Read Can't Stand the Heat? Online

Authors: Margaret Watson

Tags: #Going Back

Can't Stand the Heat? (4 page)

J
EN SLUMPED ONTO THE COUCH
and let the bat fall to the floor. Oh, my God. Where had he gotten that idea?
She reached for a throw pillow and clutched it to her chest. Even through the heavy fabric and stuffing, her heart thundered against her hands. She closed her eyes to hold back the nausea.

“What the hell were you doing?” Nick yelled from the doorway to the basement.

The pillow dropped to the floor as she jumped to her feet. “I told you to stay downstairs.” Had he heard any of the conversation?

“I heard yelling. I saw you swinging that bat at Walker’s head. What is the matter with you?”

“I did not swing at him.” She would have, though. She wouldn’t have hesitated if he tried to get through her to Nick. “He just needed a little incentive to leave.”

“Mom! Are you out of your frigging mind?” Nick shoved his hands through his hair, leaving it sticking out. “Do you have any idea who that is?”

“Of course I do.” She picked up the bat and set it carefully with the rest of Tommy’s equipment.

“Walker Barnes! At my house! And my crazy mother takes a baseball bat to him.” He yanked open the door and ran across the porch to the storm door, peering outside. “Where did he go?”

“Back to where he came from, I hope.” She pressed her hands to her hot cheeks. “Why do you care? And how do you know who he is?”

“Why do I care?” He swung around to face her, and she saw tears glistening in his eyes. “Walker
frigging
Barnes. The owner of GeekBoy. The genius who designed my favorite video games. He was
in my house,
and you chased him away with a baseball bat.”

“Wait. What do you mean, he
owns
GeekBoy?” He’d told Tony he wrote video games.

“He started it ages ago. After his first game hit big,” Nick said impatiently.

GeekBoy. Her stomach rolled. That was a huge company. They had a big display of games in every electronics store. She should know—she’d bought most of them for Nick.

Walker would have buckets of money. She couldn’t just dismiss him as a crazy man. Money meant lawyers. Questions. Publicity. It wouldn’t matter that he was wrong. Everyone would find out what he thought. Including Nick and Tony.

“Are you sure that’s who he was?”

“His picture is on GeekBoy’s Web site,” Nick said. He rolled his eyes as if she was an idiot for not knowing. “He’s in all the magazines. I was going to ask him about his newest game, but now he’ll never want to talk to me.” He punched the wall. “God! He’ll think I’m a total freak. Way to go, Mom.”

Tommy came running into the room. “What’s going on? Why are you yelling?”

“The guy who owns GeekBoy was here.” Nick turned to his brother. “And Mom swung your baseball bat at him. Like she was gonna knock his head off.”

“Whoa.” He picked up the bat and looked it over. “Dude, that’s major.”

Jen rubbed her suddenly pounding temples. The next time Nick told the story, she would have sent Walker’s head rolling down the front steps. “Settle down. Both of you. Nick, stay away from Walker. You are not to go looking for him. Are you clear on that?”

He stared at her, mutinous, his face flushed.

“Nick?”

“No, I’m not clear on that. I
hate
you. You ruin
everything.
” He ran down the steps. The floor beneath her shook when he slammed his bedroom door in the basement.

“He’s really mad,” Tommy said after a moment.

“He’ll get over it.” She hoped.

“I don’t know.” Tommy turned to her, and she read his accusation. “He, like, worships that guy. Nick talks about him all the time, about how he’s going to write video games, too.” He shook his head. “Sucks to be you, Mom.”

He went downstairs and she heard him saying something to Nick through the door.

At least she’d managed to unite her boys. Against her.

She fell onto the couch, curled into a ball and wrapped her arms around herself. She couldn’t stop shivering. Why would he suddenly want to be a parent to a boy he didn’t know?

How could he think he was Nick’s father? What reason could he have?

She’d been careful. They’d used a condom. Nick was
Tony’s
son.

Wasn’t he?

Yes
. It had never occurred to her that Walker might have made her pregnant. It couldn’t be true. He was just trying to get even with her for what she’d done in high school.

Would he talk to Nick? God, no.
Don’t let him do that to my baby.
Don’t let a few casual words bring Nick’s world crashing down.

The Walker she remembered wouldn’t let this go. In high school, he’d asked a million questions in class. When he got his teeth into a problem, he wouldn’t give up until he’d solved it.

If he really believed Nick was his son, he’d be relentless.

No. He was just playing with her. Punishing her. He’d certainly enjoyed tormenting her at the wedding.

She took a deep, shuddering breath and tossed the pillow on the floor. If he was only trying to make her suffer, she could survive. She’d become an expert at surviving.

He would have to leave town eventually. According to Nick, Walker had a company to run.

As she replaced the pillow on the couch and picked up Tommy’s baseball equipment, the smell of something burning drifted out of her kitchen.

The duck. Her test recipe.

Smoke billowed from the oven when she opened the door and pulled out a blackened, shrunken bird. She tossed it in the sink. The perfect way to wrap up her day.

W
ALKER’S
P
ORSCHE ROCKED
as he slammed on the brakes in the parking lot of the tiny county park. As soon as he turned off the engine, he heard the rhythmic sound of waves rolling onto the shore. He shoved his hands into his pockets and stepped onto the grassy strip between asphalt and sand. Ten steps took him to the beach.
His shoes filled with sand as he headed toward the water, shivering against the sharp wind blowing off the lake. He wasn’t dressed for the beach in April.

The water was a sullen, choppy gray. Whitecaps broke away from the shore, then curled onto the beach. A piece of driftwood tumbled in with the next wave, dripping with green strands of seaweed. He picked it up and hurled it as far as he could into the lake. He spotted another piece farther down and threw that one, too.

He’d handled it all wrong. Handled Jen all wrong. Of course she’d chased him out of her house. The palm-size rock he threw landed with a splash. He’d told her he was going to fight her for her son.

He’d been too angry to think rationally. Her son—Nick—wasn’t a commodity. A toy to be passed around, played with, then handed back. Did he really want to be a father? To take on the responsibility of a teenage boy? Or did he just want to punish Jen?

What made him think he could be a father, anyway?

His own father hadn’t been such a great role model. Instead of trying to help his son succeed, he’d tried to force him to stay in Otter Tail and take over the fishing boat. Even when he knew Walker hated that life.

Another rock went into the lake. Another piece of driftwood. Walker threw until he couldn’t see any more wood on the shore. Until his shoulder burned and ached. Then he dropped onto the cold sand.

He hadn’t gotten where he was by letting emotion cloud his thinking. A smart man would gather proof before confronting Jen. Before deciding he wanted to give up his carefree, single lifestyle to be responsible for a teenage boy. A son.

What
would
he do if it turned out Nick was his son?

CHAPTER FIVE
T
HREE DAYS
.
That’s how long it had been since the scene at Jen’s house, and he hadn’t found the pictures of himself as a toddler—the ones he needed as proof that he could be Nick’s dad. He hadn’t been able to get hold of the woman who’d cleaned out his parents’ house and put the contents into storage after his father died. His mother had died five years earlier and he hadn’t been back to the house since.

The sun beat down on Walker’s back and reflected off the asphalt as he strained to pedal up the last hill before Otter Tail. When he reached the top, he yanked the plastic bottle from its wire holder and squirted a stream of lukewarm water into his mouth.

He’d biked to the edge of exhaustion, but it hadn’t erased the image of Nick from his mind. The smile that could have been his father’s. His green eyes.

He shoved the water bottle back in place and kicked off the pavement, dislodging a landslide of tiny pebbles. He’d gone to the Harp every night since that confrontation. She’d been there, working, but she’d managed to avoid him.

Not tonight. He’d acted out of rage when he’d threatened to confront Nick. Something he never did.

Now he had to fix it.

The first houses appeared on the outskirts of town, and he realized he needed to slow down. The bike skidded as he braked, and he struggled to control it while watching for approaching cars. It was only April, but the tourists were arriving. He’d better get Jen out of his head and pay attention, because people took that curve way too fast.

As he rode slowly through town, he pedaled past a park with a baseball field. There was a crowd gathered, and adults were playing. A kid with blond hair, wearing earbuds, leaned against a brown car. Jen’s beater.

Nick.

Walker slid to a halt and saw that he was playing a video game. On a handheld GeekBoy.

Walker swallowed, the black-and-red of the console blurring. Why was he so surprised? Why was his heart suddenly pounding? They’d sold millions of those units. He’d seen lots of kids using them before today.

A piece of plastic and metal looked a lot different when it was your own kid with it. Or someone who
might
be your kid, anyway.

What did Nick think of it? Did he like it? Were there things he would change?

You don’t know for sure he’s your son.

Nick glanced up from the game, and his eyes widened. He yanked out the earbuds. Music with a heavy bass beat blared as they dangled in his fist. “Mr. Barnes! Uh, hi!” He glanced toward the diamond, then wiped his hand on his jeans. “You, uh, remember me?”

“Of course I do.”
Play it cool. Casual.
“How do you like the unit?” He nodded at the handheld.

“It rocks. I got it for my birthday.”

Walker’s hands tightened on his handlebars. They’d just released that model the previous Christmas. “Yeah? So how long have you had it?”

“Since February.”

February. That would have been almost nine months after Jen’s little seduction scene.

“Uh, are you okay?” Nick was shifting his gaze between Walker and the baseball diamond.

“I’m fine.” The bike was suddenly too heavy, and he dropped it onto the grass. “A little shaky and sweaty right now.”

“I mean about the other day,” Nick said in a rush. “My mom was scary, man. She didn’t mean anything she said. You know? She gets weird sometimes.”

“Did you…hear everything we said?”

“Well, no. But I saw her with the bat. Wow.”

“It’s okay. That was between your mom and me.” He noticed the boy’s running gear, and nodded at the baseball diamond. “Are you playing ball?”

Nick reddened. “No, that’s my mom’s deal. But she, uh, likes it when I come to her games.”

Walker followed his gaze and saw Jen, wearing baggy shorts and a faded black T-shirt, pitching to an overweight man at the plate.

She threw the ball in a smooth motion, the stretch of her body emphasizing her sleek muscles, and the man at the plate spun around as he tried to hit it. Jen had pitched for the softball team in high school. It looked as if she was still pretty good.

“It’s nice of you to support her.” Walker struggled to keep from smiling. He wasn’t so far removed from his teenage years to know that a kid Nick’s age would rather die than come to his mother’s baseball game voluntarily. “So does she play often?”

“Every Saturday morning.”

The man at the plate had struck out, and a woman was up to bat. She hit a ball that dribbled toward second base, and the man trying to field it bobbled it awkwardly. Jen yelled something at him, then turned to face the next batter. Her T-shirt was damp, and it clung to her curves. “Nobody else on the team looks as if they know what they’re doing.”

Nick snorted. “They don’t.” He shoved the mp3 player into his pocket and watched the game for a moment, a tiny smile on his face.

“Mom calls this the penalty box for baseball parents. Anyone who yells at a kid or the ump at one of the games she coaches has to sign up for this team. If they don’t, their kid can’t be on her team anymore. She got all the other coaches to do it, too.”

From the fierce satisfaction on Nick’s face, Walker guessed he’d been yelled at while playing baseball. “Interesting idea.”

“It only takes a couple of games for them to apologize,” Nick said. “They find out fast it’s not as easy as it looks.”

“You a baseball player? GeekBoy is developing a game. I could get you a copy, if you like.”

Walker glanced at the field, but Jen apparently hadn’t noticed him talking to Nick. She’d be furious if she did, but she was already furious with him. He was willing to risk her anger to talk to Nick for a few minutes.

“A new game? Sweet.” Nick stared at the field for another moment, and Walker saw the loathing on his face. “I’ll try it out, but I hate baseball.”

“Why’s that? Didn’t your father play baseball?”

Nick clenched his jaw. “Yeah, he did. And he thinks everyone should love it just as much as he does.” He kicked a small rock in the road. “Baseball is for losers. Trying to hit a little ball with a piece of wood is stupid. Standing in the sun, waiting for a ball to come to you, sucks the big one. I like computers better.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty fond of them myself.” Nick’s shoulders relaxed and he grinned. “What kinds of stuff do you like to do on the computer?”

Words spilled out of Nick’s mouth.
C
++.
Java. Visual Basic.
All programming buzzwords. Walker wondered if Nick was trying to create his own games.

“You’re doing some complicated stuff.”

The kid actually blushed. “My computer is pretty old, but I do okay.” He swallowed. “Mr. Barnes, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” Walker tensed. What could he want?

“Do you have a release date for
Sorceress
yet?”

Ah, that he could answer. “Not yet.” He gave Nick the standard response he gave to reporters and columnists. There were still some kinks to be worked out, and this game had to kill for GeekBoy. He’d gambled a lot of money on it.

Then a thought struck Walker. He’d found the perfect excuse to stick around Otter Tail. “I’ll be testing a beta version at the Harp while I’m here. To work out the wrinkles.”

“No way!” Dropping all pretense of coolness, Nick tossed his game console through the car’s open window. “When? I’ll be there. I’ll bring a couple of my buddies, too. We’ll be, like, your early adopters.”

“I’ll let you know when we do it.” All he had to do was get Quinn to agree.

“That’s so hot.” The teen frowned at the baseball players, who were gathered in the center of the field. “That game better be over. I need to tell Dave and Stevie about this.”

As Nick spoke, Walker spotted Jen striding toward them. A streak of mud smeared one of her socks and half her hair had fallen out of her ponytail. The sports bag slung over her shoulder swayed in time with her stride.

Her cheeks were flushed. Her eyes pinned him to the car, and she clenched her hands.

She shoved her hair behind her ear.

“Nick. What’s going on?”

“I was discussing games with Mr. Barnes. He’s going to demo
Sorceress
at the Harp.”

“What’s
Sorceress?

“God, Mom, don’t you know
anything
? GeekBoy has a new game coming out, and he’s going to run it at the Harp. Beta test it. That’s, like, huge.”

“Is that right?” She stared at her son for a moment, and he held her gaze defiantly. “I’m disappointed with you, Nick, and you know why. Go get Tommy so we can leave.”

“Mom! He stopped to talk to me.”

“I don’t care. Go.”

Nick rolled his eyes at Walker, as if inviting him into the “she’s such a loser” club. He strolled toward the playground, taking his time. Jen watched him, her lips tightening, then turned to Walker.

“I told you to stay away from my son. I’m calling the police.”

She dropped the sports bag to the ground, and he heard the hollow sound of wood jostling together. Bats.

He had to remember to not be around her if she had a bat nearby.

When she reached into the bag, he put his palm on her arm to stop her. “Hold on, Jen.

She jerked away from him. “Keep your hands to yourself, Walker.”

She tried to step around him, but he blocked her path. “I need to apologize. I’m sorry. I was completely out of line the other day.”

She stared at him for a long moment. Jen had always been smart. “Fine. You’ve apologized. Now leave before Nick and Tommy get here.”

“I was wrong to threaten you. I lost my temper.” The memory made him grind his teeth. He hardly ever lost control. “I won’t do it again.”

“I don’t care how many times you lose your temper. We won’t be around to see it.”

“God, you’re tough.”

“You have no idea.”

He shoved a hand through his still-damp hair. “Look, Jen, I want to start over. Forget what happened the other day.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to forget that you came to my house, accused me of hiding your child and threatened to tell him you were his father?” She put her fists on her hips. “You think you can charm me stupid? Not a chance.”

“I never thought I could.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I want to find out if Nick is my son. A chance to get to know him if he is.”

“You’re out of your mind. He’s not yours.”

“I need to know that for sure.”

“I know who fathered my child!”

A bead of sweat trickled down her temple, and she wiped it off with the bottom of her T-shirt, revealing a pale crescent of flat belly. Her arm was tanned next to the milky skin of her abdomen, and another drop of sweat rolled down her side.

He couldn’t tear his gaze away.

She hastily dropped her shirt into place.

“I know his birthday is in February.”

She paled. “Just because you have enough money to find out anything you want doesn’t give you the right to pry into our lives. What difference does it make when his birthday is?”

“You’re good at math. I know, because we were in the same classes. Count it out.”

“Once, Walker.” She glanced over her shoulder, clearly looking for her kids. “We had sex once. We used a condom. End of discussion.”

“Condoms fail. And my luck was really crappy that particular day.”

Her cheeks reddened. “Luck had nothing to do with it. Sorry to wreck your tidy little revenge plans, but he’s not yours. Tony and I were having sex. A lot.”

“Are you willing to get a DNA test?”

“No!” She stared at him, appalled. “You’re out of your mind. Nick’s a bright kid. He’ll figure out why you’re doing it.” She grabbed the bag from the ground and tried to throw it into the open window of the car. It slid down and landed in the gutter. “It would change our relationship forever. And his relationship with Tony.”

“I can get a court order.”

“I doubt it. You have no grounds.” She snatched up the bag. “I’d deny anything happened.”

“You’d lie under oath?

“To protect my son? Absolutely.”

“Are you daring me to take you to court?”

She drew a deep breath, and he had a flash of her wearing that low-cut black dress at the wedding.

“I’m not giving him a DNA test.”

“I’ll ask Tony for permission, then.”

She paled again, and the tiny freckles on her nose looked like spots of dark paint. “Don’t you dare go to Tony. Don’t involve him in your craziness.”

“Then agree to the test. Nick doesn’t need to know. Get me some hairs from his brush.”

She glanced at the playground. Nick was leaning against the slide, talking to Tommy.

“What is
wrong
with you? Don’t you have enough going on in your life? Why are you harassing me?”

“Because there’s a chance he’s mine. And I’m not going away until I find out.”

“Then I guess you’re going to be in Otter Tail for a long time.”

“If you don’t want to get Tony involved, then it’s up to you. But I’m going to get to know Nick. And sooner or later, there will be a DNA test.”

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