tone Lauren didn’t appreciate, but being from the wealthy Southwest side, she’d heard it before. Casting a quick glance behind her to make sure Brandon was still absorbed in his TV program, she lowered her voice even further. “You got my sister pregnant, remember? I know what kind of man you are.” He laughed, the sound rumbling from deep in his chest. If Lauren had been anyone else, someone who didn’t know who or what he was, she would have smiled automatically, despite the animosity between them. He had that kind of charisma. She hated him, yet he appealed to her on a very basic level. “Last I checked, it took two to make a baby,” he said. “But you must be like your father. He never saw things that way, either.” “My father was trying to look out for his daughter. He was trying to get Audra out of the mess you got her into.” “I didn’t need his help. I was willing to take care of my own messes.” “Which is why you took the money my dad offered you to get out of town and did exactly that, right?” This time Lauren’s barb hit a tender spot. She could tell by the way Harley’s eyes narrowed and all traces of the smile he wielded so effectively disappeared. “Stick to your books, Lauren. You don’t know anything about what happened,” he said. “But then someone as tightly wound as you wouldn’t. The closest you’ve probably come to love is the definition of it in some encyclopedia.” Lauren felt her back stiffen. Just because he’d never found her attractive didn’t mean she hadn’t had other boyfriends. Those relationships had never evolved into marriage, but she’d gotten intimate and fairly serious with a couple of different men. Her inability to make a commitment didn’t mean she wasn’t capable of love. Or did it? Was that the part that hurt most? Had he hit a little too close to home? Regardless, Lauren’s love life—or lack thereof—wasn’t the point here. Brandon was all that mattered. She’d built her life around him, and she wasn’t about to lose him now. “Who do you think has loved Brandon and cared for him all these years, practically raised him?” Certainly not her sister, who was never quite the same after her affair with Harley. “Regardless of who’s raised him, his mother’s dead,” he said, “and I’m here now. I’ve come to collect what’s mine.” Lauren’s hand tightened on the door until her knuckles stood out. “You gave up your rights to Brandon when my father paid you to leave,” she said, her words a harsh whisper. “You agreed.” He shrugged, only the tenseness of his body belying his seeming indifference to her words. “So I’ve had a change of heart. Sue me.” “If we have to, we will. My father’s not going to take this lying down.” “I don’t care how he takes it, but he’d better get used to the idea.” “There’s no way he’s going to let you come waltzing into Brandon’s life at this late date and whisk him away from everything and everyone he’s ever known. What kind of father would do that, anyway?” For the first time, Lauren thought she read a hint of doubt in Harley’s expression and knew, in order to avoid a custody battle, she had to play on it. It was what her father would have done. “Think about it,” she said. “He has a good life. We’ve given him everything, much more than you could’ve provided. You were eighteen years old and penniless, for Pete’s sake, a product of the inner city, raised in a broken home by an alcoholic mother. It would be pure selfishness to take Brandon away from here—now or in the future.” She certainly hadn’t tempered her words, but neither had she scored much of a victory if the muscle that flexed in his cheek served as any indication. “He’ll have what he needs. I can take care of him now.” “So what?” she responded. “He already has everything. He doesn’t need you.” Lauren felt a flicker of guilt for driving her point so ruthlessly, but she was desperate—desperate to keep Brandon, desperate to protect what she’d established over the past ten years. She might have failed her sister, but she wouldn’t fail her sister’s child. Which meant she couldn’t feel sorry for Harley Nelson. He hadn’t felt anything when he’d broken Audra’s heart, taken their father’s money and left town ten years ago, had he? Turning, he seemed to gaze out over the lawn, a plush, green carpet that sloped down toward the street beneath a warm spring sun. She watched him look across at the neighbor’s, then examine the porch and shutters, even the red brick of the house. What was he thinking? “I want to see him,” he said at last. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t want to confuse him.” “Then tell him I’m a friend of yours or something.” Lauren bit her lip, praying for inspiration. Would she be a fool to allow this? Her head said yes, but her heart had a difficult time with no. He was Brandon’s father, after all…. “Will you go back wherever you came from if I do?” she asked. “Maybe.” “Maybe?” “I’m not making any promises, Lauren, except this one. I’m not leaving town until I see him, so you may as well let me in now.” Lauren didn’t know what to say. Letting Harley see the beautiful boy he and Audra had created might make him that much more determined to wrench him from his home. But could she deny Brandon the chance to meet his father? How important would that be to him later? “I’ll think about it,” she said. He hesitated but finally pulled a pen and a business card from his jacket and circled a number. “Fine. You do that, then call me on my cell.” “Aunt Lauren, it’s over! Can I go to Scott’s house?” Brandon sang out, and Lauren knew she had only a second or two before her nephew came to find her. “Okay,” she said quickly, speaking to Harley, but he didn’t move. Evidently he’d heard Brandon, too. Before he had a chance to respond, however, Lauren closed the door with a resounding bang, and this time he didn’t try to stop her. Pressing her back against the heavy wooden panel, she squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. “What’s wrong?” Tall for his age and possessing the same dark hair, olive skin and green eyes as his father, Brandon loped out from the kitchen, carrying a donut in each hand. Lauren couldn’t answer. She waited, silently counting the seconds until she heard the roar of Harley’s motorcycle. “Nothing,” she said, her knees going weak in relief. “Who was at the door?” he asked, watching her curiously. “Just a friend. You don’t know him,” she added, and at least that part was the truth. FOR THE FIRST TIME in years, Harley rode his motorcycle without a helmet. He wanted to let the air whip through his hair, hear it roar in his ears, feel it sting his face. He didn’t care if it was dangerous. He didn’t care if it was illegal. Somehow the physical sensations were sustaining. They helped him deal with the emotions clashing inside him, emotions poignant enough to make his eyes water without the help of the wind. He’d heard his son’s voice. He was sure of it. The look on Lauren Worthington’s face had confirmed that it was Brandon. And that moment had…what? Shaken him. Left him weak, breathless. Scared him. But it had done something else, too. Brandon’s voice had reached inside him and filled him with a craving so simple and powerful it nearly overwhelmed him. He wanted his son. He wanted him so badly it hurt. Slowing for a traffic light, he briefly closed his eyes, trying to shut out the memory of his visit to the Worthingtons. For years he’d told himself to forget the past. It was better that way, right? Better for the baby. Better for Audra. Better for everyone. The Worthingtons owned a string of video stores, had always been as rich as Midas. What could he possibly give his son that they couldn’t? That was the question Lauren had flung at him today, the one that had chased him away in the beginning, and it was the one that still burned, uppermost, in his mind. Otherwise he’d have Brandon with him right now. The light turned green. Harley gave the bike some gas and shot out in front of traffic. Turning at the next light, he wound down out of the hills to the city, where he wove through the busy streets to the low-rent district. He could give his son the love of a father, couldn’t he? That was more than Harley had grown up with. But when he’d looked into Lauren’s stricken face, enough doubt crept in to make him wonder, all over again, if he was doing the right thing. The Springfield Apartments came up on his left, and he pulled into the lot, parked and cut the engine. According to the letter he’d received, Tank Thompson lived here now. In Apartment 208. Harley scaled the stairs leading to the second story of the garden-style apartments, taking them two at a time. He was angry and confused, but the frustrating thing was that he didn’t know what, if anything, he should do. Maybe it had been a mistake to come back. What made him think he could atone for his past sins after ten years? He knocked at 208, and rap music poured out of Tank’s apartment as a small, curly-headed girl, only about three years old, opened the door. “Hi, there,” he said. “I’m Harley Nelson. Is Tank around?” “Daddy, it’s for you!” the little girl called over her shoulder. Daddy? In his letter, Tank hadn’t mentioned having a child of his own. He hadn’t mentioned much at all. He’d just sent Audra’s obituary clipping, nearly five months after the fact, along with a brief, handwritten note saying: Thought you’d be interested. Long time no see. You still kickin’? Tank But then Tank had never been one for written correspondence. Neither was Harley, for that matter. The little girl disappeared for several minutes and returned tugging a bleary-eyed, hungover-looking Tank to the door. He was about fifty pounds heavier than when Harley had seen him last, shortly after graduation, but Harley would’ve known his friend anywhere. Yawning, Tank scratched his head and blinked twice. “Well if it isn’t the jackass who buried my truck in the river during high school,” he said, breaking into a smile. Harley laughed. “You were the one who wanted to see if I could ford it. How the hell was I supposed to know the damn river was so deep?” “You were drunk enough to try crossing the Columbia.” “And you were drunk enough to let me use your truck to do it.” Tank shook his head. “It’s a wonder we survived those years. How’ve you been, man?” “Good.” Harley nodded to the little girl who was standing next to Tank, watching them. “You have a daughter now?” “Yeah.” Tank winked at her, and she smiled shyly. “Too bad I don’t have her mama anymore. We separated a year ago. Divorce was final just last month.” “That’s tough.” “You’re tellin’ me. Now I gotta live in this dump while she and her new boyfriend enjoy the three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse I’m paying for.” He ruffled his daughter’s hair. “Worse, I only get Lucy here on weekends.” “She’s a beauty,” Harley said. “Yeah, takes after her mama. Can you come in? Stay a while?” Harley thought of the hours ahead of him. He had a few other friends he wanted to visit, but nothing more important until Lauren Worthington called. If she called… “Sure, I can stay,” he said, stepping inside and taking a seat on a rust-colored couch reminiscent of the sixties. Except for the large-screen television that took up one whole corner of the room, the other furnishings looked no better. “Things haven’t changed much since high school, huh?” Harley said, eyeing the beer cans and cigarette butts that littered the coffee table. “Ah, don’t let the mess fool you. I’ve cleaned up my act a lot since then. Last night we had my buddy’s bachelor party here is all. We hired a stripper, played some poker and drank more than we should’ve.” “What did you do with Lucy?” “The lady next door took her. She sits for me now and then.” “Who’s getting married?” “Guy named Dan. You don’t know him.” He put a hand to his head and squinted. “I’m almost sorry I do.” “What are you doing for work these days?” “Concrete, same as always.” Tank slumped into an easy chair across from the couch. “When my dad retired, I took over the business, and lately we’ve been branching off into landscaping. My brothers work for me.” “All of them?” “All except the oldest. Damien’s too good for concrete. He’s an attorney here in Portland. What about you?” “I own a Harley Davidson dealership out in California where I live.” Tank raised his eyebrows. “You always said you’d have one someday. But how’d a poor boy like you manage something like that?” “The stock market’s been good to me.” “The stock market?” Tank sat up straighter—then, putting a hand to his head, he checked the movement. Shifting more gingerly, he said, “Boy, have you changed. What brings you back this way?” “The article you sent.” He grimaced. “Yeah, well, I found your address on the Internet and almost wrote you a long time ago. It was too bad what happened to Audra, but the way she was living, something was bound to happen sooner or later, you know?” Harley leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. “What do you mean? How was she living?” Tank sent his daughter off to play in her room, then moved closer to Harley. “She wasn’t the same girl we knew in high school,” he said. “She got into crack pretty heavily, went downhill from there.” Crack? Audra? Harley couldn’t imagine her stern, overbearing father allowing Audra to get involved with drugs, at least not to the point of addiction. But then he remembered how much she liked to party in high school—and how much she’d always resented her father. Maybe she’d done it to fight back, to establish her freedom. Wasn’t that what had drawn her to him, someone her father had designated as off limits? “I didn’t know,” he said. “I figured you didn’t, but I wasn’t sure you’d want to know. I mean, what could you do about it?” He could have come and taken his son. That was why he’d come here now, wasn’t it? “So who’s been caring for Brandon? The sister?” Tank smiled wistfully. “Little Lauren. Talk about opposites. You couldn’t find two sisters less alike.” Harley had to agree with him there. “She’s pretty serious.” “She’s a straight arrow, man. All responsibility.” “I bet it was hard on her to watch what was happening to Audra.” “I guess,” Tank said. “She keeps a stiff upper lip, like her parents. Doesn’t say much.” “So Lauren still lives with them?” “Yeah, why not? There’s space enough in that house for an army.” “Didn’t she go to school?” “Graduated from Lewis and Clark in only three years. Since then she’s worked for her father in the corporate office or done community stuff.” “She never married?” Harley asked. “No. Damien used to date her. That’s how I know about Audra. But he just couldn’t get her to respond to him.” Harley didn’t have a hard time believing that, not after hearing Lauren say, “He doesn’t need you.” The woman didn’t hesitate to go for the throat. He doubted she needed anybody, either. “She’s a lot more attractive than she used to be,” he said. “Yeah, well, the braces are gone, and she’s not so scrawny anymore. I think she’s a knockout.” Harley didn’t like her well enough to concede anything stated that strongly, so he said nothing. “Damien was crazy about her for a while,” Tank continued, “but he could never make any headway with her. Just getting her to kiss him was like breaching Fort Knox.” “What happened between them? Did Damien finally break it off?” “No, I think he would’ve kept on trying as long as she let him. She broke it up, saying she just didn’t feel anything more than friendship for him. But you know?” Tank glanced down the hall, where they could hear his daughter talking in a high voice, playing house. “I think she’s still a virgin. I’d bet money on it.” At twenty-seven? “Wasn’t she just a year younger than us in high school?” “Yeah.” “Most women have some experience by twenty-seven.” “Not Lauren. After what happened to Audra, her father’s been even more protective. And already she was a daddy’s girl. Anyway, Damien never got anywhere with her.” “Did he ever see Brandon?” “All the time. Audra started with the drugs when Brandon was still a baby, and Lauren stepped in so her parents wouldn’t have to. They have legal guardianship, but he’s like her child now. She takes him everywhere with her, volunteers in his classroom at school, drives him to karate lessons, takes him and his friends to the mall, you name it. She’s very devoted.” Devoted enough to want to keep Harley out of the picture so she could have Brandon to herself? She’d called his desire to take his son selfish, but what about her desire to keep him? “Does he seem happy?” he asked. “Oh, yeah. She’s doing a good job, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Harley wasn’t particularly worried about that. He would have expected nothing less from an HA—high achiever—like Lauren. She’d been in every honors class their school offered and, if he remembered right, Audra had once laughingly told him that her sister won every short story contest she entered. Not that he understood why anyone would enter a short story contest, especially a teenager. But people like Lauren did that sort of thing. They usually set up exhibits at the science fair, too. “What’s her father doing these days?” “He’s still a bastard. Damien hates him, but he left for Europe last I heard. He and Lauren’s mother spend a couple of months there every spring.” Interesting information. It was only mid-May; there were still a few weeks of spring left. Was that why Lauren hadn’t called her father down on him this morning? “You think he’s still in Europe?” Tank shrugged. “Don’t know. Damien doesn’t call Lauren very much anymore. He’s trying to get over her. Why? Are you going to take Brandon home with you?” “That’s the million-dollar question,” Harley said. But he knew if he tried to get custody of his son, the Worthingtons weren’t giving up without a fight. CHAPTER TWO LAUREN SAT in a plastic chair at the small, glass-fronted karate school where Brandon took lessons, enveloped in the unpleasant smell of mildew, perspiration and discarded tennis shoes. She stared at the card Harley Nelson had given her that morning. Judging from the logo embossed in fancy script below his name—“Burlingame Harley Davidson”—he was a motorcycle salesman. How fitting, she thought, picturing him in his leather jacket, jeans and boots. It was probably the only kind of work he could get. He didn’t have a degree. He’d barely graduated from high school. And his occupation would certainly explain the expensive bike she’d seen in her driveway. Harley probably blew every dime he made on his two-wheeled transportation and couldn’t afford a car. “Too bad you didn’t spend more time in the library,” she muttered, feeling vindicated for his less-than-flattering comments that morning. “I guess an education is a little more important than an excitement factor, huh?” “Did you say something, Lauren?” Kara, Brandon’s classmate’s mother, had been sitting next to her for the past thirty minutes, looking for an opportunity to start a conversation. She was a nice woman, even if she did love the sound of her own voice, but Lauren wasn’t in the mood to listen to her today. Quickly averting her eyes, she mumbled something about talking to herself and retreated back into her own thoughts. Should she let Harley meet Brandon or not? She’d asked herself that a hundred times over the past six hours, but she couldn’t come up with a good answer. Bottom line, she ran risks either way. If she let Harley see Brandon, it could snowball into something big and ugly and difficult. If she refused, it could snowball into something big and ugly and difficult. She sighed, and saw Kara in her peripheral vision trying to catch her eye, but Lauren didn’t look up. She had to call Harley, had to say something, she decided, running her thumb over the embossing on his card. Otherwise he’d show up on her doorstep again and next time might not end so well. If only she could get hold of her parents, learn their opinion. She’d left a message at their hotel in London, but she hadn’t heard from them and guessed they were on a side trip to Bath or the Cotswolds or someplace else. Which meant it could be another day or two before they knew she was trying to reach them. She doubted Harley would wait that long. It was her impression that patience wasn’t one of his strong suits. A round of keeyiis drew Lauren’s attention back to the karate class. Brandon stood in the front row facing the mirror. He smiled when he caught Lauren watching him, and Lauren’s heart twisted at the thought of seeing him drive off on the back of Harley’s motorcycle. She’d die first. He was such a wonderful boy—bright, healthy, talented. Harley didn’t deserve him, she told herself, but even as the thought passed through her mind, she wondered if her damning judgment wasn’t a bit too harsh. He’d been eighteen when he’d gotten Audra pregnant. He’d made some pretty poor choices back then, but he wasn’t the first teenager to do so. What if he’d changed? Matured? Didn’t she owe it to Brandon to at least find out? He asked her so many questions about his father. Slipping her phone out of her purse, she dialed the number for Harley’s cell, which he’d circled on his card. When he answered, she thought she heard rap music in the background, as well as other voices. Where was he spending his time? At a pool hall? “It’s Lauren Worthington,” she said without preamble. “Hi.” She’d expected him to start pressing her immediately, but he didn’t. He waited for her to speak, only she didn’t know how to get things started. Finally, he broke the silence. “So what have you decided?” “I haven’t. Not yet,” she admitted. “I was hoping I could talk to you first.” “When?” Lauren took a deep breath. Was she crazy to be doing this? “Tonight?” “Okay. At your place?” “No, somewhere neutral.” “A restaurant?” “That’s fine.” “You name the place.” “There’s a sushi bar not far from the theaters downtown. Tokyo House. Do you know it?” “I think so. What time?” Lauren checked her watch. It was nearly five now, and she still needed to make dinner for Brandon and arrange for a baby-sitter. “Seven?” “I’ll be there.” “Good,” she said, but in truth she hoped he wouldn’t come. It would make things infinitely easier for her if he just disappeared. But how realistic was that? “Anything else?” he asked. “No. See you at seven.” She hit the end button and finally glanced up to see Kara watching her eagerly. “Are you thinking about buying a Harley Davidson?” she asked, gazing at the business card. “My husband owned one once. It was a beautiful bike. A little scary, though. He used to take me on weekend trips, when the weather was warm enough. Wind gets pretty cold, you know. That’s why it makes sense for a biker to wear leather. So I went out and bought us complete matching outfits, in red. And we joined a club. It was a lot of fun, really.” A far-off look came over her face. “I wonder if I can still fit into those pants. I haven’t tried them on for ages. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to dig them out of storage and see, huh?” Lauren tried to break in long enough to say that she had no intention of ever owning a Harley, that motorcycles frightened her immensely, but Kara didn’t seem to be looking for an answer. She was telling Lauren about a vacation she and her husband once enjoyed where they almost took the Harley but decided, at the last minute, to take the Mercedes instead, which turned out to be a good choice because it was one of the hottest summers on record, and they were going to the Grand Canyon, and just think about all that dust and heat out on a bike…. Lauren yawned discreetly behind her hand and tried to follow the story well enough to nod or exclaim in all the right places, but her mind kept drifting back to Brandon and Harley and whether or not tonight would tell her what she wanted to know. LAUREN HAD CALLED, which was more than Harley had expected her to do. He wouldn’t have given up regardless, but her cooperation made things a little easier. Maybe they could reach an agreement. Maybe he could get her to see reason. Lauren wasn’t the boy’s mother, after all. As much as she’d done for him—and Harley was grateful—she was still only his aunt, and she had her own life to live. She was young, for crying out loud. And attractive. She needed to get out, meet someone, have children of her own. And let Brandon go with his father. After ten years, Harley felt it was his turn. If only he could convince her of that. “Tank, I’m out of here,” he called from the living room. His friend was in the kitchen getting some juice for Lucy. They’d ordered a pizza and spent the afternoon watching a golf classic on television while reminiscing about the past, but Harley had to get going if he didn’t want to be late for Lauren Worthington. “Hey, you comin’ back?” Tank asked, poking his head around the corner. “You can stay here, you know. It’s just me and Lucy tonight, and just me most other times. I got an extra room and everything.” Harley didn’t know exactly what his plans were. He’d checked into the Holiday Inn last night, but he’d brought only a few changes of clothing and had no idea how long he’d end up being in town. It all depended on what happened with Lauren tonight. “My stuff’s at the hotel. I’ll probably just—” “Don’t stay at a hotel. Come back here,” Tank interrupted. Lucy slipped around the corner to smile at him, and Harley smiled back, thinking he’d probably enjoy the company. “All right,” he said. “You got an extra key? I don’t know how late I’ll be.” “I’ll put one under the mat.” “Sounds good. Later.” Harley jogged down the steps and straddled the seat of his bike before realizing he didn’t have his helmet. Lucy had been playing with it earlier. He considered going back to the apartment to see what she’d done with it but decided not to waste the few minutes that would take. He didn’t want to miss Lauren, give her any excuse to deny him the chance to see Brandon. Besides, he’d already ridden without a helmet once today. Another fifteen minutes wasn’t going to matter. Not bothering to zip his jacket, he raised the kickstand and cruised out of the lot. He could have gone to the hotel, shaved, cleaned up, changed clothes, but to a certain extent, he refused to meet Lauren’s expectations of a stand-up guy, refused to conform to the clean-cut, preppy type she most likely admired. Which, if he really thought about it, probably had something to do with the reason he’d chosen to drive his motorcycle to Portland. But he didn’t want to think about it, because then he’d have to face the other realities of his past, too. The restaurant was coming up on his right. Though the lot was nearly filled to capacity, Harley easily spotted Lauren Worthington standing next to a pearl-colored, upper-model Lexus parked close to the entrance. Long dark hair pulled back, she wore a black tank sweater, black pants that narrowed and hit just above the ankle, and black-leather shoes with a slight heel. She looked slender, elegant—and rich. The gangly young girl who’d worn braces and glasses thick enough to magnify her eyes had certainly grown up. But Harley wasn’t sure he approved. Now Lauren looked like the kind of woman who frequented a tennis club, carried a Louis Vuitton handbag and hurried away from her cappuccino so she wouldn’t miss her manicure appointment. In short, she’d turned into her mother. She waved to let him know she was there. He snapped on his signal, but before he could drive into the lot, the flashing lights of a police car came up from behind. Shit, not me, he thought, and pulled to the side of the road, hoping the cruiser would continue past him. When it parked behind him, he knew his luck had run out. Damn! Five minutes more and he would’ve been safely ensconced in a booth with Lauren, deciding his son’s future. Instead, she was standing on the curb, watching him get stopped by the police, and it wasn’t hard to make out the look of “just as I’d expect” on her face. Forget it. It’s just a traffic ticket. Even the great Worthingtons must get a traffic ticket now and then. A policeman approached wearing the usual khaki-colored uniform and an Officer Denny name tag. He was carrying a gun and pepper spray on his belt, but he had a boyish face that made him look as if he could still be in high school. “Hello, sir,” he said, his expression a study in earnestness. “Are you aware that we have helmet laws in this state?” In this state? Evidently Officer Denny had already noted Harley’s California plate, and being an out-of-state resident never helped when dealing with local law enforcement. Harley knew at that moment that he probably wasn’t going to get off with a warning. He just hoped Denny would finish with him before Lauren got it in her head to leave. “Most states have helmet laws now,” he replied. “Then you know you should be wearing one.” “I’m aware of that, yes.” “Do you own a helmet, sir?” Did it matter? He didn’t have it with him, so what was the point? “Yeah.” “Where is it now?” Harley didn’t know exactly where his helmet was. He didn’t care. He just wanted to talk to Lauren. “It’s at my friend’s house.” Shifting, he lowered his voice. “Listen, Officer, I don’t mean to be rude, but could we skip the lecture and cut right to the chase? I realize I’m guilty of a traffic violation. I’ll pay the fine. But I’m in a big hurry. Is there any chance you could just write me up and be on your way?” “A helmet could save your life,” Denny continued, obviously reluctant to let Harley interrupt him before he’d finished his spiel. “I know. It’s there to protect me from myself. Isn’t it grand that others care so much about my safety? Too bad their concern is going to cost me a hundred bucks, but those are the breaks. Can I have my ticket now?” Denny’s brows knitted as though Harley’s briskness had offended him. “Maybe you should just relax and let me see your license and registration,” he said, his voice taking on a sulky tone. Harley showed him the registration he kept in his saddlebags. Then he fished his license out of his wallet and waited while Denny carried it back to his cruiser. It’ll all be over in a minute, he told himself, then waved to Lauren to let her know he was coming. But when Officer Denny returned, he wasn’t writing on any clipboard. He was fingering his holstered gun and wearing a worried expression. “Looks like I’m going to have to place you under arrest,” he said. LAUREN COULDN’T BELIEVE IT. Harley was being taken away right before her eyes. He hadn’t been in town a day, and he was already in trouble with the police! What had he done? Robbed a liquor store? Run down a pedestrian? Sold drugs to local school kids? Was that how Audra had gotten started on crack? The thought that Harley might be responsible for ruining her sister in more ways than one caused the smoldering resentment Lauren felt toward him to deepen. What had she been thinking, setting up a meeting with him in the first place? Her father had always said he was no good—nothing but a two-bit punk—and obviously Harley hadn’t changed. Witnessing his arrest was proof positive. She watched the officer shepherd Harley toward his car, noted Harley’s angry strides, his jerky movements, the intensity on his face when he spoke, and wished she could hear what was being said. But she didn’t want to get that close. She’d already learned everything she needed to know, hadn’t she? It was best to keep her distance—a decision she deemed wise when the officer tried to cuff him and Harley suddenly whirled as though he might throw a punch. “Don’t do it, it’ll only make things worse,” she muttered, clenching one hand around her car keys. Harley couldn’t hear her, of course. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. He wasn’t the type to take advice from her or anyone else. Besides, she wanted him to be arrested, didn’t she? It would buy her some time. The officer’s hand went to his gun as though he was threatening to use it, and Lauren held her breath. “Just cooperate,” she said, and finally Harley allowed the cuffs and was put in the backseat. The officer leaned against the hood of the car, periodically talking into his radio until a tow truck came to impound Harley’s bike. Then he got behind the wheel and drove away, and the last thing Lauren saw was Harley staring back at her through the window, jaw clenched, eyes bright with fury and the red-and-blue lights of the patrol car still swirling above him. What kind of fool was she? Lauren asked herself when they were gone at last. She’d been afraid she was judging Harley too harshly—the boy who’d gotten her sister pregnant and run out on her! As if there could be a judgment too harsh for someone like that! Her father was right. She was justified in keeping Harley as far away from Brandon as possible. Feeling almost giddy with relief, Lauren took her cell phone from her purse and called her best friend, Kimberly. Everything was going to be okay. Anyone with a record wouldn’t stand a chance against her father and his lawyers. “Lauren, where are you?” Kim asked as soon as she’d said hello. “I just called your house and the baby-sitter said you’d left on a dinner date. What happened? I thought we were going dancing tonight.” Oh, jeez. Lauren had been so worried about Harley and Brandon, she’d completely forgotten about their plans to go dancing. And Kimberly really counted on getting out. After college she’d married a guy who’d been more interested in ogling the models in Victoria Secret catalogues than in giving Kimberly any attention. They’d remained childless, divorced six years later, and Kimberly had returned to Portland three months ago. She was living with her parents and looking for an accounting job, but she wanted desperately to get married again. “I’m sorry, Kim. I feel terrible. I should’ve remembered to call, but something pretty monumental came up.” “What? Have you met someone new?” “Even more monumental than that. Remember Harley?” “Brandon’s father?” “Yeah. He’s back in town. He showed up on my doorstep this morning.” There was a long pause, then, “You’re kidding me.” “No. He was supposed to meet me for dinner tonight so we could talk, but he got himself arrested just as he was turning in to the restaurant. Unbelievable, isn’t it?” “What did he do?” “I don’t know.” “You didn’t ask?” “What difference does it make? He’s not a good person. That’s all I need to know.” “We already knew he wasn’t a good person. A good person doesn’t get a girl pregnant and run out on her. But aren’t you a little curious about what he did wrong this time?” Now that the first blush of anger had subsided, Lauren realized she was more than a little curious. Yet she hadn’t felt compelled to get involved. She still wanted to go on with her life as if Harley had never dropped back into it. “No,” she lied. “I think I should just take it as a sign to stay away. Besides, if I need to know, I can always find out. Chief Wilson is a good friend of my dad’s.” “Great! Tell me as soon as you call him.” Lauren frowned and finally made her way back to her car, opened the door and sank into her seat behind the wheel. “Why are you assuming I’m going to call him? I said I could call him.” “Have you forgotten who you’re talking to here? We’ve been best friends since first grade. There’s no way someone like you is capable of letting something like this go.” Lauren opened her mouth to argue, then closed it again when Kimberly added, “Besides, I’m dying to know. Do you want me to call down there for you?” “No, I’ll do it,” she said, giving in to the inevitable. Kimberly was right. No way was she going to be able to ignore this. Especially because she had no guarantee that Harley wouldn’t be back on her doorstep tomorrow morning. “So, why were you and Harley getting together, anyway?” Kimberly asked. “Does he know about Audra?” “Yeah. I’m not sure how he heard, but he knows.” “Does he want a relationship with Brandon?” “I think so. He wants to see him, at any rate.” “What are you going to do?” “Keep Brandon as far away as possible. I may need you to take him for a few days. Can you do that?” “Sure. Anything. You know he likes it here.” Lauren bit her bottom lip and ran her hand over the smooth finish of the steering wheel, hating the thought of disrupting her nephew’s life. But she had to do something until her parents returned, until she at least heard from them, right? What if Harley got out of jail and kidnapped Brandon? They might never be able to find him again. That possibility terrified Lauren, and she massaged her temples in worry. “He loves your dog,” she said, hoping to bolster her confidence that she was doing the right thing. “My dog? What am I, chopped liver?” Kimberly demanded. Lauren laughed for the first time since she’d seen Harley coming toward the restaurant on that damned motorcycle. “No, of course not. I was just thinking aloud, about all the benefits of having him stay with you.” “He’ll be fine, Lauren. You know I’ll take good care of him.” “I know.” “Where are you now?” Lauren twisted in her seat to glance up at the Tokyo House sign that lit the entire front of the building. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and she loved the food at this place, but dinner was the last thing on her mind. “Downtown.” “When are you bringing Brandon over?” “I don’t know. It depends on how long Harley’s in jail, if he’s even going to jail. The fact that they cuffed him makes me think he might be there for a few days, but maybe they just took him in for questioning or something.” “Chief Wilson will be able to tell you.” “Right.” “And don’t worry. You can bring Brandon over no matter how late it is. My parents won’t mind.” “Thanks a lot.” “You bet. Lauren?” “Yeah?” “How does he look? Harley, I mean.” Lauren sighed and stared through the window at the spot where the police had hauled him away. “Better than ever,” she admitted. CHAPTER THREE THE PAST TWENTY-FOUR HOURS hadn’t been easy. Harley had been booked and jailed for the heinous crime of having an old, unpaid speeding ticket. He’d spent most of Saturday night in a concrete holding cell behind a very thick door, waiting for a judge to set his bail, which ended up at a thousand dollars because he was a resident of another state and considered a flight risk. Then Tank had picked him up and he’d spent much of the day trying to get his bike out of impound, which had involved more effort than he ever would have imagined and cost him another two hundred dollars. On top of everything else, his court date wasn’t for two weeks. Either he had to stay in town and wait for it, but that probably wouldn’t work because he didn’t dare leave his business in the hands of his manager for so long. Or he had to come back here, which would be expensive and time-consuming. “That’s not a good face,” Tank said, eyeing him above a hamburger the size of a football. He’d taken Lucy home an hour earlier so it was just the two of them. Harley glowered at him from the couch. Tank had offered him dinner, but he wasn’t exactly in the mood to eat. He was tired and miserable, and still angry about the way his weekend had turned out. Most maddening of all was the fact that the speeding ticket that started the whole thing was over ten years old. Had Officer Denny not been so zealous, had he not called in for a more extensive search than the computer initially offered, the ticket probably wouldn’t have shown up, not after so many years. Harley couldn’t even remember getting pulled over at the end of his senior year. But back then he’d had bigger concerns. His mother had just kicked him out of the house because her new boyfriend didn’t like him. Audra had just told him about the baby. And Mr. Worthington was pressuring him to take two thousand dollars and leave town. Though he was too proud to keep it, he’d finally accepted the money and given it to his mother for the food and clothes she’d grudgingly provided over the years. Then he’d split without a clue as to where he was going or how he’d survive. Who would’ve worried about paying for a speeding ticket in the middle of all that? “You gonna be okay?” Tank asked. Harley shrugged. “I’ll live.” “It’s over now. Forget it.” If Lauren hadn’t been standing outside the restaurant when he’d been arrested, Harley thought he could forget it, or at least put the incident in some perspective. But every time he closed his eyes he saw the look of affirmation on her face when that greenhorn Denny cuffed him, and it made him long to hit something. He’d only been in town for the weekend, but already he was short on patience and long on grievances. One of them was Lauren’s superior attitude. He didn’t want his son raised by a woman who considered a broken nail a major catastrophe. He wanted Brandon to be part of the real world, to deal with real people and grow up to be a real man, not some petted, spoiled boy living in luxury without knowing a hard day’s work. Lauren had asked what Harley could give him. Well, he sure as hell knew enough about the real world to give him that. “Who’re you calling?” Tank asked, watching Harley punch the numbers on his cell phone with more force than necessary. “Lauren Worthington.” “Right now? Do you think that’s a good idea? I mean, last night didn’t go so well. Maybe you should give her a day or two to—” “To what?” Harley demanded. “Forget about it?” “I don’t know. Maybe. You said she saw the whole thing, and she comes from a pretty protected world. It probably freaked her out.” “So what? There are worse crimes than an unpaid speeding ticket. One of them is never getting to see your son. Besides, you’re talking about a girl who was first in her class. She’s not going to forget about anything.” “Maybe you will,” Tank said around a mouthful of burger. Harley’s stomach growled, making him regret skipping dinner, but he didn’t want to waste any time eating. He wanted to finally settle the score where Brandon was concerned—if Lauren would only answer her phone. “She’s just like her folks,” he said between rings. “Her mind’s made up about me and nothing I do is going to change it. If anything, last night only confirmed what she wanted to believe in the first place.” “Lauren’s a nice girl,” Tank said, defending her. Harley lifted a hand to indicate he needed a moment of silence. Lauren’s voice mail had finally picked up. He hesitated, wondering whether or not to leave a message, then decided he’d keep trying to reach her instead. It wasn’t as though he could count on her to call him back. “You have her home number?” he asked, hanging up. Tank shoved some chips into his mouth. “What did you call?” “The number she phoned me from yesterday was stored on my cell.” “The home’s unlisted,” he said, “but Damien would have it.” “Would he give it to us?” “Sure, why not?” Tank swallowed the last of his food and grinned. “He might be a stuffy lawyer, but he’s still my brother.” Leaning far enough forward to set his plate on the coffee table, he grabbed the cordless phone. After a short conversation during which Tank repeatedly said things like, “I just want to talk to her, okay?” and “What does it matter? She’s not your girlfriend anymore,” he handed Harley a number written on a gum wrapper. “Thanks,” Harley said. “What are friends for?” Harley cocked an eyebrow at him. “For nearly getting one drowned in the river, if I remember—Hello?” Lauren had answered. “It’s me,” he said. There was a long pause, then, “How did you get this number?” “I’m familiar with some good, old-fashioned torture techniques. After a few minutes with me your friends and neighbors were more than willing to talk.” “I can relate to the desperation they must’ve felt to escape from you. What do you want?” “I want to talk, just like we were going to do last night.” “Before you robbed a liquor store or whatever you did that got you arrested?” Robbed a liquor store? This woman had a very vivid imagination. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it wasn’t anything that dramatic.” He was tempted to explain just how undramatic it was, but his pride wouldn’t allow it. He wasn’t about to grovel at Lauren Worthington’s feet, hoping for her approval. “I understand,” she said. “When something happens a lot it becomes common, everyday. The excitement factor goes down, is that it?” He remembered saying something to her about the excitement factor in her life and realized she was throwing his words back at him, but he wasn’t in the mood to play games. “As far as I’m concerned, our business together is a completely unrelated issue.” “I’m afraid I disagree. Your background and character are an important part of the issue, but then, I have a nine-year-old boy to consider.” “You have my nine-year-old boy.” Silence. “Meet me,” he said, softening his voice in hopes that he could still gain her cooperation. Before he decided anything, he wanted to see Brandon, talk to him. Was that so much to ask? “No.” He held back a frustrated sigh. “Then I’ll come over there.” “It won’t do you any good. You won’t be able to get in. We have security.” “The kind of security I passed with a wave and a smile when I came to the house yesterday?” “They’re more diligent at night,” she said. “They won’t let you through the gate this time.” Especially after she called and told them not to. “Then I’ll hop the fence.” “You’ll be arrested. Again. And this time they’d probably keep you. Stalking a woman is a lot more serious than an unpaid speeding ticket.” So she’d been playing him. She already knew why he was arrested. “I thought I robbed a liquor store. I’m such a bad guy it’s hard to keep up with all my offenses, huh?” “You’re probably working your way up.” “Yeah, I’ve heard most armed robberies start with unpaid speeding tickets. It’s a definite sign of trouble.” “I’ve already seen enough signs to know you’re trouble, Harley,” she said, but her voice didn’t hold the same bitterness it had when he’d spoken to her at the door. She’d also used his name for the first time. Somehow that encouraged him, made him feel as though she was finally starting to see him as a person instead of the devil incarnate. “You don’t know anything about me,” he pointed out. “Not really. The only thing you have is your father’s word.” “And my sister’s experience. Taken together, that’s a pretty strong argument.” “Haven’t you ever fallen in love, Lauren?” he asked, dropping the sarcasm and defensiveness and stripping it down to a simple, sincere question. She didn’t answer, and for a fleeting moment he found himself wishing she would. Hadn’t she ever fallen in love? Didn’t she know what it was like to feel so passionately about someone that you simply couldn’t keep your hands to yourself? That you wouldn’t—couldn’t—heed an outside threat to stay away because it was like being asked to stop breathing? If not, she’d never understand, and he’d be wasting his time if he tried to explain it to her. Love wasn’t something that made logical sense. “Come on,” he said. “I’m only asking for a few minutes. How can you tell a man who’s never seen his son that you won’t even entertain the idea?” “You should have thought about seeing Brandon ten years ago.” “I did think about it, dammit.” He felt his irritation with Lauren grow and wished Tank wasn’t in the room. What, did Lauren think leaving Portland had been easy for him? That he’d been able to turn his back on his child without a second thought? He hadn’t had a serious relationship since Audra. Hadn’t even wanted one. It was as though that part of him, the capacity to love, had stayed behind. “I offered to marry Audra, but your father wouldn’t hear of it,” he admitted. A slight pause. “You ran out on my sister. For money. I hardly call that a marriage proposal,” she said, now sounding tentative, wary. “She wanted two things that couldn’t exist together—me and her father’s support. Your father put conditions on his support, and you know what she chose.” “So you ran.” She was still looking for easy answers, still wanting to place the blame neatly on his back and walk away—with his son. “No, I asked her to leave with me. But she wouldn’t turn her back on Daddy and his wallet.” Harley shoved a hand through his hair. He hated dredging up the past, resurrecting old, better-forgotten feelings, but he’d known what this trip would cost before he came. If it was penitence and remorse Lauren wanted to hear, he had plenty of that to spare. “Listen, she clung to safety and security, and I guess I can’t blame her,” he went on. “I had nothing to give her.” Except his heart, he added silently. But that hadn’t been nearly enough for the spoiled Audra. “You’re lying,” Lauren said, but the pitch of her voice had changed and at last Harley sensed some uncertainty. “She loved you.” After ten years, he’d begun to doubt that Audra’s feelings had ever rivaled his own. When Brandon was only a few weeks old, she’d dropped by his mother’s house, without the baby, and given Beverly the birth details. But then his mother’s lover had left her and she’d immediately packed up and moved to California to be close to Harley. And neither of them had heard from Audra since. “She might have loved me a little, but she loved her lifestyle more,” he said. Silence again. “I know she’s gone now, and I’m sorry for that, Lauren,” he continued, “but if you could be big-minded enough to remember how she really was instead of seeing her as some kind of saint, I think you’d realize that I’m on the level.” Nothing. Had he made her angry? Or was she capable of being as fair as he was asking her to be? “Lauren?” “Meet me at Thai Basil,” she said at last. “That’s another restaurant?” “Yeah, at the corner of Twelfth and Yamhill. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” “I’ll be waiting,” he said. “I just hope it won’t be in a car with red and blue lights.” HARLEY WAS ALREADY at the restaurant when Lauren arrived. She recognized his sleek black motorcycle as soon as she got out of her car—only this time there was a shiny burgundy-colored helmet sitting on the seat. Nervously smoothing the denim skirt she’d chosen to wear, along with a white cotton blouse and a pair of high-heeled sandals, she took a deep breath. She’d thought that adding a few inches to her height might lend her some courage, but she was still only five foot six and mere inches weren’t enough to compensate for the fear rushing through her veins. She eyed the restaurant as though it was something dark and threatening. What if everything Harley had told her on the phone about Audra and her father was a lie intended to manipulate her? In that case, she was letting him make a fool of her. She’d certainly regret it and would definitely pay for it later. But what if he was telling the truth? This morning Chief Wilson had said that Harley had been picked up for an unpaid speeding ticket, posted bond and been released, which hardly made him a dangerous criminal. She’d taken Brandon to Kimberly’s, just to be safe, but the fact that Harley hadn’t done anything seriously wrong—and that he hadn’t touted the reason for his arrest when he’d spoken to her on the phone, despite her baiting—lent him some credibility. Problem was, if Harley had actually tried to do right by Audra and she’d refused him because of her father’s intervention, maybe Harley wasn’t such a bad guy. And if he wasn’t such a bad guy, then Lauren couldn’t conscionably— Whoa, slow down, she cautioned herself, pinching the bridge of her nose as if she could physically clear the thoughts from her mind. Not such a bad guy is a pretty far cry from decent human being. Either way, she couldn’t really walk away without hearing him out, could she? Hesitating, she glanced between her car and the restaurant. Once she entered Thai Basil, there’d be no turning back. Once she walked in, she’d cross that invisible line between Harley and her family, and in doing so betray her sister’s memory and her father’s wishes. If only her father was here to finish what had been started eleven years ago. She’d taken care of Brandon for most of his life, even when he was a baby and she was still in her senior year of high school. But she didn’t know the gritty details of what had happened between Audra and Harley. She and her sister had never been close. Audra hadn’t confided in her. Their father had run interference and concealed as many of the facts as he could—because he was so terribly disappointed in Audra and embarrassed that a daughter of his would involve herself with someone like Harley, and do the other things she did. But now her father was half a world away, and Lauren’s conscience was dictating that she at least hear what Brandon’s father had to say. For Brandon, if not for Harley. Throwing back her shoulders, she took a firm hold on her purse and went inside, where the inviting aroma of lemongrass, basil and curry wafted around her and Oriental music played softly in the background. Even before her eyes could adjust to the dim lighting, Harley was beside her, telling the hostess they were together. He gently clasped her elbow, guiding her to a table in the far corner, then pulled out her chair and took his seat across from her. “Thanks for coming,” he said. He’d spoken only three words, and already Lauren wanted to bolt. Was it because he sounded so sincere, so relieved that she’d agreed to meet him? She didn’t want to soften. She felt infinitely safer and more comfortable hiding behind what she’d believed to be true for so long. But it wasn’t fair to remain purposely blind, deaf and dumb. “Lauren?” She’d ducked behind the menu almost the moment she sat down, but lowered it now to look up at him—and immediately wished she hadn’t. He was wearing a simple cotton T-shirt beneath his black leather jacket, a pair of faded jeans and black boots. He wasn’t exactly setting any new fashion trends, but what he lacked in cutting-edge style he compensated for with raw masculinity. His T-shirt pulled across his muscular chest. His jeans molded to his body like a second skin, not because they were tight but because they dipped and curved in all the right places. And he smelled…incredible. Lauren was accustomed to her dates smelling like the cosmetics department at Nordstrom where they no doubt bought their expensive colognes, but Harley’s scent was less artificial, more like…leather and clean clothes, soap and warm skin. “I shouldn’t be here,” she suddenly announced. She stood up to leave, but he caught her by the wrist. “Don’t be nervous,” he said, his voice low. “We’re only going to talk.” She stared down at his hand. His grip didn’t hurt. It felt warm and reassuring, but he quickly let go as though he feared she’d take exception to his touch. “It just isn’t right,” she said, feeling the pull of the exit and the bliss of ignorance beyond. “It seems like I’m…I don’t know, consorting with the enemy.” He offered her a tentative smile. “Come on. We’re just having dinner. We’re not consorting. Besides, do I look dangerous to you?” His expression grew sheepish. “Yesterday’s arrest aside, of course.” Lauren told herself not to return his smile, but the memory of his arrest, funnier in retrospect, combined with the knowledge that it had occurred simply because of a speeding ticket, got the better of her. “I can’t believe you were dragged off right in front of me,” she said with a small laugh. “You certainly have good timing.” His smile turned into a crooked grin. “Yeah, well it took some work to arrange it. Not everyone can manage to get arrested in front of the one person it’s in their best interests to impress.” The look of chagrin reappeared. “I’m never going anywhere without my helmet again.” “It doesn’t seem like you to be cautious,” she said, fidgeting with the back of the chair. “No, it seems like you.” He gazed up at her, now serious, and Lauren understood his meaning. He thought she was being too narrow minded—and maybe she was. “I just want what’s best for Brandon.” “And I’d die before I let anything hurt him.” Lauren told herself that of course he’d say something so reassuring. He was trying to win her confidence. But the sincerity in his voice convinced her. There was something about Harley Nelson that begged her to believe in him, if only a little. Why he affected her that way, she couldn’t fathom, not after what had happened to Audra. “I ordered some chardonnay,” he said when the waitress appeared carrying a bottle of wine. “I thought you might like a glass.” He nodded toward the chair. “That is, if you’re going to sit back down and eat with me.” Lauren looked from Harley to the waitress. If she didn’t leave now, she knew she might regret it for the rest of her life…but she couldn’t make herself walk away from the hope in his eyes. “I’ll stay,” she said. There wasn’t anything wrong with spending an hour or so in Harley’s company. If he was everything her father said, their time together wouldn’t change the situation. And Quentin Worthington was rarely wrong. Harley seemed to relax when she took her seat again. He smiled at her, but Lauren almost asked him to stop. That smile brought memories of silly schooldays, when she and Kimberly used to write notes to each other gushing about how handsome he was and speculating on whether or not they’d pass him in the halls after their next class. One time, at a school dance, Harley had crossed the floor, coming toward her, and Lauren was sure he meant to dance with her. Her breath caught, her stomach filled with butterflies. Then he’d extended his hand to the girl behind her. Why had she remembered that? What could it possibly matter now? “What’s good here?” Harley asked, studying the menu. “I like the Pad Thai and the chicken-and-coconut-milk soup.” “Should we get the Chicken Satay as an appetizer?” “If you want. We’re not on a date,” she said, more sharply than she’d intended. He scowled. “What is it with you? Is having a little bit of fun going to betray everything you’ve ever known?” “No. Meeting with you is.” “Well, we’re meeting already, so we might as well enjoy ourselves, provided you know how.” “I know how to have fun,” she replied, wishing she didn’t sound so defensive. “It’s just that I’m sitting across from the man who got my sister pregnant and has suddenly reappeared out of nowhere to threaten what I love most. What’s fun about that?” He stared at her for a long time, and again Lauren regretted sounding so harsh. What was it about Harley that knocked her off her balance? One minute she thought she was being too kind to him. The next she thought she was being too cruel. She couldn’t seem to pick a lane. “Tell me something,” he said. “What would you do if you were me?” Lauren didn’t answer. She didn’t want to look at things from his perspective, knew instinctively that it would only undermine her resolve. “Lauren?” “I don’t know,” she said impatiently. “I guess I wouldn’t have left. I would’ve stayed around so I could know my son.” He cupped a hand to his ear. “What? I can’t hear you for the silver spoon in your mouth.” “We’re talking about character, not privilege or money,” she retorted, curling her fingernails into her palms because she knew she wasn’t being completely honest. She was well aware of his situation ten years ago—eighteen years old, penniless, the fatherless son of an alcoholic mother. With her own powerful father doing his best to shut him out, and Audra falling in line behind Quentin, what could Harley have done? Would anyone have stuck around in the face of all that? “We’re talking about a lack of options,” he clarified. The waitress approached to take their order. Lauren kept her eyes on her wine, slowly turning her glass by the stem while Harley ordered pad thai and soup for her, yellow curry chicken for himself and the chicken satay as an appetizer for them both. When they were alone again, Lauren folded her hands in her lap and shot him a glance. “Maybe you didn’t have a lot of options back then,” she said, “but you were old enough to know what made a baby. Why didn’t you use any birth control?” His gaze never wavered. “I was so crazy about her that it might not have mattered, but for what it’s worth, Audra told me she was on the pill.” It might not have mattered? How did one forget about something so important? “What about my father?” she asked. “You knew he didn’t want you around Audra.” “And I was supposed to respect that? God, are you really so cold? I was in love with her!” So his relationship with her sister had meant more than sex to him. Lauren had often wondered. But knowing that truth only made her feel worse. Or was it what he’d just said about her that stung? Damien Thompson had once called her an ice princess, but she wasn’t cold. She’d just never been head over heels in love. “If you’d stayed away from Audra, there wouldn’t have been a problem,” she said. “You mean there wouldn’t have been a Brandon,” he replied, and he was right. How could she think such a thing? Brandon was the most wonderful child in the world. Dammit! Why was this so confusing? “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to regroup. “I realize you had a difficult childhood, and I hate the thought of you or anyone else suffering—” “I’m not interested in your sympathy,” he interrupted with a dark scowl. “I’m just asking you to understand that what happened back then isn’t as black and white as you seem to believe. I’m not trying to ruin your life. I wasn’t trying to ruin Audra’s. I’m only here because I have a son I fathered ten years ago. I’ve never seen him, and I think it’s time I changed all that, don’t you?” Every nerve in Lauren’s body stretched taut. How much of a change was Harley hoping for? He lived in California. He couldn’t maintain any kind of close relationship with Brandon so far away. And Lauren couldn’t let Brandon go anywhere with him. Even if she agreed, which she never would, her father wouldn’t allow it. And Quentin Worthington had the resources to see his wishes through, while Harley was just a motorcycle salesman. Noting the clear intelligence shining in Harley’s green eyes, the aquiline nose, the full bottom lip and square, rugged chin, she saw much of this man in Brandon. Was that why she felt so attracted to Harley? Surely it wasn’t the old schoolgirl crush, the one that had her staring after him in high school? “What exactly are you asking?” she breathed. “Let me see him.” “I can’t.” “Lauren.” He reached out and covered her cold hand with his warm one. “Please.” She closed her eyes. This was going to start something big. She knew it; she could feel it. And it terrified her. “When?” she managed. “Tonight. After dinner.” “Not tonight.” His hand tightened on hers. “When?” “Tomorrow,” she said. At that moment, the waitress arrived with their food, but Lauren knew she wouldn’t be able to eat a bite. CHAPTER FOUR WHAT A NIGHT! Lauren groaned as she trained one bleary eye on her alarm clock. It was five in the morning. She’d left the restaurant at eleven and tossed and turned until three. Then, when she finally fell asleep, she’d dreamed about Harley snatching Brandon from her. She could still see the triumphant grin he’d worn when he ripped the boy from her grasp, tossed him onto the back of his bike and roared away. It was a disturbing image that conflicted with the Harley she’d met for dinner last night, but at this hour, the sinister Harley seemed more real than not. Shoving a hand through her tangled hair, she closed her eyes and tried to drift off again. Don’t think about it, she told herself. She had another hour before she was scheduled to pick Brandon up from Kimberly’s so she could get him ready for school, but she was too worried to relax. She’d promised to introduce Brandon to his father today. Would she be letting the wolf in the door? The telephone rang, the noise startling and loud in the silent house. She grabbed the receiver and cleared her throat before saying hello, then sagged in relief when she heard her father on the other end of the line. He’d gotten her messages. Thank heaven! “Dad, I’m so glad to hear from you,” she said. “I’ve been trying to reach you for two days. Where have you and Mom been?” “We took the train to Paris for the weekend. Just got back,” he said. “What’s wrong? The front desk here at the hotel said it was urgent. Is Brandon okay?” Lauren sat up, cross-legged, and kneaded her forehead. She’d wanted to speak to her father ever since Harley had appeared, but now that she had Quentin on the phone, she was almost afraid to tell him what was going on. She knew he wasn’t going to like the fact that Harley had popped back into their lives, and hated to admit that she wasn’t maintaining a stronger defense against him. “Brandon’s fine, Dad, don’t worry. Everything’s fine—for the most part.” At least right now. “It’s just that…well, Harley’s back. He came here Saturday morning.” “What?” Flinching from the blast of her father’s voice, Lauren held the phone away from her ear. “It’s true,” she said when it was safe to move the handset closer. “What do you mean he’s back? Has he moved to town?” “What’s happened? What is it?” she heard her mother ask in the background. “No. He lives in California,” Lauren said. “He learned about Audra and came to see Brandon.” “Did you let him in?” An ominous silence followed this question, one that made Lauren glad she could answer honestly when she said no. She didn’t add, “not yet.” “Good for you, honey,” he said. “Harley Nelson has no business with us. That boy’s nothing but trouble.” That boy? Harley wasn’t a boy any longer. He was a man now, and a man to be reckoned with, if her instincts could be trusted. “Harley Nelson’s back?” her mother cried. “You tell him to go back to whatever rock he crawled out from under,” her father said. “I won’t let him say two words to Brandon.” The relief Lauren had experienced when she’d first heard her father’s voice was quickly fading. “Audra’s gone now, Dad,” she said as he finally quieted her mother with a terse, “Just a minute, Marilee, I can’t hear a thing she’s saying with you squawking in my ear.” “What did you say?” he demanded, returning to the conversation. “I said Audra’s gone now.” “You think I don’t know that?” “Well, he is Brandon’s father, his only living parent.” “I don’t care if he’s the man on the moon—Marilee, would you please shut up and let me talk?—Audra’s dead because of him. Besides, we’re all the family Brandon needs.” “We’re all he’s ever known,” her mother put in. “That might be true,” Lauren said. “But what if Harley takes us to court? You realize he could win complete custody. We stand to lose Brandon altogether.” At last, a moment of silence. “What’s he like now?” Quentin asked, his voice less emotional and more calculating. Lauren pictured the tall, handsome spectacle that was Harley Nelson and tried not to feel so much as a flicker of admiration, but something fluttered in her stomach all the same. “He’s taller and…a little broader,” she said to avoid saying anything more flattering. She could have added that he was confident, almost cocky, and very real, very appealing—far different from any of the stuffed shirts she’d dated. But she didn’t. “He still drives a motorcycle,” she said so her description wouldn’t sound quite so sketchy. Fortunately her father didn’t push her for any more details. “See?” he responded immediately. “He hasn’t changed. Bad seeds rarely do. Probably doesn’t have a pot to piss in. Don’t worry, Lauren, there’s nothing a man like that can do to us or Brandon.” So they had Harley outgunned as far as resources went. Did that justify denying him the opportunity to meet his own son? What about the moral side of the dilemma? And what about Brandon’s wishes? If he were to find out his father was in town, surely he’d want to see him. “But if Harley sincerely regrets what he did, then it would only be right to—” “Don’t tell me what’s right,” her father snapped. “He couldn’t regret what happened any more than I do. That son of a bitch cost me my little girl,” he said, his voice growing hoarse with emotion. Audra. Lauren felt the same sense of loss and regret she knew her father felt, but she had to ask herself how much of the situation ten years ago had been Audra’s fault? And how much had been Harley’s? Had she told him she was on the pill, as he claimed? If so, she certainly deserved a larger portion of the responsibility than the Worthingtons had ever allotted to her before. But the real question was whether or not Audra would’ve alienated her family and sunk into drug abuse without Harley starting her down the wrong road and abandoning her. That was tough to say. Remembering the way her sister had behaved at school, flitting from one guy to the next, partying with the best of them and rebelling against any kind of authority, Lauren had difficulty placing all the blame in Harley’s lap. “She was eighteen, Dad.” “So? What are you saying?” That she was old enough to understand the consequences of her actions. Lauren had known better than to follow in Audra’s footsteps, even at the tender age of seventeen. “She was almost an adult.” “How can you say that? Audra was just an innocent young girl when she met Harley.” “He was the same age.” “Maybe. But he was hardly innocent. And I tried to tell him to leave her alone. I told him what was going to happen. If only the little bastard had listened. Don’t you remember me catching them in the front yard in the middle of the night, both of them nearly falling-down drunk? I told him to stay away from her then. I knew it was just a matter of time before he ruined her life, and I was right.” Lauren heard her mother warning Quentin to watch his blood pressure, but he seemed to pay no more attention to that than anything else Marilee said. “He’s cost us enough already, Lauren. You know that,” he muttered. “What about Brandon? What about what he might want?” “Lauren, Brandon’s not even ten. He doesn’t know what’s best, and it wouldn’t be fair to involve him.” “Shouldn’t we at least tell him that his father’s in town? See if—” “Why? What good would it do?” he broke in. “If you bring Brandon into this, you’ll only upset him.” Lauren didn’t say anything. She hated confrontations and avoided them whenever possible, especially with her father. But somehow it felt dishonest not to tell Brandon that his father had some interest in knowing him. “Lauren?” her father said when she didn’t speak. “I’m here.” “I love Brandon, honey. You know how much.” Lauren couldn’t help responding to the softening in his voice. “I don’t doubt that.” “If Audra had listened to me in the first place, this wouldn’t be happening. She’d still be with us. But she wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t let me do what I knew was best for her.” Was Lauren making the same mistake? Was she undermining her father when she should be supporting him? The thought that she might be doing just that seemed to shed new light on everything. “Okay,” she finally said. “I won’t mention Harley to Brandon, and I’ll tell Harley to stay away. But what do I do if he won’t take no for an answer? What if he won’t leave us alone?” “Then we’ll get a restraining order against him until this can go to court. But don’t worry. It won’t get that far. The boy I remember from ten years ago wasn’t the kind to stick around long enough to fight for anything. Do you think things are any different now?” Yes! She thought things were significantly different. Harley wasn’t a man who’d allow himself to be bullied or intimidated or denied. Not by Quentin Worthington or his fortune. How Lauren knew that, she couldn’t exactly say. It had something to do with Harley’s bearing and demeanor. At the same time, it was only a hunch and she could be wrong, so she hesitated to state her opinion too strongly. “He’s a little more determined than he used to be,” she said. “Then we’ll be just as determined. He’s not going to threaten my family’s well-being a second time.” “Right. I understand.” “Where is he now?” “I believe he’s staying with an old friend of his.” In fact, she knew he was. He’d said so last night. He’d even given her the number. “Well, if he comes around again, you send him packing. If he won’t leave, call the police.” “Okay,” Lauren said, but her heart sank as she contemplated facing Harley and telling him she’d changed her mind. She felt sorry for him, for what he’d lost, even if it was largely due to his own poor judgment. “I wish we were there to help you. Do you think your mom and I should come home?” Deep down Lauren wished they would. She wanted Quentin to deal with the situation so she wouldn’t have to. Let him sift the rights from the wrongs, make the tough decisions—and accept the responsibility. What a cop-out, she thought, cringing at her cowardice. She was nearly thirty years old. It was time she took charge instead of expecting her parents to handle everything. “Don’t cut your trip short yet,” she said. “Let’s wait and see how things go. Maybe after I talk to him he’ll just…go home.” Yeah, right! “Okay. But promise you’ll call us after you talk to him.” “I will.” “I love you, honey.” “I love you, too, Dad.” “Here, your mother wants to say hello.” HARLEY SAT on the edge of a bed consisting of two mattresses and a cheap set of rails in Tank’s spare room, waiting anxiously for the sun to rise. He was surrounded by boxes filled with who knew what—leftovers from Tank’s marriage, probably, belongings that held too many memories to unpack—staring at empty walls and a dirty window with a broken blind. But he could’ve been sitting behind home plate at the World Series and it wouldn’t have made any difference. He would still have been thinking of Brandon. He was going to meet his son today. Harley had envisioned coming face to face with him hundreds, even thousands of times, but he’d never anticipated feeling so…apprehensive. It might’ve been different if Brandon was younger and less likely to be critical. Toddlers didn’t care what a parent was like. They accepted whatever love they were offered. But a nine-year-old boy… Harley stretched his neck, then squeezed the muscles in his left shoulder, wishing he could iron out a few of the knots. A nine-year-old boy would already know how to play ball and read and ride a bike. He’d have his own taste in clothes and his own opinions on what was cool and whether or not he might be interested in getting to know the man who’d fathered him. What if Brandon didn’t want to be bothered? What if he didn’t want Harley to disturb his picture-perfect life with the Worthingtons? He already has everything. He doesn’t need you. “You up, man?” Tank stood in the doorway, wearing nothing but a muscle shirt and a pair of boxers, his voice dispelling the echo of Lauren’s words in Harley’s head. “Yeah,” he replied, trying to stretch the kinks out of his neck again. His friend yawned, then eyed the blankets that were still folded rather haphazardly behind Harley. “Didn’t you go to bed?” After his meeting with Lauren, Harley had stopped by the Holiday Inn to pack his things and check out. Then he’d let himself into Tank’s apartment just after midnight, where he’d spent several hours on his laptop, seeing how sales were going at Burlingame Harley Davidson and answering e-mails sent to him by Joe Randall, his manager. He’d tried to sleep afterward but ended up pacing instead, and thinking about Brandon. “I had too much on my mind. What are you doing up so early?” “You kidding? I pour concrete for a living. I get up this early as a rule. Otherwise, I’m working late in the afternoon and it gets too damned hot. How’d it go with Lauren last night?” “Good. Better than I expected.” He certainly hadn’t anticipated finding Audra’s little sister, or any member of Audra’s family, the least bit likeable. They lived in an expensive house, drove fancy cars, spent money as though it were water and had absolutely no idea what it was like to go without. Understanding and acceptance were concepts as unfamiliar to them as the idea of mowing their own lawn or painting their own house. But there was something about Lauren that made Harley wonder if she was really as bad as he’d assumed. She’d been decent last night. She’d allowed him to break through her icy reserve and reach what he hoped was her heart—provided she really had one. “She gonna let you see Brandon?” Tank asked. “Yeah, today as a matter of fact.” “You nervous?” “No,” Harley said, even though his heart raced at the prospect of what lay in store. God, he was scared. How did he introduce himself to his own child? Pick up in the middle of Brandon’s life and make a meaningful contribution? “I’m supposed to go over there for dinner,” he explained. “Lauren suggested it might seem more natural if I came to the house and was treated like any other guest. She thinks it’ll help maintain Brandon’s emotional stability if we’re friendly and supportive of each other.” Tank arched an eyebrow at him. “She’s willing to be supportive of you?” “Go figure,” Harley said. “A sympathetic Worthington. It’s a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?” “Does that mean she’s gonna tell Brandon who you are?” “Yep. Said she’s always been honest with him and doesn’t want to erode the trust she’s established between them by lying to him now.” “Sounds like something she’d say. I told you she was a straight arrow.” “I prefer it this way, too. No games, no secrets.” A hint of a smile lit Tank’s face. “Damien called while you were gone last night.” “Your brother? What for?” “Just to badger me some more about why we wanted Lauren’s number.” “Did you tell him?” “No, I said I had a friend who was looking for a good lay.” Tank’s smile turned into a devilish grin. “He nearly had a coronary. I love to mess with that guy’s head.” “He want her back?” Harley asked. Tank scratched his belly. “Is the Pope Catholic?” “Why? What’s so appealing about her?” “Didn’t you look at her, man? She’s gorgeous!” “Her sister was even prettier, but there’s plenty of pretty women out there who are less spoiled.” “You’re assuming Lauren is just like Audra used to be,” Tank said. “She’s not.” “She can’t be that different,” Harley responded. “She’s cut from the same cloth. She has the same asshole for a father, the same nervous Nellie for a mother, and she had the same snobbish upbringing. She still lives in the same damned fortress, for Pete’s sake! So tell Damien to take it from me and stay the hell away from Lauren and anyone else even distantly related to her.” Tank anchored his fingers above the lintel and let it support most of his weight. “Yeah, well, I think she’s pretty much made that decision for him. He’s tried to get her back, and she won’t budge. I just wish he’d quit moonin’ over her. Watching him wallow in misery is so damned annoying, you know? What does he think, no one else has ever gone through a break-up?” Harley gazed at the boxes cluttering the floor and knew Tank had done his share of hurting. “You seeing anyone now?” he asked. “Damien set me up on a blind date with one of his paralegals a couple months ago. Woman by the name of Rhonda. He only did it because she was crazy about him and he wanted to distract her, but it worked. She doesn’t call him anymore, and we catch a movie together every once in a while. What about you?” “My business is my lover.” “Sex life’s that good, huh?” Harley shrugged. “I’m busy. When I get home at night, I’m exhausted, too tired to miss sex or anything else a woman has to offer.” Skepticism etched a disbelieving frown on Tank’s face. “No way. I don’t believe you’ve changed that much.” Harley couldn’t help laughing. Tank was right, up to a point. He missed having a robust sex life, but he craved having someone who was emotionally significant to him far more. The older he got, the more convinced he became that life wasn’t just about financial success or physical gratification. But he’d left his heart in Portland with an unborn baby when he moved to California ten years ago, and even though he’d had a few superficial relationships since then, no one had ever been able to fill the void. “Maybe your brother knows another female paralegal he can set me up with,” he joked. “I’ll ask him,” Tank promised. “Just be forewarned. If he sets you up with anyone like Rhonda, she’ll be pudgy, pasty, too bold and emotionally starved.” “God, Tank, I thought you liked her!” “I do. I’m desperate, so the relationship works for me. But that’s hardly the kind of woman I see you with.” He gave up hanging on the lintel and started down the hall, the floor creaking in protest. “Gotta run. The whole crew’ll be waiting for me. Are you comin’ back tonight?” “Yeah. That okay?” Harley called after him. “Sure. Stay as long as you like.” The creaking stopped as Tank paused in the hall. “What are you gonna do before your dinner with Lauren and Brandon? You want to make a few extra bucks and come out on the job with me?” “No, thanks. I’m going to get my hair cut and buy some new clothes.” “What’s wrong with the haircut and clothes you got now?” “Nothing. I just need to look…I don’t know, more fatherly, I guess.” There was a pause and for a moment, Harley thought Tank had disappeared silently into his room. But then he spoke. “Can I give you a piece of advice, Harley?” Advice? From Tank? “Shoot.” “Clothes and hair don’t matter to kids, man. Just be yourself.” The floor started creaking again, a door closed and the shower went on. Harley laced his fingers behind his head and rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Just be yourself. Sounded easy. Made sense. But his “self” hadn’t been good enough for Audra, and he was afraid he’d run into the same problem again, this time with Brandon. Especially if Quentin Worthington had poisoned his son against him. He doesn’t need you. “Maybe not,” Harley conceded, “but I need him.” CHAPTER FIVE LAUREN GLANCED nervously at her wristwatch. It was already late afternoon and she still hadn’t tried to contact Harley. She should have called him hours ago, first thing in the morning. Instead she’d procrastinated and was continuing to put off the inevitable by playing a game of Hearts with Brandon and his best friend, Scott, both of whom she’d just picked up from Mt. Marley Academy for Boys and Girls. “What happened today at school, guys?” she asked, tossing a five of clubs on top of Brandon’s ace of spades. “You can’t throw that,” her nephew protested. “I led with a spade so you have to throw a spade.” “Only if I have one,” she told him. “I’m out, so I can play any suit I want, remember?” She raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re lucky I didn’t give you any point cards. That ace is going to beat anything we throw, which means you’re probably going to get stuck with the queen of spades. Unless you’re holding it yourself, of course.” Brandon said nothing. He kept his attention on his cards, his brow wrinkling in concentration. “I asked you two about school,” she said as Scott laid down the dreaded queen of spades. She watched her nephew’s face for any sign of displeasure that he’d just picked up another thirteen points, but saw none. Was he trying to shoot the moon? Gathering all point cards in the deck—every heart and the queen of spades—at the risk of missing one or more wasn’t an easy thing to do, even with a good hand. If he succeeded, however, he’d set her and Scott back twenty-six points and win the game. “School was okay, I guess,” Brandon murmured, finally answering her question, but his eyes were still riveted to the fan of cards in his hand. “What did you do at recess?” she asked. Brandon led with the queen of hearts—almost a sure sign that he was trying to shoot the moon. But considering what Lauren held in her hand, he didn’t have enough high cards to take the rest of the tricks. She considered playing the ace of hearts and letting him learn the hard way, then gave him something smaller to see if he could pull it off without an adult and veteran player working against him. “Mallory and Sarah chase us every recess,” Scott complained. “They won’t leave us alone.” He tossed Brandon a jack of hearts and a taunting smile. “You just took another heart, Brandon. You’re gonna lose big! What do you have so far, twenty points?” If Brandon had twenty points already, he only needed to collect another six to shoot the moon. Lauren suspected Scott didn’t understand the game nearly as well as he said he did. Otherwise he would’ve realized that throwing such a high heart at this stage wasn’t wise. “Those girls have liked you guys all year,” she said, keeping the conversation on a neutral topic so she wouldn’t give her nephew away. Brandon chose to play an eight of clubs, which was probably a mistake. Lauren’s last card of that suit was the ten, and all the face cards were out. She’d have to take the pile and any hearts Scott tossed into it, which meant Brandon wouldn’t be able to capture all the points. Sure enough, when his friend piled a heart on top of her ten, Brandon groaned. “Oh, man. I was so close. Look at this.” He fanned out the cards he’d already taken. “I’ve got the queen of spades and nine of the thirteen hearts. I was only missing four.” “You did great, babe,” Lauren told him. “It’s tough to shoot the moon. You have to be holding a lot of good cards and play them just right.” “And if you don’t make it, you’re in major trouble,” Scott pointed out. Brandon scowled at him. “But if you do make it, you’re the bomb. I would’ve won for sure.” “You’ll have other chances,” Lauren promised. “Does that mean we can play another game?” he asked. “Not now. Scott’s mother is expecting him at home, you have to do your homework, and I have to start dinner.” “Aw, can’t we go out for dinner tonight?” “No, I’ve already defrosted a couple of steaks. I thought we could grill them outside on the patio.” She’d also made homemade rolls, scalloped potatoes, a candied almond salad and Brandon’s favorite dessert—cheesecake. Keeping herself busy with domestic tasks had helped her avoid thinking about Harley Nelson. But the time for his arrival was fast approaching and she couldn’t put off dealing with the situation any longer. “Why don’t you go ahead and walk Scott across the street while I start the barbecue?” she said. Taking her suggestion, Brandon followed his friend to the front of the house. As soon as Lauren heard the door slam, she took Harley’s card from her pocket, wiped sweaty palms on her blue jeans and dialed his number. I’m only doing what’s best, she told herself. But if that was true, why did she feel so terrible about it? Someone answered, but it wasn’t Harley. It was a woman. Lauren drew a bolstering breath. He’s no good. He probably goes from one relationship to another, breaking hearts along the way, and this is just the next person in line. “Is Harley Nelson there?” “I’m afraid not, but I’d sure like to reach him. This is Angela at Hudson & Taylor’s. He was shopping here earlier. When he paid for his purchases, he left his cell phone on the counter.” Evidently she’d been wrong, in this instance, anyway. But that didn’t make her feel any better. She couldn’t reach him, and he was supposed to appear at her door in—she cast another nervous glance at her watch—an hour. “Do you know his home number?” the woman asked. “I have the number where he’s staying,” she said, grateful for whatever had prompted Harley to give it to her. “Hang on a second.” Taking the cordless phone, she went to her bedroom and found the slip of paper Harley had handed her just before she left the restaurant. She rattled off the number, then hung up and dialed it herself, far more eager to talk to Harley now that the possibility of being unable to reach him seemed all too likely. “’Lo?” “Harley?” “No, it’s Tank. Who’s this?” “Lauren Worthington. I don’t know if you remember me, but I used to date your brother Damien.” “’Course I remember you. We went to high school together.” Part of the rowdy crowd, Tank had been popular, but Lauren had never really spoken to him until two years ago, when Damien had taken her to a family birthday party. “I’m looking for Harley Nelson,” she said, fidgeting nervously. “It’s important that I talk to him. Is he around?” “Nope. Haven’t seen him all day. But if he’s late or somethin’, don’t give up on him. I know he wouldn’t miss dinner at your place.” “That’s just it,” Lauren said. “He’s planning to see Brandon, but I…um…I forgot that Brandon won’t be here. He’s got…” Her mind raced as she tried to come up with an event important enough to justify canceling, but nothing presented itself. “…something he can’t miss,” she finished lamely. Tank hesitated as though trying to decide whether or not to believe her, and she fought the temptation to prop up the lie with more senseless babble. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I know Harley will be disappointed.” “Yeah…um…so will Brandon.” Except that he doesn’t know what he’s missing. Closing her eyes, Lauren briefly remembered a conversation she’d had with Brandon just a few months ago. I hope I’ll be tall like my dad. How do you know your dad was tall? My mom used to talk about him. What did she say? That he was the cutest boy in school. He was certainly handsome. She’d winked at him. But you’re going to be even better-looking. He’d smiled, but seemed to sink into a rather somber mood almost immediately after. Grandfather doesn’t think I look anything like my dad. Lauren had almost admitted that Quentin Worthington probably didn’t see any resemblance between father and son because he didn’t want to. But getting caught up in a conversation that would only disparage Harley wouldn’t do Brandon any good. Her father had told him enough negative things about Harley already. Grandfather didn’t see as much of Harley as your mother and I did. Maybe he doesn’t remember. That’s not it, Brandon had surprised her by saying. I think he’s afraid I’ll turn out just like him. From the mouths of babes…. “I’ll give him the message you called,” Tank said. Lauren massaged her temple. “Okay. And let him know he left his cell phone at Hudson & Taylor’s, will you? A woman by the name of Angela has it.” “I’ll tell him.” “Great. Thanks.” “Lauren?” “Yeah?” “Harley’s…well, he’s—ah, shit, never mind. It’s none of my business. I’ll let you go.” “What?” she prompted. Had Harley said something about her? About Brandon? About his plans? Tank seemed to struggle with the words. “If it doesn’t work out for Harley to see Brandon tonight, I hope you’ll consider letting him come over another time. He’s pretty excited about meeting his boy.” This, Lauren didn’t want to hear. She couldn’t think of Harley’s feelings. She already had her own heart and her parents and Brandon to consider. Even Audra’s memory seemed to be pulling at her. Lauren just couldn’t tell which direction her sister would want her to go. After her relationship with Harley, Audra had grown very bitter and blamed their father for most of her mistakes. If she were alive, would she be in Harley’s camp? If so, why hadn’t she ever contacted him? Ignoring the melancholy that threatened whenever she thought of Audra, Lauren said, “I’ll keep that in mind,” but she warned herself to forget about it instead. “Who was that?” Brandon asked, toting his backpack into the kitchen as she hung up the phone. Lauren whirled at the sound of his voice. She’d been so wrapped up in her conversation with Tank that she hadn’t heard him come in. “No one you know, sweetie.” “Did Grandma and Grandpa call today?” “I talked to them this morning.” “When are they coming home?” “Not until the middle of June, remember?” “Oh, yeah.” Delving into his backpack, Brandon began to spread his books on the table. “I have tons of homework,” he complained. “I don’t know why Mrs. Cooper had to give us so much today. Fourth grade isn’t supposed to be so hard.” “It’s good for you,” Lauren replied automatically. Brandon was enrolled in one of the best private schools in the state and usually had quite a bit of homework. But Lauren’s thoughts weren’t on his education. She was wondering what she’d do if Harley didn’t go back to Tank’s—if he didn’t get her message. She certainly couldn’t stay here and hope to turn him away at the door. “Come on,” she said suddenly. “Pack your stuff and bring it with you. We’re going to Kimberly’s.” “What?” Brandon paused in mid-motion. “I thought you were making dinner.” “We’ll take it with us and finish it there.” He gave her a mystified look. “You’re acting weird, Aunt Lauren, you know that?” “Just because I want to go to Kimberly’s? We go there all the time.” “But we don’t carry our dinner over there.” “It’ll be fun.” Hopping off the stool at the desk, she hurried to the large walk-in pantry to get the picnic basket. “Do I have to spend the night again?” he asked. “Don’t you like staying with Kimberly?” She found the picnic basket easily enough and hauled it out to the kitchen, where she started gathering their meal so they could leave as soon as possible. “I guess,” he said. “But I’d rather stay home. It’s a school night, remember?” “Isn’t that my line?” She forced a smile, hoping he’d cooperate without her having to push. She hated to make him go to Kimberly’s if he didn’t want to, but he had to go somewhere, and Kimberly’s place was safe. “We can make an exception every once in a while, you know,” she added, getting the salad from the refrigerator. Instead of packing up, he sank into his seat and started flipping his pencil against the table. Tap, tap, tap, tap… “Then can I go to Scott’s instead?” “Not tonight.” Tap, tap, tap… “Why?” “Because Kimberly’s dog really likes it when you come to visit,” she said, searching for the plastic lid that would seal the bowl containing the steaks and marinade. “I have to go to Kimberly’s because her dog likes me?” he asked with a grimace. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap… Too nervous to tolerate the noise, Lauren wanted to grab the pencil out of Brandon’s hand. They needed to get out of the house quickly. What if Harley arrived early? “Just get moving, okay?” she said, keeping her voice calm only with great effort. Brandon had some legitimate points—she was acting strange, spending the night on a weekday did break house rules, and they didn’t generally pack up their dinner at the last minute and flee from home. But she couldn’t explain her reasons, and she didn’t have time to argue with him. She was the adult. He was the child. She needed him to obey, and fast. Finding the lid, she covered the bowl and forced it inside the already crowded basket, then turned her attention to wrapping the rolls in plastic. Tap…tap…tap… “But I don’t see why Scott’s house isn’t just as good,” he persisted, slouching lower in his seat. “I mean, it’s across the street. You wouldn’t even have to come get me for school.” “Just get your things, dammit!” she snapped. The tapping stopped, and he jumped to his feet and began to fill his backpack, but she could tell from the expression on his face that he was surprised—and probably a little hurt. “What did I do?” he asked. “Why are you mad at me?” Lauren gave up trying to close the overloaded basket. He didn’t know she was only trying to do what was best for him, that she was worried and on edge. He was just being a kid. “I’m sorry, Brandon,” she said, crossing the room and hugging him. “I’m just a little uptight right now and I need you to cooperate with me. Okay, honey?” The confusion on his face didn’t clear completely, but he nodded. “Okay.” “Everything will be fine,” she promised, resting her chin on the top of his head. “I just…I just need you to stay with Kimberly for a few days while I take care of some things. Then our lives will be normal again.” God willing. “I miss Grandma and Grandpa,” he said. “They’ll be home before you know it.” She kissed his cheek and started to pull away, then stopped when he said something so softly she missed it. “What, honey?” “I said my mom won’t. She’s never coming home again.” It was almost the first time he’d mentioned his mother since the day she died. Lauren had tried to get him to open up and let the pain out, but he wouldn’t. He’d stood dry-faced and resolute throughout the viewing and funeral, ignored anyone who wanted to remember her or sympathize, and had kept up that indifferent facade ever since. Still, Lauren knew that despite Audra’s faults and shortcomings, Brandon had loved her with the kind of unconditional emotion so natural to children. “It’s not easy when someone you care about dies,” she said. “I don’t care about her,” he insisted, but there was a tremble to his lip that belied the harshness of his words. “She never wanted to be with me, anyway.” The knots of anxiety in Lauren’s stomach grew painful. They had to go before Harley arrived. But this was the first chance she’d had to reach Brandon, to soothe him where his mother was concerned. If she brushed the opportunity away and hurried off, she was afraid he’d retreat behind the wall he’d built and never come out again. “It’s okay to be angry, Brandon,” she said. “Your mother wasn’t perfect. She made many mistakes. But I know she loved you.” “If she loved me, she wouldn’t have done what she did.” “Look at me.” Lauren tried to raise his chin so she could see his eyes, but he wouldn’t allow it. He was staring at the hardwood floor, blinking swiftly to hold back tears—tears Lauren wished he’d let fall. Go ahead, Brandon. Let the poison out so you can heal. “Your mother was just confused,” she said. “She didn’t want me. She never did anything with me.” Lauren pulled him closer so he wouldn’t have to worry about her seeing the tears swimming in his eyes, and rubbed a hand up and down his spine. “That’s not completely true. I remember you going in to lie down with her at night sometimes. The two of you would talk about all kinds of things.” “That was only when she came out of rehab and was clean for a while. And it never lasted long.” Rehab. Clean. Most nine-year-olds didn’t even know those terms—and Brandon was using them to describe his mother. It always saddened Lauren to hear him. “I know,” she admitted. There wasn’t any point in trying to deny the fact that his mother had let him down. It would only make him feel guilty for what he was feeling when he had every right to be disappointed. He’d been cheated, and Audra’s death was probably her ultimate betrayal. “I can’t explain why your mother did what she did,” she said. “I know she was basically a good person, Brandon. She was just so unhappy. She couldn’t find her way out of it, and nothing we did seemed to help. Maybe if I’d had more patience with her or tried harder to reach her as a friend…I don’t know.” “What happened to my mom isn’t your fault,” he said. “It’s my dad’s fault.” Lauren knew Brandon was only repeating what he’d picked up from his grandfather. But for the first time she considered what it meant to let Brandon believe what he did. Perhaps if she hadn’t seen Harley again, if he’d remained nothing more than a memory, she might have let the statement pass. Heaven knew she’d spent the last ten years more or less believing the same thing. But now Harley was a real person, a flesh-and-blood man, and he seemed a lot less like the bad guy her father’s words and her own imagination had painted him. “No one is completely responsible for the decisions and actions of another, Brandon. We all meet people who influence us, but the decisions we make are our own. If we mess up our lives, it’s our fault, no one else’s.” “But Grandpa said my dad broke my mother’s heart.” “I’m not sure about that,” she murmured, and then, even though family loyalty warred with what she now considered the underlying truth, she added, “Grandfather blames Harley because it’s easier to blame him than your mother. He loves your mom; he doesn’t love Harley. But your mother could have chosen a different path than the one she took. She had a lot more going for her than Harley did. She had a family who loved her. She had plenty of food, clothing and other necessities. She had the best counseling money could buy. I’m sure I could’ve done more to help her, but Grandpa tried everything. She just wouldn’t grab on to the hands reaching out to her.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/shooting-the-moon-39929242/?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.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 356.27 руб.