Falling for her arch nemesis isn’t going to happen.
Moving to Starlight was Mara Reed’s first step forward after her devastating divorce. But had she known she’d find Parker Johnson, her ex-husband’s ruthless divorce attorney, there, she might have gone in a different direction. Away from the big city, Mara is seeing Parker in a new light – but is it enough for her to set aside her anger?
As a cool September breeze tickled the hair at the nape of her neck, Mara Reed drew in a deep breath and tried to steady her nerves. There was no reason for the bead of sweat rolling between her shoulders, but it tracked its way down her spine with little regard for the mild fall weather.
Colorful balloons bobbed on strings tied to the front-porch rail of the two-story brick house as she and her daughter approached. The sound of voices drifted toward her from around back—happy laughter and children shouting in pleasure. She could imagine the group of family and friends gathered, an involuntary shudder snaking down her spine in response.
Sometimes forcing a smile and putting on her best social face was a real pain in the—
“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Evie’s feathery brows drew together under the frames of her glasses as she squeezed Mara’s hand. Her brown eyes, tinged with worry, looked impossibly large behind the lenses. “We’re late for Anna’s party. Do you wanna not go?”
Mara smiled down at her five-year-old daughter, ignoring the slight ache in her cheeks. “Of course we’re going to the party. We’re here, and it’s going to be so much fun. There will be cake and ice cream and Josh said they have a bounce house.”
“I don’t want to mess up my new dress,” Evie said, her hand slipping from Mara’s.
“The dress will be fine,” Mara assured her daughter. “You look beautiful, sweetie. Let’s go in. Anna will be waiting for you.”
“She has lots of friends here.” Evie bit down on her lower lip as she studied the front door, and Mara hated the uncertainty she could feel radiating from her daughter. Hated how familiar it felt. She refused to believe that she’d somehow transferred her own nerves to her precious girl.
“But only one best friend,” Mara reminded the girl, “and that’s you.”
Evie gave a small nod then flashed a gap-tooth grin and headed up the stairs in her sparkly ballet slippers and poufy-skirted party dress.
Smoothing a hand over the peplum blouse she’d chosen for the afternoon, Mara followed, her smile set firmly in place. She hated this reaction in herself, the uneasy mix of anxiety and dread she had in social situations.
No one would guess it, of course. In the past year she’d become a master at hiding her feelings, stuffing them down and locking them away until she barely had to acknowledge them herself. Only sometimes she could still feel their slippery tendrils tugging at her resolve.
She’d moved to the picturesque town of Starlight, Washington, nestled at the base of the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle, a year ago and had immediately started working at the coffee shop her aunt owned in town. Her nerves didn’t plague her at Main Street Perk. During her shifts making coffee and serving food to the shop’s loyal client base, she could ignore—if not forget—the way her life had so spectacularly imploded.
She wasn’t the divorced single mother who’d failed at almost everything. The coffee shop patrons didn’t care that she was a wreck on the inside or couldn’t make small talk to save her life. She provided the caffeine and pastries they needed to get through the day, and that was enough at Perk.
Outside of work, she struggled with the affable camaraderie inherent in small town life. She had to remind herself she’d chosen Starlight for Evie, so that her daughter could have as close to an ideal childhood as Mara could provide on her own. The divorce had been brutal, and Mara knew she’d never truly release the guilt over her inability to give her daughter the gift of being raised by parents who loved each other.
Her love for Evie would have to be enough.
They entered the house, and Evie called out a shy greeting to her best friend, Anna. The precocious birthday girl, with wide blue eyes and a brilliant smile, ran forward and reached out a hand that Evie grabbed with so much enthusiasm it made Mara’s heart clench.
Josh Johnson, Anna’s dad, waved from across the kitchen as Anna led Evie out onto the patio behind the house. As a child, Mara had been like Anna, bold and fearless, ruling the school lunchroom and playground like it was her own little kingdom.
Oh, how times had changed. She was doing her best to make this town her home but feared she’d never regain the self-assurance she’d had before her life fell apart. If only she could whip up confidence as quickly as she could manage a complicated drink order.
Josh excused himself from the group of women surrounding him and moved toward Mara. “They won’t bite, you know,” he admonished gently when he got to her side, inclining his head toward the quartet of hipster-stylish young moms.
“I’d feel better if I could just make them a cappuccino and call it a day.” Mara crossed her arms over her chest. “They’re nice to you.”
“They feel sorry for me.” Josh ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair. “I hate that.”
Mara didn’t know Josh’s ex-wife Jenn, but she still harbored an intense hatred for the woman. She’d walked out on Josh and Anna shortly before Mara moved to town. Anna had been undergoing chemotherapy to battle her leukemia diagnosis. According to Josh, the girl’s mom left the day of her final treatment. Mara had been through enough in her life to manage empathy for almost any person, but she couldn’t imagine anything so heartless as deserting a sick child.
“You don’t need pity from anyone.” Mara waved a hand toward the French doors open to the backyard. “You’re rocking the Mr. Mom detail. Look at those decorations. It’s a princess paradise out there.”
“Two-day shipping and a call to the rental company for the unicorn bounce house,” Josh answered. “Easy enough.”
“Give yourself a break, buddy, and take a compliment. I don’t hand them out like candy.”
Josh sighed. “Good point. Besides, this party is the only thing I’ve done right in a long time.” He nudged her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here. Both you and Evie. At the party and in Starlight.”
“Me, too.” Mara smiled, ignoring the sidelong glances she could feel from the moms huddled near the island. She knew parents at the elementary school liked to speculate on her relationship with Josh. Evie’s first day at the local preschool last September had coincided with Anna’s return after chemo. Although the two girls were opposites in personality, they’d formed an immediate bond. Evie didn’t care about Anna’s shorn head or the stigma of cancer the way some of the kids had. Mara’s quiet, reserved daughter was simply happy to have a friend.
Mara liked Josh right away and appreciated how hard he worked to take care of Anna and reduce the fallout from his ex-wife leaving him. Despite what certain people wanted to believe, their friendship was strictly platonic. He was handsome enough, with dark hair, boyish features and an easy, open smile despite everything he’d been through.
She valued the gift of having a friend who understood the struggles unique to single parenting, but there wasn’t a single spark of attraction between them. Even if she’d been ready to date after her divorce, she had a brotherly affection for Josh that suited them both.
She returned the nudge, the closest either of them came to a friendly hug. “Let’s head outside and you can bask in the rosy glow of all those pink balloons.”
“I’m going to talk to some of the parents from the girls’ soccer team,” Josh said. He’d volunteered to coach the newly formed team for the fall season, which made him a hero on several different levels. “Want to come with me?”
Mara made a face. “I think I might stick a fork in my eye instead.”
“They’re nice,” Josh said with a laugh.
“It’s a fact universally agreed upon,” she answered, rolling her eyes, “that soccer moms aren’t ‘nice,’ even when the team is in kindergarten. I’m sure that goes double for the dads.”
“You need to branch out more. Make friends.”
“I made a friend in town,” Mara countered. “And she has a friend who I also like. That’s two new friends, which means I’m full up at this point. Go be the good coach. I’m going to check on Evie in the bounce house.”
She skirted around several small groups of parents, forcing herself to smile at a few people she recognized from the coffee shop. It would be easy to join in a conversation and probably the right thing to do. The whole reason she’d chosen Starlight was for the community. It felt like a place where Mara and Evie could thrive. Mara had come to town last year for her cousin’s wedding and had quickly decided to make the town her permanent—or at least permanent-for-now—home.
It still amazed her that Aunt Nanci had been so willing to take them in. Nanci Morgan and her sister, Mara’s mother Nina, had been estranged for years. Mara’s parents hadn’t bothered to show up to Nanci’s daughter’s wedding. But Mara had been happy to attend her cousin Renee’s celebration, grateful for a weekend escape from the disappointment that infused every conversation with her mom and dad since she moved in with them after her divorce.
Everything about Starlight called to her, from the quaint downtown to the mountains rising up from the valley floor, as if they cocooned the town in a massive embrace. She’d wanted a place to start over but shedding the anger and bitterness of having her heart broken, stomped on and her life upended in a divorce so brutal that some days she still felt the pain like a physical blow, was no easy task.
Starlight welcomed her, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to accept the invitation, always waiting for the proverbial rug to be pulled out from under her.
She couldn’t say how much of Evie’s reticence was inherent in her personality and how much was a result of the emotional trauma of watching her parents rip each other apart. Mara had tried to hide it, to speak only kind words about Paul or not to say anything, but she knew she was a terrible actor. Her daughter was insightful in the way introverted children could be, observant and wise beyond her years.
Anna helped with Evie’s shyness, and the two girls seemed to be connected by some invisible tether of friendship.
Mara moved closer to the bounce house, squinting to see through the mesh webbing on the side. A half-dozen kids, most of whom appeared to be of kindergarten age, jumped on the inflated floor of the structure, launching themselves up with shrieks of laughter. There was one dad in the mix, using his weight to send the kids flying. The side of her mouth tipped into a true grin. Even she was unable to resist the pure joy and excitement that the children exuded.
All but one kid.
Mara gasped as she realized Evie stood in the corner of the bounce house, her arms out to either side, grasping at the sides as if to hold herself steady. Every few seconds the floor would undulate, taking Evie to her knees until she could manage to straighten to her feet again.
Sit down, Mara wanted to call as she hurried toward the front of the inflatable structure. Her daughter would do better if her center of gravity stayed low. Evie sometimes suffered from motion sickness, and Mara could imagine the girl’s potential embarrassment if the party ended with her tossing her cookies all over the birthday girl.
Anna was jumping with the rest of the kids, unaware of Evie’s distress. The dad didn’t seem to notice either. Mara pushed past the two moms supervising the entrance.
“No shoes,” the one told her as Mara began to climb into the structure.
“Right.” Mara kicked off her ballet flats and climbed into the bounce house, losing her balance as she tried to stand. She dropped then rolled against the side of the house, wondering how the hell a bunch of little kids could cause so much movement.
She started to shout at them to stop jumping but shut her mouth when her gaze caught on Evie’s. Her daughter gave a tiny shake of her head, letting Mara know she didn’t want the attention. Mara nodded and flashed what she hoped passed for a reassuring smile. How many times had she offered Evie that same false hope in the past year?
“Hold on, girl,” she muttered under her breath as she managed to scramble to her feet. The rest of the partygoers hadn’t noticed her, so she stuck close to the edge, taking slow steps and trailing her open palm against the side of the structure to keep her balance.
“I feel sick,” Evie said as Mara reached her.
“Let’s get you out of here and into the fresh air,” Mara said, smoothing away a wisp of hair that had come loose from Evie’s braids and now stuck to her damp forehead. “Want me to carry you?”
Evie shook her head. “I can walk.”
“That’s my brave girl.” Mara made her voice calm and soothing as she smoothed a hand over Evie’s dark hair. Although the temperature outside was perfect for an early September weekend, it felt at least ten degrees warmer inside the structure. The air smelled of a mix of sweat, feet and chemicals. No wonder Evie’s stomach was upset. Why were bounce houses so popular anyway?
“Evie, what’s wrong?” Anna called as they made their way toward the entrance.
“I just need her for a second.” Mara smiled and gave a thumbs up to the birthday girl. “She’ll be right outside.”
Anna nodded before returning to jumping, and Evie sent Mara a look of such gratitude it made tears prick the backs of her eyes.
A birthday party was supposed to be fun, not an event to make her daughter feel even more of an outsider.
Why couldn’t anything be easy these days?
As they got closer to the opening, Evie lost her balance and face-planted on the floor, sending her glasses flying.
Mara’s stomach pitched. “It’s okay, honey.” She bent and plucked up the frames before they got wedged in the side of the house. As she turned back, a pair of wide shoulders blocked her view of her daughter for a moment. Then the man who’d been jumping with the kids hauled Evie up, her poufy pink skirt flouncing around her, and helped her out of the structure.
Mara couldn’t decide whether to be grateful for the help or nervous Evie would freak out at the attention.
As long as she didn’t puke, Mara thought as she lost her balance again. She tumbled forward to the edge of the entrance, and the corner of the flap that covered the opening snagged on her shirt because that’s how the day was going. Why not flash half the party on her way out the door? Then a warm, slightly calloused hand touched her bare back before she could yank the fabric into place again.
Righting herself, she turned to thank whoever had rescued her daughter only to come face-to-face with the man who’d helped ruin her life.
“You,” she whispered, her throat going dry. Rage roared through her.
Her ex-husband’s pit bull of a divorce attorney offered a friendly smile, clearly not recognizing her. “It’s kind of crazy in here, right?”
Crazy pretty much summed up what Mara was feeling at the moment. Crazy angry. Crazy bitter. Crazy with the need for revenge.
The one thing that didn’t feel crazy was moving forward, crowding Parker Johnson and whispering, “I hate you,” before trying to elbow her way past him.
Confusion marred his movie-star handsome features as he reached for her. “Wait. I don’t even know you.”
She yanked her arm away, throwing him off-balance in the process. He stumbled a step and then he was gone, falling through the opening to the bounce house and landing with a thud on the hard ground.
* * *
“Your friend is crazy,” Parker Johnson muttered, hissing as his brother pressed a bag of frozen peas to the knot on the back of his head.
“She’s not,” Josh insisted tightly. “Hold the peas, Parker.”
His hand replaced Josh’s, and he tried not to wince. “You should have seen the look in her eyes when she said she hated me. If she’d had a dull knife in her hand, she probably would have gutted me.”
“You were her husband’s divorce attorney,” Josh said, as if that explained everything.
“I’ve been a lot of peoples’ divorce attorney.”
“And you’ve never been practically knocked unconscious? I’m shocked.”
Parker narrowed his eyes and ignored the truth of the statement. “Funny.”
Josh moved toward the window of the small laundry room that held the extra freezer where he’d found the peas, and pulled the curtain aside enough to see out. “We need to sing Happy Birthday and cut the cake. This party needs a distraction. I don’t want Anna’s celebration to be a total bust.”
“Go,” Parker told him. “I’m fine.”
Josh turned with a sigh. “Are you sure you don’t need a trip to the ER? It looked like you popped your head pretty hard. You might have a concussion.”
“I don’t have a concussion. I have a dull headache, but at this point my pride is what hurts the most. She caught me off guard.”
“Mara’s great, but the divorce was really tough on her. She lost everything. Starlight is a good place to start over, but she’s had trouble letting go of her anger.”
Parker swallowed down the lump of guilt that tried to lodge itself in his throat. He hadn’t become one of the top attorneys in Seattle by allowing himself to feel bad for the work he did. If he took someone on as a client, their marriage was already way off the rails. Yes, he was cutthroat. Of course his tactics bordered on ruthless. Those things made him the best.
There was no room in his life for entertaining another person’s bruised feelings. When a marriage went south, weakness only led to more heartache. He’d learned that lesson from his parents and he figured he knew way more about losing everything than Mara Reed ever would.
“Take care of Anna and the party,” he told Josh. “I’m sure you’ll love reliving the moment I was felled by a woman.”
“A woman who probably weighs fifty pounds less than you,” Josh clarified with a small smile. Josh and Parker shared the same build, big and broad, although that’s where their physical similarities ended. They had polar-opposite personalities, as well. Frankly, Parker was stunned at how natural the role of dad came to his little brother. “Mara is tiny.”
“That should make the story even better.” Parker had noticed Mara the moment she climbed into the bounce house, chiding himself for admiring the figure of one of the moms at his niece’s nauseatingly pink sixth birthday party. He’d registered her enthusiasm for getting into the structure but realized the venture wasn’t for fun as she’d awkwardly moved toward a kid cowering in the corner.
Parker had been happy for an excuse to stop bouncing with the kids. When the girl had fallen, he’d helped her out, just in the nick of time based on the unnatural shade of green coloring her face.
Next he’d placed a steadying hand on the woman when she’d stumbled. In his mind it had been an innocuous touch, so her reaction had shocked him. The woman hadn’t stuck around after he’d fallen, had climbed out, then lifted her daughter into her arms and disappeared amidst the crowd of partygoers that surrounded him, most of whom he’d known since childhood.
His wannabe mortal enemy had been a stranger, or so he’d thought until Josh explained that her ex-husband was Paul Reed. Parker hadn’t particularly liked the man he’d represented in divorce court three separate times, but friendship was by no means a requisite of his job. In fact, he tried to keep his professional and personal lives separate. Since he usually worked seven days a week, he had very little personal life to speak of.
The sound of a throat clearing several minutes after Josh returned to the party had him glancing toward the laundry room door.
“Come to finish me off?” he asked as Mara Reed walked into the room.
She sniffed. “How’s your head?”
He removed the bag of peas, tossing them to the top of the dryer. “I’ve taken harder hits.”
“Not that I meant for you to fall, but I can’t say you didn’t deserve it,” she told him, crossing her arms over her chest.
He raised a brow. “That’s an interesting way to apologize.”
She gave a humorless laugh. “I’m not here to say sorry.”
Parker felt his mouth drop open. “You practically pushed me out of the bounce house.”
“Not quite. You grabbed for me and I evaded you with my catlike reflexes. Is it my problem that you’re clumsy?”
He had to admire her moxie. The moment had happened so fast, but he was pretty sure she’d given him a tiny shove when he stumbled. Not that he’d throw her under the bus by telling anyone. “If you didn’t seek me out to apologize, why are you here?”
“You took everything from me,” she said instead of answering, her husky voice laced with bitterness.
“Your anger is misdirected,” Parker said, shifting under the weight of her stony glare. “I’m not your ex-husband.” He’d represented hundreds of clients over the years, but this was the first time he’d actually been confronted outside the courtroom. He didn’t like the way Mara Reed made him feel, as if he’d been the one to cause the destruction of her marriage.
“No,” she agreed, her hazel eyes giving him a slow once-over. Despite her obvious dislike of him and the obstinate set of her heart-shaped jaw, there was no denying Mara’s beauty. She had dark hair with a few hints of burnished gold highlighting it and pale, luminous skin that would have inspired the finest Renaissance painter.
She was taller than average, something he’d always appreciated in a woman given that he stood well over six feet. She’d fit perfectly with him, a thought that almost made him laugh for its absurdity. He couldn’t imagine any scenario which would make Mara want to be close to him.
“You made it possible for him to destroy me,” she said, her voice oddly devoid of emotion. He wanted to deny it, but the truth was he couldn’t remember the details of her case, especially since she’d been Paul Reed’s much younger third wife. He’d already been twice down that road with his client. It was a mental trick he employed, not allowing himself to see the opponent as a person. Mara Reed had been a name to him, an entity he’d set out to take down like he was a remote-control drone zeroing in on a target.
“It wasn’t personal.”
She flinched, and he wanted to take back the words. They were simple enough as part of his job, but he imagined they felt like salt dumped into an open wound to Mara. Despite his now pounding headache, he didn’t mean to hurt her. He understood what he did for a living and had come to terms with the man he’d become as a result, even if he didn’t always like himself because of it.
“It was to me,” she whispered and walked away.