Read Can't Stand the Heat? Online
Authors: Margaret Watson
Tags: #Going Back
Walker took another look at the kid. His shaggy blond hair framed a face that was a mix of child and adult. He was all arms and legs, and his green eyes caught Walker’s attention. The kid looked familiar. As if Walker had seen him before. Which was impossible, since he hadn’t been back here in more than ten years.
He must be the son of someone Walker had known back then.
Paul, the other groomsman, the guy with the thousand-dollar suit and the ponytail, walked up to the buffet, saving Walker from the odd impulse to ask the kid his name. “What’s good, Nick?” he asked.
“Everything, Mr. Black. My mom’s an awesome cook.”
Nice. Not many teens would compliment their mother in public. Walker tasted a stuffed mushroom as he wandered off, and raised his eyebrows. The boy was right. She was a great cook.
Walker glanced at his watch. Close to 5:00 p.m. If he left now, he could make it back to Chicago tonight.
He could stop by the cemetery to finally visit his father’s grave at long last, on his way out of town.
As he headed for the door of the ballroom, Quinn hurried over. “You’re not leaving, are you?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I have to get back for a meeting tomorrow.”
“On a Sunday?” The groom raised his eyebrows, and Walker shrugged.
“Busted. There’s no meeting. But I’m guessing you and Maddie are going to be busy for a while.”
Quinn glanced over to where his bride was talking to a group of friends. “Yeah, we’ll be busy,” he said softly. “But we’re not going anywhere. We just reopened the pub and we have to work.”
“You’re going back to work? Tomorrow? Instead of taking a honeymoon?”
“A honeymoon is a state of mind, Barnes,” he said, still watching his wife.
Walker would have said the poor fool was whipped. But Maddie got the same expression on her face when she looked at her new husband.
“I’m happy for you guys. Really I am. But I’m going to go.”
“You can’t. There’s more wedding stuff Maddie wants to do.”
“Like what? You said ‘I do,’ we toasted you, pictures were taken, we ate. What else is there?”
“You need to rein in those romantic tendencies of yours, Barnes.” Quinn clapped him on the back. “We have more pictures to take.”
As Walker reluctantly followed his friend, he spotted Jen in the group around Maddie.
No, he wasn’t that.
He’d been shocked to see Jen in the church. He’d never expected to see her again. Never wanted to. Now, he couldn’t help noticing that her blond hair wasn’t as bright as it used to be, or as long. It was still curly, though, and she still wore it in a ponytail. She looked tired, but she was even curvier than she’d been in high school. And just as beautiful. People milled around her, but Jen was the only one he noticed.
All the feelings he’d forgotten for so long came surging back—his stupid infatuation with her, how gullible he’d been when she’d pleaded for a favor.
The sex she’d used to pay him for it.
The despair he’d felt when his escape from Otter Tail had been cut off.
Apparently he hadn’t forgotten about Jen, after all.
Did she even remember what she’d done to him? And where was Tony? They’d been inseparable in high school. Except for that one memorable episode in the janitor’s closet.
As if she sensed his approach, Jen looked up and stilled. Her gaze locked on his, and he saw a jumble of emotions cross her face.
So she hadn’t forgotten.
“I need some pictures.” Maddie herded them toward the flowers massed at the end of the table holding the cake. “Then I’ll cut the cake and we can finally dance.”
He could finally leave.
He followed the photographer’s directions dutifully, standing with her and Quinn, with the other attendants, with Quinn by himself. Then Maddie said, “Paul? Delaney? How about one of you two?”
The man in the expensive suit draped his arm over the short blonde’s shoulders, and they grinned at the camera. Walker looked at Jen and found her gazing at him. She quickly glanced away.
He hoped Maddie didn’t expect him to get chummy with Jen. That wasn’t going to happen.
Although she was a knockout in the black, low-cut dress. She’d pulled her hair out of the ponytail and it fell in waves to her shoulders. He’d always had a soft spot for blondes in black dresses. He had very fond memories of Barb in a low-cut black dress at the gala they’d attended last week.
She drew in a deep, shaky breath that emphasized her cleavage. He reminded himself that he wasn’t interested in how well she filled out the dress.
“It’s been a long time, Jen,” he said.
“It has. How are you?”
“I’m good.” He would be even better when he was back home in Chicago. “How’s Tony?” he asked.
She slid her right hand over her left. “He’s here, so you can ask him yourself.”
He grabbed a cup of punch from the cake table and handed it to her. When she reached for it, he saw she wasn’t wearing a ring.
“Are you guys divorced?”
She dropped her hand. “Yes.”
“Sorry to hear that.” He set the cup back on the table.
“Are you?” Her voice was so quiet he could barely hear her above the crowd noise. Had she even meant to speak out loud?
“Any kids?” Walker tried not to grimace as he spoke. This was his definition of hell—making polite conversation with Jen.
“Two sons.” Her expression softened. “That’s Tommy,” she said, pointing to a dark-haired boy dodging among the guests, chasing another kid.
He was the image of Tony, who was trying to corral him. “Cute.”
Maddie was laughing at something the other attendants were saying.
Let’s move this along so I can get out of here.
Tony walked up to Jen just then, his face red, his jaw clenched. “He’s out of control.”
“That’s because you let him have three cupcakes,” she retorted. She bit her lip and said, “Tony, you remember Walker Barnes.”
Tony stared at Walker. “Hey. How’s it going?”
“Just great,” he said. “How about you?”
The uncomfortable silence stretched too long. Might as well make it worse. “How did the baseball thing work out for you?”
Tony clenched his hands into fists. “I played in the minors for a few years until I blew out my shoulder. I was on track to be called up when it happened.”
“That’s too bad,” Walker said. “What are you doing now?”
“I’m a cop.” He looked Walker up and down, his gaze lingering on his shoes. “How about you?”
“I write video games.”
“Yeah?” His expression said it was too bad the job didn’t pay him enough to afford a pair of dress shoes.
Walker smiled. “You a cop here in Otter Tail?”
“Walker, Jen, it’s your turn,” Maddie called.
He nodded at Tony and walked to the spot the other couple had vacated. Jen moved next to him, standing stiff and straight, staying as far away as she could.
“Can you two at least act as if you like each other?” the photographer called.
They both shifted an inch. “A little more,” she said, peering through the viewfinder.
Jen’s arm brushed the sleeve of his coat, and she twitched away, as if she couldn’t bear touching him. That did it. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and tugged her against him.
“How about this?” he asked the photographer.
“Perfect.” She beamed.
Jen strained away from him, but he held on to her and kept smiling. She was pinned to his side, her shoulder digging into his ribs. When she shifted her leg so their thighs weren’t touching, he tightened his grip. Her skin was silky smooth and the muscles tensing beneath his fingers were surprisingly strong.
“You didn’t introduce me to your other son,” he said softly, still smiling at the camera. He hadn’t seen another Tony clone running around.
“I’m not sure where he is.”
“He didn’t come to the wedding?”
She tried to move away again. “He was helping me serve the food. When we were done, he disappeared into some corner with his friends. Teenage boys don’t hang around their parents.”
“You made the food?”
“It was really good.” He squeezed her arm, and smiled when she flinched and tried to pull away.
His smile faded as her hair fluttered around her shoulders. It still smelled like lemons. He’d dreamed of lemons after that interlude in the closet. “You’re a woman of hidden talents, aren’t you?”
“Let go of me right now or I’m going to hurt you,” she said through clenched teeth as she continued to smile.
“Maddie wants pictures. We need to make nice for the camera.”
“Maddie’s gotten all the pictures she’s going to get.” Jen jerked free, and this time he let her go. Her momentum made her stumble, but she caught herself quickly.
He watched her retreat, his gaze lingering on the sway of her hips in her snug dress. Who knew it would be so much fun to torment Jen Summers?
An older couple stopped her and said something, and her shoulders relaxed. Then another woman came by and smiled. Jen had a lot of friends in town. She was still the popular girl.
And he was still the outsider. But this time he was more than happy to keep it that way.
“It wouldn’t kill you to stick around for a couple more days,” Quinn said quietly at his elbow. “You haven’t even seen our pub.”
“I’m sure it’s a great pub. But there are too many memories in this town for me, and none of them are good,” he replied.
“So make some new ones. It’s not a bad place, Walker.”
“What’s the point?”
“Friendship, maybe?” Quinn said. “We can’t get to Chicago for a while. And I know damn well you’re not coming back here.”
“Not until your first kid is baptized,” he answered. “So you and Maddie better get busy if you want to see me again.”
“Suit yourself. Just say goodbye before you leave.”
Quinn headed toward Maddie, as if they were attached by a giant rubber band. If they got too far apart, it pulled them back together.
Was Barb tugging him back to Chicago? Of course she was. Especially if she wore that black dress again the next time they went out.
Walker’s footsteps slowed as he went to the door. The sky was darkening outside the ballroom windows, and in a few minutes it would be too late to visit the cemetery. It wouldn’t kill him to stay the night.
He’d slept in worse places than the Bide-a-Wee Motel. The business he needed to attend to could wait another day. If he stayed, his conscience would stop nagging him about visiting his father’s grave.
And Barb would still be there tomorrow.
As he stood in the doorway, he spotted the kid from the buffet table with two boys about his age, and once again was struck by the sense of familiarity. As if he
him. Then he remembered what Jen had said—that her other son had helped her serve the food.
was Jen’s son? He looked nothing like his brother. Or Tony. He had Jen’s blond hair, but that was the only resemblance Walker saw.
As he watched, Jen’s son elbowed one of the other boys and grinned. Walker sucked in a breath. It was like looking at a picture of his father as a teen.
“You’re still here.” Quinn’s voice.
Walker continued to stare at the boy. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to stick around for a while.”
Asking about her.
Jen knew, because Maddie had come into the pub kitchen at least three times, reminding her to join them after she closed up.
Yeah, as if that was going to happen.
She’d left through the back door and gotten Jorge, the dishwasher, to lock it behind her.
Did sneaking away make her a coward?
Hell, no. It made her smart. Strong. In charge of herself.
All she wanted to do was forget about Walker Barnes. Again. Put him out of her mind and get on with her life. Eventually, she wouldn’t even remember he’d been at the wedding.
It couldn’t happen soon enough. He’d already cost her two nights’ sleep.
He wouldn’t cost her a third. He had to be gone. It was Tuesday afternoon, so he’d already missed at least one day of work.
He’d probably left Otter Tail after the pub closed last night and headed back to wherever he lived. She hadn’t asked. She hadn’t wanted to know.
“Tommy! Nick! Where are you?” she yelled. Her mother, who was standing at the sink, raised her eyebrows, and Jen shrugged.
She jerked the laces of her softball shoes a little tighter. Why weren’t either of her sons ready to go? She was the coach. She couldn’t be late to baseball practice.
“I have to do homework,” Nick answered.
“This isn’t negotiable. You know that.” Jen poked her head into the dining room, where her older son was lounging against the computer desk, playing his handheld video game.
He scowled as he straightened. “This is totally lame.”
“Lame or not, you’re going to run while I’m at Tommy’s baseball practice. That’s the deal. It’s been the deal since the season started. So put your running shoes on.”
He stared at her for a long moment, then grabbed his shoes and walked, barefoot, out to the car. As she watched him, her younger son dashed into the room, holding his bat and mitt. “Ready, Mom.”
“Where’s your water bottle, honey?”
“Oops.” Tommy dropped his equipment and rummaged in a cabinet.
“I’ll get it, Tommy,” Jen’s mom said. “You get your things together for practice.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Jen said as she stood up. “And thanks for starting dinner.”
“You’re a much better cook than I am, Jen. But I still know how to put a meal on the table.”
Jen kissed her mom’s cheek, then yanked open the door and headed for the car.
Her head was pounding. Running around outside with a bunch of eleven-year-olds was exactly what she needed.
Nick was already in the back when she got into the car, and she sighed. She never would have imagined missing the days when Nick and Tommy fought over who got to ride in front. Now, at fifteen years old, Nick preferred the backseat, where he could play his video games, listen to his music and pretend he couldn’t hear her.
Tommy ran out of the house, his water bottle clutched in one hand and his gear in the other. “Shotgun!” he shouted as he scrambled into the car.
“Big whoop-di-doo,” Nick said. “Shotgun is for losers.”
Tommy knelt on the seat to face his brother. “You’re just mad because Mom is making you come to my practice and run.”
“Shut up, butthead.” Nick jammed earbuds into his ears and turned on his mp3 player.
“Stop it, both of you.” Jen closed her eyes for a moment. “Tommy, turn around and put on your seat belt. Nick, don’t talk to your brother like that.” She threw the car into gear and backed out of the driveway.
By the time they reached the park, she’d managed to calm herself, lost in her thoughts. Catering the wedding had been the first step. She’d needed to see how she handled cooking for a lot of people all at once.
She’d handled it just fine. Several people at the wedding had told her they were going to try her menu at the Harp. One of Maddie’s friends from Sturgeon Falls had tentatively hired her to cater a party.
Which was great, but Jen didn’t want a career as a caterer. She wanted to open her own restaurant. She just needed more money first.
Tommy jumped out of the car and ran to the handful of boys already standing on the baseball diamond. Nick pretended he didn’t know they’d arrived.
When she turned around, he reluctantly put the game on the car seat. “Get it over with,” she said gently. “Pretend it was your idea. All of Tommy’s friends think you’re cool.” She smiled at him. “Next time, I bet some of them will run with you.”
He snorted, but pulled his shoes on and got out, then began jogging the perimeter of the field.
As she watched him run, his white headphone wires bouncing, his stiff, resentful posture gradually relaxed. Nick had refused to get involved in any organized sports this year. All he wanted to do was play video games and sit at the computer. Tony had pitched a fit, but Jen knew Nick had always hated organized sports. He’d only played soccer and baseball to get his father’s approval.
So she’d made him a deal. He could drop the sports, but he needed exercise. He would come to every baseball practice and game with her and Tommy, and he’d run. When he’d gone three miles, he could play his video games and have access to the computer.
No one ever told you that parenting was a series of compromises. That it required the negotiation skills of a lawyer and the patience of a saint.
She was becoming an expert at the negotiation part.
Slamming the door shut, she hoisted the bag of bats and balls over her shoulder. The boys were chasing one another around home plate. “Okay, guys, let’s get started.”