Read Can't Stand the Heat? Online

Authors: Margaret Watson

Tags: #Going Back

Can't Stand the Heat? (3 page)

A
NOTHER PRACTICE FINISHED
without a disaster or a meltdown.
Miraculous, when you were dealing with eleven-year-olds.

Nick was already in the car, slouching against the door. Jen called to Tommy, “Come on, bud. Grandma’s fixing dinner and I want to help her.” Afterward, she was going to work on a new recipe for duck, and if it worked, she’d add it to her “dishes for the restaurant” file.

Her younger son waved, but kept talking to one of his friends as he walked toward her. Making dinner was supposed to be her contribution to living with her parents. She needed to finish up for her mom.

Finally Tommy reached them. He threw his bag on the floor of the backseat, then climbed into the front. “You promised we could go to Frank’s after practice.”

Damn it. She’d forgotten about that. “Could we do it tomorrow, honey?”

“It won’t take long. I already know what I want.”

She glanced over at her sports-mad son. “Whose card are you buying this time?”

“A-Rod’s,” he told her. “The best player in baseball.”

“Do you have enough money for that?”

“Grandma paid me to dig up the garden. I’ve been saving up for it.”

“Okay,” Jen sighed. “But it has to be quick.”

“It will be,” he said happily. He turned in his seat to face his brother. “Too bad they don’t have computer-game cards.”

Without looking up, Nick said, “Dork.”

Jen pulled to the curb in front of the sports memorabilia shop. “Let’s go, Tommy.”

As he ran into the store, she noticed a going-out-of-business sign in the window. Her interest piqued, she stepped back and looked the place over. This would be a perfect spot for a restaurant. On the main street, right in the middle of downtown.

The bell over the door chimed as she walked in. Tommy was deep in discussion with Frank Jones, and she looked around the shop. The high ceiling was covered with pressed tin, and the walls had a painted wooden wainscoting. The hardwood floor was scratched, but the wood was beautiful.

Too bad Frank couldn’t wait another few months to close. This space was exactly what she wanted.

A blast of cool air rushed in as the door chimed behind her. “Give me a break,” she said as she turned, “he’s almost…”

It wasn’t Nick. “Walker. What are you doing here?”

“I was walking by and saw you. Thought I’d say hello.” He smiled, but it didn’t extend to his eyes.

Walker Barnes was the last thing she needed tonight. “Let’s go, Tommy.”

She maneuvered past Walker and held open the door for her son. She got in the car, waited for Tommy to fasten his seat belt and drove away.

S
HE COULDN’T RUN OUT
the door at her own home.
Walker’s Porsche rolled to a stop in front of a small, tidy house on a quiet street. Quinn had told him Jen was living with her parents. The white two-story with black shutters and an enclosed front porch looked as if it hadn’t changed at all.

Back in high school, he’d driven past her house too many times to count, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. He’d been a stupid kid with a crush on the popular, gorgeous Jen.

What an idiot he’d been.

After high school, he’d thought all Jen Summers had stolen was his ticket out of Otter Tail. After seeing her kid at the wedding, he wondered if she’d stolen something far more precious.

His son.

The slam of his car door echoed in his ears as he climbed the steps to the glassed-in porch and opened the storm door. The macramé plant holder hanging above a wicker love seat held a blue pot with a few dead stems sticking straight up. The floral cushion on the loveseat was faded from the sun, and someone had put a piece of duct tape over a tear in the fabric. A child’s bike lay propped against the wall on the opposite side of the porch, behind two wicker chairs. They looked newer, but a thin film of dust covered all the furniture.

She neglected her parents’ house. So did her parents… How well did they take care of her kids?

He punched the doorbell and waited. A small beater of a car, an ugly brown thing mottled with rust spots, sat in the driveway. The same one she’d driven away from the church in on Saturday. She must be home. He hit the doorbell again.

Finally he heard the sound of footsteps. Moments later, the door opened. Jen’s older son stood there.

His
son?

Walker searched the boy’s face, looking for a clue. Was
his
nose that shape? Were
his
cheekbones that high, that sharp? How did you look at another person and see yourself in his face? If this was his child, shouldn’t he be feeling something? A sense of connection? Of attachment?

All he felt was unnerved. Angry.

Behind thick glasses, the kid’s eyes were green, but not the same green as Walker’s. They narrowed. Did this boy see it, too? The resemblance?

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Is Jen here?”

The kid frowned. “I saw you at the wedding. You had the cool shoes.”

“I’m Walker Barnes. Is she home?”

The kid stared at him. “Walker Barnes? No way.” He took a step closer. “Are you shitting me?”

“Why would I do that?” Walker asked cautiously.

“I mean, are you, like,
the
Walker Barnes? The dude who owns GeekBoy? The guy who wrote
Blade
and
Demonfire
and
Armageddon
? Why would Walker Barnes want to see my mom?”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Gripping the doorjamb, Walker searched Nick’s face again.

He should feel it now. The bond. But he didn’t.

The teen’s eyes had gone huge behind his thick glasses. “Awesome. Man, Davy is going to be sooo bummed he left. Wait until I tell him who he missed.”

Stupid to think he’d feel some mystical link. Or that Nick would. All Nick saw was the guy who’d written his favorite games.

“Could you tell your mom I’m here first?”

“Right. Yeah. Okay. Just a minute.” He started away from the door, then turned back. “Oh, come in. You don’t have to wait on the porch.”

Nick took off, yelling, “Mom! Mom! Come here!”

CHAPTER FOUR
W
ALKER GLANCED AROUND
the living room. A green recliner stood against one wall, and it looked as if it had been there for a while. There was a worn spot on the footrest and a dark stain on the arm of the chair.
The light blue denim couch was newer. A compact disc player trailed headphones onto the floor. He hadn’t seen one of those gadgets in years—everyone he knew had the latest iPod. A computer sat on a small, paper-covered desk between the living room and dining room.

A bat, several baseballs and a catcher’s mitt lay jumbled on the worn carpet.

The place was messy. Lived in. Comfortable.

Worlds away from his tidy, professionally decorated condo. No clutter dared challenge his housekeeper.

Photos stood on a bookcase at the end of the room, and Walker picked up one frame that held at least ten pictures of Nick. School pictures, probably. Had Walker’s mother kept his in a frame, so prominently displayed?

He didn’t remember.

In the first shot, Nick was a child with light blond hair and chubby cheeks, wearing a dress shirt and grinning at the camera.

Eyeglasses had been added three pictures later. By the seventh one, the boy’s hair had gotten darker, and the dress shirt and grin had disappeared. In the last photo, he wore a baggy T-shirt and scowled at the camera.

Ten pictures. All Walker knew about his son’s life.

You’re jumping to conclusions.

Hardly. He hadn’t mistaken that flash of Roy Barnes when Nick smiled.

He heard the brittle sound of wood cracking as the frame separated in his hand. As he was trying to shove the pieces back together, he spotted another photo. Picking it up, he saw it was a professional photograph of a toddler sitting on a blanket—a much younger version of Nick. He wore a T-shirt and overalls and was holding a large ball.

Walker started to set it down, then hesitated. The details were fuzzy in his mind, but the picture looked eerily similar to one his mother had of him.

Probably taken by the same photographer. How many could there be in this tiny town?

He started to slide the photo out of its frame, but heard footsteps in the next room. He shoved it back onto the shelf and moved away just before Jen appeared, followed by Nick. As she paused to set a timer on the dining-room table, Nick tried to move around her.

Jen’s jeans had holes in the knees, and her baggy green sweatshirt said UW Milwaukee. Her face was pale. “Walker.” She rubbed her arms as if she was cold. “What are you doing here?”

“Mom!” Nick interrupted. “Do you know who this is? It’s Walker Barnes. He’s—”

“I know who he is,” she said as she touched the boy’s arm. “Go downstairs and help Grandma with the laundry. Then start your homework.”

The kid flushed. “You can’t send me away like I’m a baby or something. I’m—”

“Nick. Downstairs. Now.”

The boy stared at her for a long moment. Then, with a quick look at Walker, he ran down the stairs. A door slammed moments later.

“What do you want?” Jen’s gaze darted around the room. She nudged the baseball equipment to the side with her foot, and when one ball got away from her, she snatched it up.

“How old is Nick, Jen?”

“Nick? He’s fifteen. Why?” she asked with a puzzled frown.

Fifteen.

It had been almost sixteen years since Jen had led him into that janitor’s closet at the high school. Those few minutes had changed his life forever. Had they also created Nick?

Walker took a step toward her, then stopped himself before he put his hands on her. “Is he mine?”

She frowned. “What? What are you talking about?”

“Nick,” he said, struggling to keep his voice down. “Is he my son?”

She stared at him for a moment as if she hadn’t understood the question, then the baseball fell from her hand, bounced off the table and rolled across the floor. “No! He’s not your son!”

Color leached out of her face as he watched her. Was she really that surprised? She hadn’t even thought it was a possibility? Or had she merely chosen to believe that Tony was the father? At that point, Tony’s prospects had been a hell of a lot better than his. Walker carried the constant stink of a fishing boat on his skin. Tony was headed to the major leagues as a hot pitching prospect.

Tony had been a much better bet as a provider.

“Are you sure?”


Am I sure?
Are you crazy? Of course I am.”

“When is his birthday?”

She glanced at the stairs to the basement, then hurried to the front door. “Out here. I don’t want Nick or my mother to overhear any of this ridiculous conversation.”

Practically pushing Walker out, she followed him onto the enclosed porch and shut the door, then folded her arms.

“When’s his birthday?”

“None of your business.”

“Maybe it is.”

She flung the storm door open. “Get out of here, Walker. Is this why you stuck around? You didn’t have enough fun tormenting me at the wedding? You wanted to dig a little deeper?”

“You think I was tormenting you on Saturday?” He leaned closer and felt a kick of satisfaction when she flinched away. “You haven’t seen anything. If Nick is mine, I’m not going to let it go like I did the last time you screwed me. I’m not going to cover up for you like I did in high school. If he’s my son, I’ll make sure everyone knows. Including Nick.”

She sucked in a breath. Then she shoved him backward. Hard. “Don’t you dare threaten my son, Walker.
My
son. And Tony’s. If this is your idea of a joke, you’re disgusting. Get out of my house and never come back.”

She tried to slam the storm door on him, but he grabbed the handle and held on. “When is his birthday, Jen?”

She turned and ran into the house, and he let the outer door slam as he followed her. Before he could step into the house, she reappeared with the baseball bat.

“We’re done talking.” Holding the bat on her shoulder, she blocked the entrance, guarding her house. Her family. “Go.”

“We’re not done with this, Jen.”

“Oh, yes, we are.”

If he took a step closer, she’d swing that bat at his head. He knew it.

Losing his temper had been a mistake. He hadn’t thought about Jen in years. When he’d run into her at the wedding, he’d had some fun with her. But after seeing Nick, all the fun had vanished, replaced by anger. “Maybe I jumped to conclusions.”

“You think?” She moved her hands on the handle of the bat, and he took a step backward. “Get out, Walker.”

“I’m not going to forget about this.”

“Neither am I.”

Pulling the storm door closed behind him, he watched her in the wavy glass as he backed down the steps. When he reached the sidewalk, she slammed the inner door. Even from outside, he could hear the lock engage.

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