September 24, 2004
When it comes to affairs of the heart, there's no place like Los Lobos.
Jill Strathern left town for the big city and never looked back—until she returned home years later to run a small law practice. It turns out her childhood crush, Mac Kendrick, a burned-out LAPD cop, has also come back to sleepy Los Lobos. Even though Mac had rejected her back in high school, Jill can't deny the attraction she still feels for him.
Now Jill and Mac are tangled up in enough drama to satisfy the most jaded L.A. denizens—Mafia dons, social workers, angry exes and one very quirky eight-year-old can make even the simplest romance complicated. And it all goes to prove that when it comes to affairs of the heart, there's no place like home.
4.5 stars! "When you think of passion, drama and heartwarming stories, think Susan Mallery. As always, she delivers a top-notch story."
RT Book Reviews
"I look like a freak," Shelley said as she plopped down in the chair and covered her face with her hands. "I'll have to move under the cover of darkness so I don't frighten small children."
Jill Strathern sat down next to her assistant and patted her back. "You're not a freak."
"You're right." Shelley raised her head and sniffed. "Being a freak would be an improvement." She gave a strangled sob.
"This is all fixable," Jill reminded her. "You're not scarred for life."
"My psyche is."
"I think you'll recover."
In fact, Jill was sure of it. Shelley had left work the previous evening excited about her appointment at a new and trendy salon. She'd gone in expecting some subtle highlights and a few layers. She'd left with a botched body perm, orange brassy color and a cut that could only be described as...unfortunate.
"You know what? I have a great idea." Jill stood and walked around her desk where she flipped through her electronic rolodex. "I know exactly who can fix this for you."
Shelley looked up. "Who?"
Shelley sucked in a breath and for the first time that morning, hope filled her swollen eyes. "Anton? You know him?"
Anton, like Madonna, was famous enough not to need a last name. Two-tone highlights and a styling cost as much as a small imported car, but the rich and famous swore by his magic fingers.
"I'm his lawyer," Jill said with a grin. "Now let me call him and explain we have a hair emergency. I'm sure he can take care of everything."
Fifteen minutes later Shelley had an appointment for early that afternoon. Jill promised to let her make up the time by coming in early for the next couple of days.
"You're the best," Shelley said as she walked to the door and stepped out into the hallway. "If you ever need me to do anything, let me know. I'm serious. A kidney. Have your baby, whatever."
"Maybe you could look over the brief I left on your desk," Jill told her with a laugh. "It's due first thing in the morning."
"Absolutely. Right this second. Thanks."
Jill chuckled as she turned back to her computer. If only all of life's problems could be solved so easily.
Two hours later, she looked up from her research. Coffee, she decided. A nice, little jump-start to keep her brain going. She stood and headed for the centrally located lunch room where jumbo carafes full of liquid energy waited.
On her way back, she detoured around to the other side of the offices where her husband, also a third year associate, had his office. They'd been working so many hours the past few weeks, they'd barely seen each other. Her calendar was free. If Lyle's was, too, maybe they could grab lunch together.
His assistant was gone and his door closed. Jill knocked lightly once, then pushed inside. She moved quietly, not wanting to interrupt if he was one the phone.
He was busy, all right, but not with a call. Jill stopped in the center of the room. Breath left her body as the mug of coffee fell to the carpeted floor. She didn't remember letting go, but she felt the hot liquid splash onto her legs.
Her husband of three years, the man she lived with, worked with and cooked for, stood beside his credenza. His jacket was over his chair, his pants around his ankles and he was busily banging his assistant. So busy, in fact, he hadn't noticed Jill's entrance.
"Oh, yeah, baby," Lyle breathed. "Just like that."
But the woman saw Jill. Her face paled and she shoved Lyle away.
Later she would remember the silence and how time seemed to slow. Later she would recall the way papers had fluttered to the floor as his assistant scrambled off the credenza and jerked up her pantyhose. Later, she would want to kill Lyle. But right now she could only stare in disbelief.
This wasn't happening, she told herself. He was her husband. He was supposed to love her. "Next time you should knock," he said as he bent over and grabbed his pants.
She had, she thought, too stunned to feel much of anything. Then she turned on her heel and ran from the room.
Forty-nine hours and eighteen minutes later, Jill decided that being buried alive was too good for Lyle. Still, she was due some serious revenge. Unfortunately as she had no idea on how to get the revenge she so desperately needed, she contented herself with imagining him lying on the edge of a desert highway, gasping for breath as she zoomed by at a comfortable ninety miles an hour. She liked the vision of her soon-to-be ex-husband as road kill.
"Lying weasel rat-fink dog," she muttered as she slowed at the bottom of the freeway off-ramp and turned west.
The lying weasel rat-fink dog was currently back in San Francisco, moving into what should have been her junior partner office with a window. No doubt he would celebrate what should have been her promotion by taking out his assistant, then seducing her with wine from the collection she'd put together, and carrying her off to what had been their bed.
Yes, it was true. Jill's day had gone from bad to worse. It wasn't enough to catch her husband in the act, later that afternoon she'd been fired.
"I hope Lyle gets a sexually transmitted disease and Big Willie falls off," she said aloud, before correcting herself. "Not exactly 'Big' Willie. In fact nothing to be proud of. I had to fake most of those orgasms, you rat bastard lying weasel dog."
Worse, she'd cooked for him. Jill could accept a bad sex life, but to think she'd ducked out of important meetings so that Lyle could come home to meals she'd prepared really made her teeth ache.
She wanted to roll down the windows and scream into the sea-soaked air that she hated her husband and couldn't wait until their divorce was final. She wished she'd never met him, had never fallen for him and had never married him. But there was no point in frightening the seagulls on the sidewalk and the two old guys playing checkers in the park.
The only bright spot in an otherwise completely black situation was that Shelley's hair had turned out move- star gorgeous. Something to have on to, Jill thought as she pulled to a stop at a red light and looked around for the first time since leaving San Francisco. Really looked.
Jeez, she was back in the one place she never wanted to be. Obviously her string of bad luck had continued, she thought as she realized she was the only person on the planet who really could go home again.
Los Lobos, California—a small, touristy coastal town where folks vacationed in every year. You could get homemade ice cream at the local Treats 'n Eats, homemade pie at Polly's Pie Parlor, and the best fajitas in the state at Bill's Mexican Grill. Residents never locked their doors, except during tourist season. The pier was a national treasure and the Halloween Pumpkin festival on the beach was one the biggest events of the year. For some it was paradise, for Jill, it was like being sentenced to serve time in hell. It was also something else Lyle was going to have to answer for.
At least the family home had been turned over to the Conservancy Society, so she was saved the humiliation of having to live in her old bedroom. The house where she'd grown up was in the process of being restored to its original Victorian prissiness and she was temporarily moving in with her Aunt Beverly.
The thought of the older woman's gentle smile and potpourri-filled house pushed Jill's foot down on the accelerator. She drove through the center of town—such as it was—and came out on the south side. After making a series of turns, she pulled up in front of a two story house built in the 1940s. The wide porch had an overhang supported by stone-covered pillars. Several worn pieces of rattan furniture filled the space and offered a place to sit and watch the world go by. Jill found herself in more of a "curl up and lick her wounds" kind of mindset, but that would pass and when it did she would appreciate the old rocking chair by the swing.
She parked in front of the house and climbed out. Aunt Bev must have been watching out the big bay window in front because she stepped out of the house and started down the stairs.
Beverly Antoinette Cooper, know as Bev to her friends, had been born into money. Not gobs and gobs but enough that she'd never had to hold a job, even though she'd spent a couple of years as a schoolteacher when she'd first graduated from college. Petite, with fiery red hair and a big smile, she'd been the younger of the two children in her family. She'd moved to Los Lobos when her sister had married Jill's father and had decided to stay.
Jill had never been more grateful for the family connection. Her aunt wasn't one to judge or criticize. Mostly she offered hugs, affection and occasionally odd advice. Bev considered herself gifted—psychically—although the jury was still out on that one. Feeling better than she had since walking in on Lyle and his assistant going at it on his credenza, Jill walked around to the sidewalk where she stopped and smiled.
Her aunt grinned. "Nice wheels."
Jill glanced at the gleaming black BMW 540. "It's transportation," she said with a shrug.
"Uh huh. Lyle's?"
"California is a community property state," Jill said primly. "As he acquired the asset after our marriage, it's as much my car as his."
"You took it because you knew it would piss him off."
"That's my girl." Her aunt glanced at Jill's shirt and raised her eyebrows. "Take out?"
Jill looked at the stain on the front of the 100% Egyptian cotton, custom-made shirt she'd shrugged on over her jeans. The sleeves hung well past her fingers and she could have fit inside the garment two and a half times, but this was Lyle's special shirt that he'd ordered from Hong Kong at the tidy price of five hundred dollars. He'd owned four. The other three were tucked inside her suitcase.
Burrito," she said as she rubbed at the brownish red smudge just under her right breast. "Maybe some hot sauce. I stopped at Taco Bell on the way down."
"Tell me you ate in the car," Bev said impishly. "Lyle always did have a thing against eating in the car."
"Every bite," Jill told her.
Bev held out her arms. Jill hesitated only a second, then flung herself into the smaller woman's warm embrace. She'd been holding it together for two days, only allowing herself to deal with logistics of packing up her world. All her emotions had been stuffed down until it was safe to let them out. That moment turned out to be right now.
Her face heated, her chest tightened and a shudder raced through her.
"I saw him doing it with her," she whispered, her voice thick with pain and the tears she tried to hold back. "At the office. It was so disgusting. He didn't even take his clothes off—his pants were hanging around his ankles and he looked ridiculous. Why wouldn't she make him get naked?"
"Some women don't have any self-respect."
Jill nodded. "At least I always made him get naked."
"I know you did."
"But that wasn't what hurt the most," she continued, her eyes burning. "He stole my promotion. I'd been working so damn hard and I brought in all that business and he got my promotion and I got fired."
The tears broke free. She tried to hold them in but it was too late. They scorched her skin and dripped onto her aunt's shoulder.
"And what I really d-don't understand is why I'm more mad than hurt," she said, her voice cracking. "Why do I care more about my job than my marriage?"
Jill asked the question rhetorically. She had a feeling they both already knew the answer.
"Want to scratch his car?" her aunt asked.
Jill straightened and wiped her face with the back of her hand. "Maybe later."
"I made cookies. Let's go have some."
"I'd like that."
Bev took her hand and led her toward the house. "I've been doing some research. I think I might be able to put a curse on Lyle. Would that help?"
With each step, Jill felt her pain easing just a little. Maybe Los Lobos wasn't her idea of a good time, but her aunt's house had always been a haven.
"A curse would be good. Could we give him boils with pus?"
We could sure try."
Two hours later Jill and her aunt had split nearly a dozen double chocolate chip cookies and had knocked back several brandies.
"I don't want to do anything malicious," Jill said, pretty darned proud she could say malicious what with the way the liquor had heated her blood and turned her brain to foggy mush. "So instead of outright scratching the Beamer, maybe I'll just park it by the high school baseball diamond. All those foul balls could make a real impact on it." She giggled. "Get it? Impact? The two meanings of the word?"
Her aunt sighed. "You're drunk."
"You betcha. And I feel pretty good, if I do say so myself. I didn't think I would. I thought I'd be depressed for days. I mean practicing law here." She grimaced and felt her good mood slipping away. "Okay—that goes on the do-not think about list. Not my new practice here, although I use the term loosely. At least that's just until I get a real job. Not Lyle. The divorce is good, though. I really want that. I want our marriage to never have been." She reached for another cookie. "Could we vaporize him? Would that technically be murder?" She sighed. "Never mind. I know it would be. I don't want to be disbarred. That would be too depressing for words."
Cookie crumbs fell on her shirt right next to damp spot where she'd sloshed her brandy. She brushed at the crumbs only to smear chocolate on the shirt.
"I need to go clean up," she said and put down the half-eaten cookie. "I didn't shower before I left San Francisco this morning."
As she spoke she reached behind her head to grab her mass of curly, frizzy hair. While she'd showered the previous morning, she hadn't bothered with her usual blow-dry, flat iron, forty-seven hair care products regimen required to tame her impossible hair. As a result she was left with a mass resembling Frankenstein's bride after the woman stuck her finger in an electrical socket. On the attractive scale, she knew she approached absolute zero.
Jill pushed herself to her feet. Between not sleeping much in the past two days and the brandy, the roses on the wallpaper in the kitchen began to swirl.
"That can't be good," she murmured.
"You'll feel better after a shower," her aunt said. "You remember where everything is, don't you?"
"Uh huh. Top of the stairs." Although right now the thought of climbing stairs made her dizzy.
A timer dinged at the same instant that someone knocked on the front door. Her aunt rose from the round table by the window and motioned for Jill to head for the front of the house.
"See who it is. I don't trust you to remove hot cookie sheets in your present condition."
"Sounds like a plan."
Jill walked down the hall, only plowing into the wall once. She got a vision of herself as a bumper car which made her giggle. She was still caught up in the humor when she pulled open the front door.
There were only a handful of things that could have made her present situation worse: The death or injury of someone she loved, the belief that she would never escape from Los Lobos to work in a big city law practice again, and seeing Mackenzie Kendrick while she looked like cat gack.
So it was a one out of three chance, she thought as she stared at the man standing on her aunt's doorstep. Couldn't she have just been struck by lightning?
Apparently not, she thought as she looked into dark blue eyes and studied the familiar, painfully handsome and strong features that made up his face. He looked older, but who didn't? He could still make her toes curl and her heart convulse like the bouncing ball on a karaoke monitor. Or maybe that was the brandy acting out.
Last she'd heard, Mac Kendrick had moved to Los Angeles where he'd been zipping up the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. Last she'd seen of Mac, she'd been eighteen and he'd been home on leave from the army. She'd shown up in his bedroom, dropped her dress to the floor, offering her very naked self to him, and he'd promptly thrown up.
Memories like that put the end of her marriage in perspective.
"Mac," she said, going for pleasant and cheerful and hoping she didn't end up sounding manic.
He frowned. The movement made his brows surge together and his eyes get all crinkly. Jill had to work hard not to sigh at how delicious he looked. She remembered the stains on the huge shirt she wore just as his expression cleared.
She offered a little waggle of her fingers. "Uh huh. Hi. I'm uh..." Visiting wasn't the truth and she knew she was too drunk to lie. Maybe better to avoid the issue of why she was in town. "So what are you doing here?"
"I live here."
She blinked. "In town? Here? In Los Lobos?"
"I'm the new sheriff."
He smiled. The curve of his mouth made her stomach somersault.
"I like it here," he said.
"I guess everyone gets an opinion."
He stared at her for a long time, then touched the edge of his upper lip. "You have some crumbs..."
"What? Oh. The cookies." She swiped with her hand, then reached for the edge of the shirt and wiped it across her mouth. A quick glance told her there had been chocolate in those crumbs. Great.
"Mac? Is that you?" Bev joined them. "I'm sure you want to confirm everything. Come on in. Jill, step back and let Mac inside."
Jill did as ordered. Somewhere between the first and third brandy, she'd kicked off her shoes, which meant she was barefoot on the gleaming hardwood floor. The sensation reminded her too much of the last time she'd seen Mac and she hurried to lead the way into the living room where at least there was carpeting against her toes.
She heard the thud of his footsteps as he followed, along with her aunt's pleasant conversation as she chatted about the warm afternoon and how pretty the sunrise had been. Bev was big on watching the sunrise. Something about the first light of morning cleansing her psychic energy.
Jill crossed to the rocking chair and sank down. The chair swayed forward and back, causing the corners of the room to fold in just enough to make her want to giggle. Maybe this was good, she thought as she curled up on the thick cushion. She'd always wondered what would happen if she ever saw Mac again. After that disastrous last meeting, she'd been afraid of what she would say or he would say. Or how he would look at her. But being drunk sort of took the edge off. If he pitied her, well wasn't that just how her life was going?
"So, you're the sheriff," she said when he'd settled on the long sofa opposite the window and Bev had disappeared for refreshments. Jill had a feeling Mac wasn't going to be offered brandy.
"Just. I started work two weeks ago."
"That's the date we agreed on."
he reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and froze when her fingers encountered the brillo mop. Oh...my...God. She'd completely forgotten about her appearance. Now what?
She winced silently and realized there was nothing she could do but tough it out and hope he didn't notice.
"I meant why did you take the job of sheriff?"
His dark blue eyes settled on her face. Even as she felt her insides begin to melt she reminded herself that he was probably trying to figure out why she had chocolate stains on her cheeks. She rubbed her skin and let the alcohol make her not really care.
"I wanted a change," he said. "Plus it's a great place for Emily to spend the summer."
Emily? What were the odds of that name belonging to his aging but adored Saint Bernard? Zero, she decided as her string of bad luck continued.
"Your wife?" she said with a smile and what she hoped was an expression of polite interest.
Bev spoke as she walked into the living room. She set down the tray of cookies along with three glasses of milk.
"Mac's little girl is eight."
Jill tried to get her mind around the concept. Over the years she'd imagined him with an assortment of women who were nothing like her, but she'd never thought of him as a father.
"I have her for the summer," he said and took a cookie from the plate. "Bev has agreed to help out with day care."
Jill swung her attention to her aunt, at the same time swinging her head. Instantly the entire room tilted on end before settling back to a normal axis. Two thoughts filled her brain—the first, that Mac wasn't married. At least not to his daughter's mother. The second thought was more troubling.
"You don't like children," she reminded her aunt. "That's why you gave up teaching."
Bev handed her a glass of milk. "I don't like them in groups," she corrected. "Maybe I read Lord of the Flies too many times—I've always felt children could turn rabid at any moment. But individually they're fine." She smiled at Mac. "I'm sure Emily's an angel."
Mac looked startled by Bev's theory on children and their potential. "What?" He shook his head. "No, she's just a regular kid."
There was something in his voice, Jill thought as she grabbed a cookie and took a bite. Something...wistful. Or was that her liquor-laced brain doing the talking?
She sipped her milk, swallowed and nearly gagged. "I can't," she said, thrusting the glass at her aunt. "After the brandy, my stomach won't like this at all."
"Of course it will. Just pretend you're having a Brandy Alexander. In two courses."
Mac looked at her. "You've been drinking?"
Faint disapproval sharpened his gaze and tightened his mouth. A quick glance at the clock told her it was a little past three in the afternoon.
"It's after five in New York and I've had a bad day."
Make that a bad week, possibly a bad life.
"Don't worry. Jill's not a wild woman," Bev said with a comforting smile. "She's just a little out of sorts. When does Emily arrive?"
"Around five. I'll bring her by in the morning. I didn't want to work on her first day, but I have to appear in court."
"Don't think a thing about it," Bev told him. "I'm excited at the thought of the two of us spending the summer together. We'll have fun."
Jill thought about warning Mac about her aunt's "gift" and how she sometimes passed from normal to just plain odd. But what was the point in worrying him? Besides, Bev had a way of making a person feel special and loved and maybe that was something every eight year-old little girl needed.
Mac rose and murmured something about heading home. Jill wanted to rouse herself enough to ask where exactly that was. His house. Not that she planned any more midnight intrusions. One humiliating moment like that was enough for anyone's life. Nope, she would avoid Mac as much as she could while trapped in the hell that was Los Lobos. She would practice whatever form of law they expected here, handling their petty problems while sending out her buffed up resume to large law firms all over the state.
And in her free time, she would plot revenge. Mean, hard-hearted, satisfying revenge that would reduce her rat bastard ex-husband to a quivering mass. She smiled at the thought and felt something cold and wet drip onto her leg.
Her aunt sounded concerned, which made Jill want to ask her what was wrong, but she couldn't seem to open her eyes or speak. Something was taken out of her hand.
"How much brandy did she have?" a man asked.
Mac, Jill thought hazily. Yummy, sexy Mac. She'd had a crush on him since she was thirteen years old. But he'd never noticed her. Not really. He'd been nice and friendly, but in distant, big- brother kind of way.
It was because she hadn't gotten breasts. Not real ones like her best friend Gracie. Nope, Jill had what Gracie's mom had referred to as "discreet curves." Jill didn't want discreet. She wanted blatant, sexy, in-your-face boobs.
She felt herself slipping down in the chair, then suddenly she was high up in the air. It was like floating or flying or both.
"On the sofa?"
"Yes. I'll get a blanket. I'm sure she just needs to rest."
"Or drink less," a man said with a chuckle. "She's going to feel like crap in a few hours."
That won't be anything new, Jill thought as she burrowed into the pillow that found its way under her head. She'd been feeling like crap for two days. Only this was better. It was warm and cozy and she felt safe again. She let herself drift off and vowed that when she woke up, everything would be different.
Mac gave up the pretense of not watching the clock somewhere around 4:45. He had the thought that the waiting would be a whole lot easier with a beer in his hand, but he wasn't going there. Not with Emily on the line. Not with it all being his fault.
He wanted to blame someone else, to point the finger and say he wasn't responsible, but he couldn't. Not when he'd taken every step himself. He couldn't even blame Carly. His ex-wife had been more understanding and forgiving than he deserved.
Because she was organized and didn't see the value in making him sweat, she arrived five minutes early. He watched the Volvo pull up into his driveway and was outside before either of the occupants had a chance to open their doors.
"Hey, kiddo," he said as Emily stepped out.
His daughter was slight and blond, with big blue eyes and a smile that could light up the heavens. Only she wasn't smiling now. Instead her mouth quivered at the corners and she wouldn't look him in the eye. She clutched Elvis, her tattered stuffed rhino, to her chest and stared at the ground.
He hadn't seen her in nearly two months and it was all he could do not to grab her and hug her forever. He wanted to tell her he loved her, that she'd grown and gotten more beautiful, that he'd thought about her every day. Instead he tucked his hands into his jeans pockets and wished he could go back in time and make things different.
He turned his attention to Carly. Petite, well-dressed, with her gold-blond hair cut to her jaw line, she walked around the car and moved toward him.
"You look good," he said, bending down to kiss her cheek.
She squeezed his upper arm. "You, too. Cute little town. So this is where you grew up?"
"This is it."
"How does it feel to be back?"
He'd spent the past two weeks torn between hope and impending disaster. Too much was on the line.
"Good," he said with a casual confidence he didn't feel. "Let's get the luggage and go inside." He turned to Emily. "Your bedroom is upstairs, kiddo. Want to go check it out?"
he glanced at her mom as if asking for permission. When Carly nodded, Emily darted inside.
"She hates me," he said flatly.
"She loves you but she'd scared. She hasn't seen you in weeks, Mac. You didn't show up those two weekends like your promised. You broke her heart."
He nodded and swallowed the rising guilt. "I know. I'm sorry."
He crossed to the trunk and waited for her to unlock it.
"Apologies don't work on an eight-year old," Carly told him. "You disappeared from her life without a word and now you're going to have to prove yourself to her."
He already knew that. The question was how? How did a father go about regaining the trust of his daughter? Was it possible? Had he crossed the line and was it already too late?
He wanted to ask Carly her opinion, but he figured he'd already used up all his currency with her.
"You didn't have to do this," he said as he lifted out two suitcases.
Carly grabbed a cooler. "I know. Part of me wanted to turn my back on you, but you've always loved her more than anything." She closed the trunk and stared at him. "I want to believe you, Mac. I want you to have this chance. But make no mistake. If you screw up even one time, I'll haul your ass back into court and make sure you never see your daughter again."