Read Can't Stand the Heat? Online

Authors: Margaret Watson

Tags: #Going Back

Can't Stand the Heat? (7 page)

Her maybe-not-that-far-in-the-future restaurant.

She’d been putting every extra penny in her savings account, but it wasn’t accumulating very quickly. If she waited until she could get a traditional loan from the bank, she’d be gray and arthritic. Too old to stand at a stove for hours.

No. There was a way to make this happen. Pat Larson at the bank had promised to work with her. Nick was already looking for used equipment online. She was going to talk to Frank Jones about renting his store.

Whatever happened, she was done worrying about seeing Walker at the Harp every night. Knowing him, he’d seek her out. Touch her and make it seem like an accident. Press her for a decision.

She’d stay as far away from him as possible.

Under no circumstances would she kiss him again.

It had been three days, and her heart still quickened when she thought about his body pressed against hers. Desire pooled low in her abdomen when she remembered their kiss.

No, there would be no more kisses under the trees in the moonlight.

Gathering up the papers spread out on the kitchen table, she shoved them in the folder and replaced them in the file cabinet in the dining room.

Sooner or later, she realized with a roll of her stomach, she’d have to let him talk to Nick. Get to know him. There wasn’t any alternative, not with his threat to ask Tony for permission to do the DNA testing. That was out of the question; if she gave in, Nick and Tony would eventually find out, no matter how hard she tried to hide it.

Walker was a formidable opponent. He hadn’t built a company like GeekBoy by being a soft touch in negotiations.

But she had an ace up her sleeve, too. What did he know about teens? He’d be too eager, press too hard, and Nick would back away himself. Her moody son didn’t let anyone get too close.

She wouldn’t bring it up, but if Walker asked again, she’d tell him he could talk to Nick. Under her watchful eye. She wasn’t about to leave them alone. Who knew what Walker would say to him?

She might have to give in to his demands, but she would do it her way. Her rules. Not Walker’s.

R
ESTLESS AND UNUSED TO
inactivity, Walker rode his bike down Main Street, headed for the mostly deserted county roads around Otter Tail. He’d have to go back to Chicago for a few days and take care of some business, but until then, he needed to burn off excess energy. Take out his frustrations on the pavement. He bent over the handlebars.
It had been stupid to kiss Jen. There were ten other ways he could have distracted her. Her taste had lingered in his mouth, and her touch feathered across his skin in his dreams.

The wind stung his cheeks like a slap in the face. Exactly what he needed to get his head on straight. He’d talked to one of Mary Haney’s neighbors and found out she spent the winter in Florida. According to her friend, she usually came back to Otter Tail in May.

He couldn’t wait that long. He’d asked his assistant in Chicago to find a phone number for her, and as soon as he had it, he’d give Mary a call and find out what she’d done with the contents of his father’s house.

He was making progress. He’d have that picture soon.

As long as Mary hadn’t thrown it away, like he’d ordered her to do.

Stupid to let his anger at his father cloud his judgment like that.

He was almost out of town when he spotted Nick and two other kids on Main Street. They stood in front of the same sports memorabilia store where he’d seen Jen and her younger son. Nick was talking, and the other two were listening intently.

He wouldn’t have a better excuse to talk to the boy. Nick knew Walker had spotted him last night. It would be natural to ask him about it.

Squeezing his brakes, he rolled to a stop behind the trio. “Hey, Nick.”

The boy looked over his shoulder and his eyes widened. “Uh, hi, Mr. Barnes.” He said something under his breath to the boy and girl, and they took off. Were they the two he’d been with the night before?

“Do I look that scary?” Walker asked.

“Nah. They had to get home. I, uh, I do, too.”

Walker leaned on the handlebars of his bike and watched Nick edge away from him. “What was going on last night?”

The kid rubbed his hands on his jeans and glanced down the street at his fleeing friends. “I was a little past my curfew,” he muttered. “Thanks for not ratting me out, man.”

“Are you going to tell your mom you were out until almost midnight?”

“Sure,” he said warily.

“Think she’ll be upset?”

“Nah. She doesn’t care what I do.”

The boy’s left leg was bouncing, as if he was getting ready to bolt.

“Really? Didn’t seem that way to me. She got pretty pissed at you for talking to me.”

Nick shrugged. “The old stranger-danger thing, you know? She still thinks I’m a baby.”

The kid was quick. “Is that right? Maybe I should ask her.”

Nick licked his lips and looked around wildly. But his friends had disappeared.

“Unless you want to tell me what you were doing.”

He scowled. “It’s none of your business.”

“You’re right. It’s not.” Walker eased onto the leather seat of the bicycle and put one foot on a pedal. “See you later.”

“Wait,” Nick called as he pushed away from the curb.

Setting his feet on the ground, Walker looked over his shoulder and waited. Nick kicked at a rock on the sidewalk.

“All right,” he muttered. He shuffled alongside Walker, who got off his bike to walk with him, his clips clicking on the sidewalk. After a minute, Nick asked, “When are you demo-ing
Sorceress
at the Harp?”

“Not sure yet,” Walker answered. “I have to set that up with Quinn.”

“Are you still, like, designing it?”

“Fine-tuning it.”

“Yeah? I was hoping you’d, maybe, show me what you do.”

“I could.” They were walking past a gas station with a soft-drink machine by the door, and Walker said, “Want something to drink?”

“Cola. Please,” he added.

Nick didn’t say anything more until they reached a park along the Otter River. Skirting the playground, he headed toward a grassy spot on the riverbank. He took a long gulp of soda, and Walker set his bike on the grass and unscrewed the cap of his own sports drink.

The shouts of children on the playground drifted over, and an occasional fishing boat went by, heading toward Lake Michigan. The kid put the bottle on the ground between his feet. “It’s Stevie,” he said abruptly. “Me and Dave go over to her house on Friday and Saturday.”

“Is Stevie the girl who was with you today?”

“Yeah.”

“So why is it such a big secret?”

He blew out a long breath. “Mom won’t let me go to Stevie’s. And Stevie’s parents would shit a brick if they knew we were there.”

“How come?”

Nick glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “You’re not going to tell my mom, right? Because I’m telling you. That’s what you said.”

“I said it depended on what you were doing.”

“That sucks, man.”

“That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”

He jumped to his feet and kicked a large rock into the water. Scowling, he said, “Stevie has to babysit her kid brother on Friday and Saturday night because her parents go out to party. But she’s scared to be there by herself. So me and Dave go over after her brother’s in bed.”

“Can’t she just tell her parents she’s scared, and have them get another sitter?”

“God, no.” He gave Walker a “you’re so lame” look. “Her parents sell weed. They don’t give a shit about Stevie. Once when her parents were gone, someone broke into the house and stole their stash. Stevie and her brother hid in the crawl space behind a bunch of boxes. Adam pissed all over himself.”

Poor kids.
“So now you stay with her while her parents are gone.”

“Yeah. Me and Dave.”

“Sounds like that could be dangerous.”

Nick shrugged. “Stevie’s not alone.”

Walker stretched his legs out in front of him. “So why were the three of you running around last night?”

He blushed. “Her brother wasn’t home. He was having a sleepover.” He picked up another rock and heaved it toward the water. “Some kid who just moved to town. His parents don’t know about the Meltons yet.”

“And…?”

“And nothing. We were goofing off.”

“You’ve done that before.”

He lifted one shoulder. “Sometimes. We like being out when no one knows we’re there.”

“Are you peeping?” Walker asked sharply.

“Of course not!” Nick turned red. “That’s gross.”

“Then what are you doing?”

He crushed a twig beneath his shoe. “You know. Hiding from each other. Night games.”

Night games? What was that? Walker hadn’t run through the town at night with his friends when he was Nick’s age. But then, he hadn’t done a lot of the things typical teens did.

“Are you drinking?”

Nick looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “Promise you won’t tell my mom?”

“I can’t do that, Nick.”

The kid threw himself onto the ground. “We did once. Dave took some of his dad’s beers. We all got sick.”

Maybe it was normal for Nick to be goofing off with his friends. Trying beer. But what did Walker know about raising kids?

“You should tell your mom what’s going on with Stevie. She’ll help you figure out what to do.”

“Don’t you get it?” He jumped up again. “She told me to stay away from Stevie. But she’s not the one selling weed.” He threw his cola bottle toward a garbage can, and it bounced off. “She hates what her parents are doing.” Nick shrugged one shoulder. “So I watch out for her.”

Uh-oh.
He recognized that gleam in Nick’s eyes. He was sure he’d had the same expression on his face when he was that age.

About Nick’s mother.

So much for trying to act like a parent. Walker had no experience handling this kind of problem.

But Nick was trying to do what he thought was right. Would most fifteen-year-olds take responsibility for protecting a friend? Walker had no idea, but he wanted to help. He liked him, this boy who might be his son.

“It’s dangerous to be out after dark.”

Nick snorted. “You sound like my mom.”

“Think of another way to help your friend.”

“This is the only way.”

Nick was determined. Stubborn. Just like Walker at that age.

Was
Nick his son? He turned and studied him, searching for the resemblance he’d seen earlier. Today the kid just looked like himself. As Walker watched him brood, he thought of all he’d missed.

If Nick was his, he’d missed his childhood. Half of his teens.

“You’re giving me a weird look,” Nick said.

“Just thinking about you and Stevie and Dave.”

“Are you going to tell my mom?”

He should. It sounded as if Stevie and her brother weren’t safe. “I’ll think about it. I’ll talk to you before I do anything, okay?”

Nick stared at him, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “You’re going to ruin everything,” he said, then turned and ran out of the park.

Walker watched until he disappeared. What had he expected? That Nick would welcome a stranger’s interference in his life?

As far as the boy was concerned, Walker was just some guy butting in when it wasn’t his business.

Maybe it
was
his business. It was time to find out.

CHAPTER NINE
T
HE DOOR TO THE STORAGE
unit creaked as Walker rolled it up, and stale air drifted out. According to Mary, it hadn’t been opened since she’d filled it, four years earlier.
“I couldn’t throw all your mother’s things away, dear,” she’d said. “Not all those pictures and books that she loved so much.” There had been a long pause. “I wouldn’t want my memories tossed into the garbage.”

Apparently, Walker had been paying rent on this cubicle ever since. His assistant had told him she’d done it without talking to him. That was why he paid her the big bucks, she’d said coolly. To make decisions he didn’t want to be bothered with.

Boxes were stacked neatly in one corner, and the single lightbulb threw shadows on the concrete floor and the wall. The room was dusty and cold. A final resting place for bad memories.

All that was left of his family.

He pulled the top box to the floor and ripped open the duct tape holding it closed. It was full of books. Hardcover novels and biographies, mostly. He set that box aside.

The second box held more books. Paperbacks this time, and children’s books. He drew them out and looked at them, one after another.
The Velveteen Rabbit. Charlotte’s Web. The Polar Express.

He remembered that one. His mother had cried every time she read the last line. He hadn’t thought about the way his mother had read to him since long before she’d died in a car accident more than six years ago. She’d been on her way home from the airport in Green Bay after visiting him in Chicago. His father had blamed Walker for her death.

His hand wasn’t quite steady as he replaced the books in the box.

He found the photos in the fifth box he opened. The framed ones had been wrapped in newspaper to protect them. The albums were cheap vinyl, cracked and faded. As if they’d been thumbed through many times.

One of the albums was white. The first page held three newborn-baby pictures—his mother’s, his father’s and his. A heart drawn in red marker enclosed all of them.

He turned the pages and saw pictures of him next to his parents. The photo he remembered was on a page with a similar one of his father. They’d been taken at the same studio, and both babies were sitting on the floor.

His father wore a sailor suit and a matching cap. Walker wore a tiny dress shirt and pants—just as Nick had worn.

He’d been wrong; Nick’s baby picture hadn’t looked like Walker’s. It looked like his father’s. He touched the curve of the grinning mouth, the crinkled shape of the eyes. Maybe this would convince Jen he was right.

He gently took the two photos out of the album, then turned the page. There was a snapshot of all three of them. His father had one arm wrapped around his mother’s shoulders, and the other held a laughing baby. Other images followed: his father taking him trick-or-treating on Halloween. Building with Lego blocks on Christmas morning. Helping him ride his first bicycle.

They were happy in those pictures. Smiling. How had this relaxed, proud father become the man who’d ridden Walker so hard? The man who had been angry enough to cut all ties because his son didn’t want to be a fisherman? Bitter enough to refuse to speak to Walker at his mother’s funeral?

He set the album aside and replaced all the other photos in the carton. As he pushed the box back in place, he hesitated.

He shouldn’t leave this stuff sitting in here. All these things had been important to his mother. Maybe his father, too.

He’d bring them back to Chicago with him. Maybe they would make his condo feel more like home.

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