I lifted my fingers one by one off the sticky grip of the steering wheel, then forced my hands to my thighs, fighting the urge to ball them into fists and make a punching bag of my dash. As her form took shape through the windshield, I pulled the bill of my Yankees cap lower and sunk into the buttery leather of my Range Rover.
Holy Christ, I couldn't take my eyes off her lean, muscular legs. Her frayed cut-offs could barely be considered attire at all, but I couldn't imagine her looking more beautiful. No designer in the world could improve on her small town, all-American girl beauty.
As she passed, her flip-flops smacked an annoying yet familiar rhythm between the sidewalk and the bottoms of her feet. I gripped the steering wheel again to anchor myself, because damn, was I itching to jump from the car, chase her down, and tangle my fingers through that blonde mess of coils cascading down her back.
Without glancing my way, Slade Mason trotted up the worn, wooden steps of her porch. The same weathered boards we had carved our names in as kids.
My stomach rolled at the sight of her. She was skinny. Too damn skinny. But those legs? Shit. Sweet, creamy skin stretched over lean muscle, no doubt carved from two decades of walking every-fucking-where she needed to go.
I laughed, remembering senior year and my many failed attempts at persuading her to buy a car.
"Walking makes me happy," she would always say. And that was that. Her driveway remained as it always had been—empty. Nothing but slabs of cracked cement posing as a dull gray, urban mosaic brightened only by veins of wild grass and dandelions.
As she fumbled with the grocery bags in her arms, and bent to set them down, my cock roared to life. I'd always loved that ass. High, tight, a perfect handful. Over the years, it had claimed the starring role in many late night jam sessions with my right hand and a hot shower.
I glanced at the time on my dash. Nine-fifty. Shit. Forty minutes to get to the church. My stomach knotted. Why wasn't she dressed? Surely she'd attend Mom's funeral. A volatile mix of dread and regret billowed through me. I rubbed my temples to quell the oncoming headache. God, as much as I hated to admit the truth, and despite the fact that I hadn't seen her in six years, I needed her to be there. I'd counted on it.
I drew a deep breath and gripped the door handle. I had to do this. Would she forgive me? Fuck it. Didn't matter. I wouldn't forgive me. But, damn. I needed to face Slade before I could face the town.
Sucking in a breath of courage, I pushed the door open and dropped one foot to the asphalt. I heard a squeal as the front door of her house swung open. I paused, heart in my throat, and watched a little shit jump into her arms and tackle her to the ground. His raven hair, a sharp contrast to her blonde waves, pointed every which way on his head.
"Mommy. You're home!" He hugged her tight.
Mommy? Impossible. The kid was tall. Six or seven, by the looks of him. Slade was a virgin when I'd left six years ago. I would know. I was the reason she'd remained untouched.
Slade's arms wrapped in a protective cage around the boy, and she rolled to her side, planting kisses up and down his face.
My heart dropped to my gut. Motherfucker. A kid.
I scratched the nagging tingle at the base of my skull. A child. Hadn't considered that. Was there a husband? Didn't matter. Not like I came to proclaim my love and beg her to take me back. Just needed to clear my conscience of the damage I'd done all those years ago.
Maybe then, I could go back to being the Tango she’d once known. The Tango I wanted to be again.
That was what I told myself, anyway. Truth? I needed to convince her to come with me, walk into the church, hand in hand. Hell, she could walk ten feet in front of me, wouldn't matter. Just needed to know those blue eyes were out there watching me.
I stood frozen, one foot glued to the ground, the other still inside my car, arms perched over the top of my door. Move, jackass. Move. It's now or never.
I was about to call her name, when a stout, older woman, waddled onto the porch with a knitting bag over her shoulder.
"Thank you, Marion," Slade shouted, tickling and kissing the little shit in her arms.
"Any time, sweetie." The woman carefully maneuvered the steps and shouted a goodbye before cutting through the neglected lawn toward the house next door.
Slade pushed to her feet, grabbed the grocery bags, and then finally, her gaze fell on me. Those eyes. Those fucking eyes. My crack. Lighting me up from head to toe. I lifted a hand, offering a pathetic wave, all confidence lost.
Smile. Smile for me. Please.
Slade's beautiful face dropped, along with her shoulders. She shook her head back and forth in a slow no. Warning me to stay away. Gutting me.
I watched, wrecked beyond comprehension, while her boy opened the door and gestured for her to go in.
"What a gentleman. Thanks, babylove," she said, glancing back at me one more time before disappearing behind the door.
Babylove. Bile rose in my throat. I hadn't heard or spoken that word since the day I walked out of her life, a hotheaded, selfish coward. My pet name for Slade. An endearment she shared with her son, as if it had never been special, had never meant anything to her at all.
Like I'd taken a punch to the gut, I crumpled into my seat, and closed the door. Deflated. Disgusted. Dangerously close to losing my shit.
"Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck," I roared, pounding the steering wheel, releasing the rage before it could boil over. "Babylove," I grumbled, testing the name. My tongue soured.
I revved the engine, and rolled down the street, away from the only girl I’d ever loved.
* * *
The only man I’d ever loved. Parked on my street. In front of my house. Waving hello like he'd only just returned from a trip to the corner gas station. Was he insane? Had he forgotten that he'd shattered me into a million pieces, then disappeared? For six years.
Ouch. I knew there was a chance I'd see him while he was home for the funeral. I'd no idea it would kill me. And it was killing me.
I stood with my back pressed to the door, struggling to breathe, eyes closed tight to keep the tears at bay, fighting a tidal wave of nausea.
He can't hurt you again.
Tango Rossi had broken me. With time, I'd glued the shattered pieces back together. Some of them had fit. Some hadn't. I'd stuck them together anyway, a morbid, mosaic human sculpture. I was happy with the outcome.
My mom used to say that the glue we used to repair our broken hearts made us stronger. I'd always believed her, because no matter what, Mom had always held her head high, always smiled through the pain, and loved harder than anyone I knew. Of course, Mom had suffered a new broken heart every week, and her glue had come from a bottle filled with eighty-proof liquid.
What she'd failed to mention, what became painfully obvious while I trembled against my front door, was that glue was useless against the very thing that broke you in the first place. I was living proof. Because after seeing Tango's face, my put-together pieces were crumbling to the floor one by one.
For the first time in my life, part of me—well, most of me … okay, a tiny bit of me—wished he'd never existed. The knot in my stomach, formed of nostalgia and worry, wreaked havoc on my sanity.
I glanced at the time. The funeral would start soon. Had he expected me to attend? It made no sense. But why else would he have come to my home?
"C'mon, Mom." Rocky pulled on my pinky finger.
Rocky. My glue. The reason I could never break again. I shook my head, hoping to clear the image of Tango's face from my thoughts, and forced myself to follow my son into the kitchen.
"Marion made a pancake stack," Rocky shouted and jumped into his chair, eyes wider than the sticky, buttery heap piled in front of him. The boy rarely ate more than two pancakes, but Marion loved cooking for Rocky, and insisted that pancakes weren't pancakes unless they were piled at least ten high.
"She did?" I asked, shoving milk and yogurt into the fridge. "Think you can eat the whole thing?"
He nodded and stabbed his fork into the fluffy pile.
I reached for the cupboard to grab a coffee mug, unnerved by the tremble in my hands. After filling my cup, I sat next to my beautiful boy and stared long and hard at his brilliant green eyes. The color, a tad darker than his father's, should've haunted me, but instead offered a solace I hadn't experienced in years. "Have you danced today, babylove?"
"No, Mom. I waited for you," he mumbled with a mouth full of flapjack.
God, I loved my kid. My heart swelled. I scooped him into my arms, sticky face and all, and spun around the kitchen to the tune he hummed. Together we jumped, shimmied, wiggled, and laughed. We never let a day go by without dancing together, even if for only a few, short seconds on the kitchen floor. Breathless, but happy, Rocky climbed back into his seat.
For the first time in ages, I wished I didn't have a business to run. I'd given my waitresses the day off for Marta Rossi's memorial service. They had both attended her dance classes for over two years. They adored her. Everyone did. Everyone but me.
"Mommy?" Rocky reached for the syrup bottle. I snatched it before he made contact.
"No more. That's too much sugar. I need you on your best behavior today. You have to help me at work."
"I do?" He bounced in his chair, and, just like that, the pancakes were ancient history and Rocky was all business, hands to hips, brows pinched. "How come? I thought you didn't like to bring me with you."
"Sweetie, I love having you with me. It just isn't right to make you hang out for the whole day." Truth was, I enjoyed bringing my son to work. The older patrons loved him. The younger crowd treated him as one of their own. Those my age, the people I'd gone to school with, those who knew my history, they made me wary. Six years had passed, and I still heard the occasional whispers and taunts. People believed I had done something to run Tango out of town.
"Biker whore," was the most common term I'd heard whispered. I could handle it, but I sure as hell didn't want Rocky asking questions. Besides, the rumors were far less damaging than the truth.
"But I like playing at The Stop. Especially when I get to help."
"Honey, today shouldn't be too busy. Tucker said he'd stop by and pick you up later this afternoon. Take you fishing. That sound good?"
Rocky squealed and trotted down the hall. "Fishing! I'm gonna catch the biggest one this time."
I sighed and gulped my coffee before cleaning our breakfast mess. I wondered what Tango would wear for the funeral. A nice suit? Maybe a dress shirt and slacks? Would he cry at the service? I hadn't shed a tear for his mother. That fact saddened me more than her passing. I'd known her my whole life. I should've wanted to mourn. I just didn't have it in me to care about someone who'd turned on me the second her son left town.
The last time I had laid eyes on Tango, he’d worn a suit. A brand name label that had cost over a grand. I'd saved my tips for two years to buy a dress. It was pretty, but might as well have been a burlap sack next to Tango's designer threads.
I shivered at the memory of that night. The one and only time I’d worn heels. The last time I’d worn my three-hundred-dollar dress. The night I’d learned the toughest lessons in love. Boys would break you, and even the best of friends couldn’t be trusted.
I shook away the unpleasant thoughts, pushed START on the dishwasher, and headed upstairs to find my uniform.
"Mom!" Rocky shouted from his room. "Where's my work shirt? I can't find it."
"Did you look in your shirt drawer?" I snickered and pulled my own red tee over my head. The words "truck stop" lay in bold, white font over my left breast. The back of the shirt bore a vintage photo of the building, in its prime, when the diner was an actual truck stop, before the new highway was built, directing traffic around town instead of through it.
"I can't find it," Rocky whined.
"Honey, look again. On the left side." I wiggled my feet into my Keens, then grabbed my handbag and Rocky's backpack off my bed.
I heard the scrape of his dresser drawer opening. "Oh, there it is."
My son sprinted down the hall, half-dressed, and pulled black high-top Chucks from under my bed. His hair stood thick and tousled atop his head, his face alight with excitement. I stared, in awe, as he tied his laces, then swallowed the lump in my throat. Despite the fact he was the spitting image of his dad, Rocky was, and always would be, mine.
And I would die to protect our secret.
* * *
It was no secret, Mom's cause of death. Intentional overdose. No one, including me, especially me, could wrap their head around the harsh reality of her shameful demise. The woman was stubborn as hell and too damn proud to take her own life.
In the lakeside town of Whisper Springs, Idaho, everyone knew everything about everybody. If you were somebody, as was my mother, Marta Rossi, the town came together, like one big family, to offer support, to make sense of the senseless, to talk, gossip, and celebrate the life of a woman everyone had held in esteem.
Mom looked peaceful, and as beautiful and put together as always, lying in the quilted, champagne silk bedding of her gold-trimmed casket. Trembling, I stepped behind the small oak pulpit and lifted my gaze. The church overflowed with mourners. I scanned the rows of people one last time, slowly, deliberately, checking the face of each and every attendee.
The weight of an anvil pressed on my chest, suffocating me. Slade hadn't come. She didn't fucking show up.
I held the speech I'd written for Mom. Violent tremors shook my hands, making it impossible to read the words. This isn't right, I thought. None of it made sense.
A reassuring hand rested on my shoulder. "Son, would you like a moment?"
I met Pastor Davies in the eye, handed him my wrinkled piece of paper, and cleared the gravel from my throat. "I'm sorry. I can't do this."
He nodded in understanding and waited for me to exit stage left before continuing with the service. I walked past my seat in the front row of pews and made my escape, feeling the sting of pitiful stares. I tuned out the whispers and focused on the stained glass image of Jesus above the hand-carved wooden doors.
Once outside, I loosened my tie and drew a drag of fresh air deep into my lungs. My head spun, my skin buzzed, and I squeezed my eyes closed, forcing images of my dead mother out of my head. On a slow exhale, I lifted my face to the warmth of the sun. God, I'd missed home. Clean air. Quiet, except for the occasional buzz of a critter or chirp of a bird. Blue sky that stretched an eternity.
Twirling my key ring around my index finger, I made my way to the car, fighting the urge to rush back to Slade's house and beg her forgiveness.
Anger rose in my core. Had she avoided the funeral because of me? Six years was a long time to hold a grudge. Then again, six years was a long time to wait for an apology.
The caterers were hard at work when I arrived at Mom's dance studio. The place had been decorated to the hilt. Dad wouldn't have it any other way. The hardwood floor gleamed under the sparkling lights hanging in layered streams across the ceiling. Round tables topped with white cloths, flowers, crystal, and shiny silver lined the walls of the large studio. The French doors opened to the newly rebuilt deck out back. The slate and wood structure stretched halfway across the lawn.
The lake danced and sparkled in the background, beckoning. I made my way through clusters of seating areas to the bar that had been set up at the far end of the property. I helped myself to a bottle of Jack before continuing down the steep set of stairs leading to the beach.
It was early still, but the sun already promised to be a scorcher. I walked to the end of our private dock, stripped down to my boxer briefs, and dove into the cool, soul-cleansing lake. I swam underwater until my lungs protested, then came up for air. Memories flooded my psyche, weighing me down with unbearable guilt.
It seemed a lifetime ago, when Slade appeared out of nowhere, jumped off my dock, and right into my soul. She had nearly drowned. I'd saved her. I'd taught her to swim. We'd shared dances, and kisses, and stories. At the end of our now-refurbished pier was where I'd made her a promise. The promise I’d broken on the night I’d broken Slade, before leaving and never looking back.
What a shithead.
I swam a few laps across our little bay, then pulled myself onto the bleached wood and stretched in the sun. I pulled a long swig of amber liquid from the bottle, and stared across the bay, to the small structure that stood out like a sore thumb above the shoreline of Lake Willow.
The Truck Stop Diner. Its rusted three-tier sign stood high above the tree line. Through a clearing in the tall pines, I could make out the white brick of the building itself.
I swallowed another mouthful of Jack and pretended I could see her inside. Working. Working. Always fucking working, that girl. Smiling without fail.
Dad's canoe butted the side of the dock. I entertained the idea of taking it across the bay, to the small beach below the Truck Stop, but opted to nurse my bottle instead. My insides were beginning to untangle, my thoughts slowly numbing. I hadn't slept in days. Thanks to the peaceful slosh of water, mixed with the massaging fingers of the sun's rays, combined with the warm buzz coursing through my veins, courtesy of Mr. Jack Daniel, I closed my eyes and passed the fuck out.
"That your boat?" she asked, splashing through the water toward me.
"It's a raft. And yeah, it's mine. Come on." I stretched my arm and helped her in.
"Can I steer?"
I snorted. "No."
She reached over and grabbed an oar. "Why?"
"Have you paddled a raft before?" I asked, reclaiming the handle.
She giggled and wrestled a clump of wet hair off her face. "I can't go far. My mom might see."
Her mom wouldn't see. Her mom never noticed when Slade snuck down to the beach.
"No problem. Today, we'll stay on this side of the bay. Next time, I'll take you across to my house."
That made her smile. Her smile made my insides feel weird. But I liked it.
I handed her a lifejacket. "Here, put this on."
"I don't need it. I'm a better swimmer than you."
"You can't be in my raft without it." I looked across the bay. Maria, my nanny, stood on the dock, waving her arms like a freak. I had been warned not to go past our dock. Her voice didn't carry far enough for us to hear, but I knew she was yelling at me, in Spanish, which meant I was in big trouble. "Maria will pop the raft when I get back if we don't wear lifejackets."
Slade looked across the water, laughing when her gaze rested on my nanny. She shook her head, rolling her huge, blue eyes at me. That, too, made my stomach do weird things.
"Fine," she said, grabbing the jacket from my hand. "I'll put it on, but I get to steer."
"Yeah, yeah." I waited for her to adjust her straps, then handed her one oar. "You are not a better swimmer."
"Whatever, Rocky Balboa. I'm pretty much better than you at everything. Except for boxing. Which is fine with me, because hitting people is stupid."
Hitting people was stupid. But it felt good. I'd teach her how to hit people the right way, too. "I'm gonna be better than Rocky ever was."
Slade smiled. "Yeah. You are. You are."
* * *
"There you are," I said, thankful to see his playful grin.
Tucker strode through the diner like he owned the place. Jeez, those blue eyes and moppy blond hair were the perfect accessories to his sun-kissed skin. He'd put on a few pounds since moving to Whisper Springs. He wasn't overweight by any means, but he'd definitely bulked up since I met him over five years ago.
I couldn't help but smile whenever we shared space. Tucker was my best friend, my confidante, the only father-figure Rocky had ever known.
"Rockster!" he yelled, falling to one knee and spreading his arms wide to catch the excited boy barreling toward him like a runaway train.
Their usual greeting consisted of a bear hug, then Tucker hanging Rocky upside down by his ankles. Today was no different.
"Hey, Tuck. I'm ready to catch some fish!" Rocky squealed, his hair dusting the checkered tile. "Mom said I can make a milkshake to-go, do you want one?"
Tucker righted my boy and set him on his feet. "Dude, have I ever turned down a Rocky's Special Peanut Butter Chocolate Shake?"
The boys high-fived, and Rocky hopped to the kitchen. Tucker turned to me, brow raised. "So, loverboy show up yet?"
I pulled the coffee carafe from its dock and shook my head no. The diner only held two guests. I filled their cups and returned to the counter. "Oh, Tuck. I don't think my stomach can handle much more of this. What if he walks in here?"
"You'll be strong. Like you always are." He crossed his arms and glared down at me. "Everyone in town is at the Rossi gathering, where there's free booze and food. Just close early and go home."
"What about Charlie?" I asked. "He can't afford a whole day off." He totally could. I paid him a high-level manager's salary. I just didn't look forward to being alone with my misery.
Tucker's grin stretched ear to ear. "C! Wanna go fishing with me and Rockster? Take the afternoon off?"
Charlie, my cook, and second-hand man, peeked his round, rosy face through the swinging double doors. "Give me twenty to clean up?"
"Hot damn and hell yeah. Gear's already in my truck." Charlie glanced my way with a face full of little boy charm. "That okay with you, boss?"
"Go." I waved him off. "Have fun."
Tucker winked at me and strode to the front door to flip the sign to CLOSED. My guests stood, tossed a few bills on the table, and waved goodbye before slipping out the door.
"Go home. Take a bath. Pop open a bottle of wine and a good book. That's what girls do, right? Read and drink in the tub?"
"Maybe I'll go fishing with you," I teased. I hated fishing. Tucker had dragged me along on a couple of occasions. Both times I’d ruined his trip by stripping down to my undies and jumping in the water. Why be on the lake if you couldn't get wet?
Rocky backed through the double doors with two drippy styrofoam cups. "C'mon Tuck. Let's go."
"Hey, babylove. Go set those down outside, then come back to give me a squeeze."
"’K, Mom." Rocky backed into the door and pushed it open with his butt.
I hugged the burly blond. "Thanks, again. Don't know what I'd do without you."
Tucker stepped back and held me at arms’ length. "I got a call from Dad this morning. He suggested I bring you guys along on my visit. I know you can't get away, but would you consider letting me bring Rockster? He's the closest thing to a real grandchild my mom's ever gonna get."
A dull pain settled in my chest. Thanks to a freak accident, that he refused to discuss, Tucker would never be able to father children. It also left him horribly scarred in the one place most men are proud of. I'd always suspected that was the reason he didn't date.
I'd never been away from Rocky for more than a day, but I did adore Tucker's parents, Lettie and James. They spoiled Rocky, like I'd always imagined a grandma and grandpa would. Plus, for the first time since he was born, letting him out of my sight, sending him out of town, seemed the safest option. Avoiding Tango would be hard enough without having to worry about protecting my boy.
"I'll think about it."
He flashed a knowing smile and hollered for Charlie to meet him outside as Rocky came back in.
"’K, bye Mom." My son wrapped an arm around my thigh and tipped his head to me.
"Oh, no you don't, mister." I squatted to his level. "I need a real, two-arm hug."
His hair tickled my nose when he squeezed me around the neck.
"Be good. I'll see you tonight."
"I will, Mom," he yelled, already halfway through the door.
I watched them drive away before braving a glance across the lake, which was eerily quiet for early July. The Truck Stop sat on twenty acres of lakeside property and boasted a million-dollar view. The gas pumps had been removed years ago, so now the property behind the diner resembled a barren wasteland. Mom had always dreamed of building a small bed and breakfast or roadside hotel on the vacant lot. Life, unfortunately, had other plans.
I could see lights from the Rossi estate across Lake Willow from the front window. No doubt, Marta Rossi's memorial would be a full-blown celebration. Everyone would dance, and drink, and share stories of Marta's generosity, her grace, her philanthropy. I knew the monster behind the mask. I hated her, but I refused to dwell on the negative.
I pictured Tango dancing, taking turns with the ladies, giving everyone a quick spin across the floor. I wanted to join the party, pretend I belonged there, to feel his arms around me one more time.
Instead, I locked myself in the diner, pulled the shades, cut the lights, cranked the stereo, and danced alone. I shook my moneymaker across the dining area, through the kitchen, and back to the counter. Then shit got real, and I jumped on top of the bar. I danced and sang into a spatula until I had no breath.
It was silly and immature, but I didn't give a flying frog’s ass. I'd had to grow up too fast when Rocky came along. Who could blame me for unleashing the inner child once in a while?
Dancing was a great stress reliever, and heaven knows I needed to decompress. The threat of running into Tango while he was in town had my intestines tangled in knots.
After wiping the counter again, I headed to my office. Just before I sat down to tackle bills, I heard the front door of the diner rattle. I peeked my head around the corner. All I could make out through the uncovered bottom of the glass were a pair of thick-soled, black boots. Whoever it was shook the door one last time and stomped away.
I had never closed early. Guilt settled in my gut, until I heard the terrifying roar of a motorcycle. Sounded like a large bike. The engine was loud enough to rattle the window. Whoever was driving the beast circled the diner twice before driving away. Nerve-rattling fear froze my limbs.
It's not them. It's not them. They can't hurt my son.
Motorcycles were everywhere, I reminded myself. It meant nothing. I decided to leave my paperwork for the next morning and headed home, double-checking the locks before I left.