The Soldier’s Secret Son
A Christmas surprise for a homecoming soldier…
When Jake Culhane comes home to Cedar River to visit his family, he doesn’t expect to reconnect with the woman he never forgot. Abby Perkins never believed Jake would return, which is why she never told him she’d given birth to his son. But Abby is still in love with the boy who broke her heart when he enlisted. This could be their first Christmas as a real family — if Abby can find the courage to tell Jake he’s a father…
Jake Culhane reined in the tall paint gelding he’d been riding for the past two hours and headed for the corral. It had been years since he’d spent so long in the saddle, and his muscles, he was sure, would pay the price later.
It was a chilly afternoon, typical of Cedar River in winter. After living in Sacramento for the last few years, he’d forgotten how cold a South Dakota winter could be. He dismounted by the stables and hitched the horse to the rail, signaling for one of the young ranch hands to take the gelding in the stall.
A few minutes later, Jake headed for the house.
It still felt strange being back. The house, the ranch—all of it held few good memories for him. It was why he’d left at eighteen and joined the army. The truth was, he’d never been much of a cowboy, and the Triple C, one of the largest ranches in the county, needed someone at the helm who had a way with horses and loved the earth and the ranching life. Which wasn’t him. The ranch was usually in the safe hands of his elder brother, Mitch. But since Mitch had been seriously injured in an accident several weeks earlier, Jake had stepped up and taken over some of the work around the ranch while his brother recuperated.
Jake circled the house and strode through the back door, wiping his boots on the mat in the mudroom before he made his way into the kitchen. Mrs. Bailey, the housekeeper who’d been on the ranch for close to fifteen years, was working behind the countertop and smiled when he entered the room.
He was just about to snatch a muffin from the plate on the counter when his sister-in-law, Tess, walked into the kitchen from the other door. Despite some initial misgivings about Tess being back at the ranch and his instinctive need to protect his brother, Jake liked her, and was happy that she and Mitch had worked through their relationship troubles and were now back together. Particularly since they had a baby on the way, due to arrive in a couple of months’ time.
“Where’s the patient?” he asked and half grinned.
Tess smiled. “Living room. And he’s grumpy.”
“Situation normal then,” Jake replied and grabbed the plate Mrs. Bailey held out toward him, piled with a few muffins. “I’ll see if this will help.”
Jake left the room and walked down the hall, taking a left turn into the front living room.
He spotted his brother by the window, settled in a wheelchair, his broken leg in plaster.
Mitch was two years older, but they had always been good friends as well as brothers. Jake knew the whole family felt grateful Mitch was now recovering from his injuries. It had been a fraught week right after the accident. His younger brother Hank, who was the chief of police in Cedar River, had called him and told him to come home, clearly concerned that Mitch might not make it. Thankfully, his brother had pulled through and was going to make a complete recovery. But it would take some time for him to get back onto his feet. A broken leg, two cracked ribs, countless abrasions and a concussion had almost ended his brother’s life. But things were better now. Mitch was back home. He and Tess had reconciled. They were having a baby together. It was a nice happily-ever-after that Jake knew his older brother deserved.
Their own mother had died years ago and their father, Billie-Jack, had bailed. At just eighteen, Mitch had taken custody of sixteen-year-old Jake and the younger kids—fourteen-year-old twins Joss and Hank, twelve-year-old Grant and eight-year-old Ellie. He’d kept them all together and out of family services, something Jake was eternally grateful for. He also knew the sacrifices Mitch had made to keep them together as a family.
“Hey,” he said, and placed the plate on the coffee table. “I hear you’re in a bad mood.”
Mitch turned his head and scowled. “My wife has been telling tales, I see.”
Although Tess wasn’t technically Mitch’s wife yet, their wedding was set to take place in the next couple of weeks, and he figured that since his brother and sister-in-law had played loop-de-loop to get their relationship back on track, they could call each other whatever they wanted.
Jake grinned. “Anything I can do?”
Mitch harrumphed. “Get me out of this damned chair and fix my leg so I can get back to work.”
“I would if I could,” Jake replied and sat down opposite his brother. “But doctor’s orders and all that. You need to rest up and heal…no quick fix for that, I’m afraid.”
Mitch grumbled under his breath, “Doctors don’t know everything.”
“Sure they do,” Jake said and grabbed a muffin. “You nearly died, remember?”
“I don’t need reminding.”
“I think you do,” Jake said easily. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be such a lousy patient.”
His brother grumbled some more, then turned his attention to business. “How’s the ranch?”
“Running like clockwork. You’ve got good people here looking after things. Wes knows what he’s doing.” Wes Collins had been the foreman at the Triple C for a few years and ran a hardworking crew of ranch hands. “And Tess and Ellie are keeping on top of things. All you need to do is rest and recover.”
Mitch sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. “I know…but it’s not easy. And thanks, you know, for staying on and watching over things.”
Jake shrugged. “Family first.”
“You still moving out today?” Mitch asked and grabbed a muffin.
Jake had been staying at the ranch for the past couple of weeks, but since Mitch was now home and thankfully on the mend, he knew he needed to move and give the soon-to-be-newlyweds some space. Not too far—just into the hotel in town. “That’s the plan.”
“You don’t have to stay at O’Sullivan’s,” Mitch said quietly. “This is still your home.”
“I know,” he replied. “But you and Tess need time alone, and I’m not used to being a third wheel.”
Mitch laughed. “You’re hardly that. And Tess likes having you here as much as I do. Plus, you’ve always been Mrs. Bailey’s favorite.”
“That’s true,” he said and laughed. “Just don’t tell Joss.”
“He thinks he’s everyone’s favorite,” Mitch said of their younger sibling. Joss owned an auto repair shop in town and was raising his two young daughters alone, as his wife had died many years earlier. “But then, every family has that one standout charmer.”
Jake laughed, because Joss was actually considered charming—and quite the town flirt. Whereas Mitch was the patriarchal pillar of strength, Chief of Police Hank was the pillar of the community, twenty-eight-year old Grant was the computer geek and twenty-four-year old Ellie was the baby of the family. And Jake was…what? The bad boy. The war hero. The one who’d left. While the rest of his family had stayed in Cedar River and remained together, stayed close, Jake had served two tours in the middle east, moved to California when he retired from the army and begun a business partnership with Trent, a fellow sergeant, working with some of the top tech companies in the state and quickly creating a highly successful security firm.
He been back to Cedar River twice in the last decade. Once for Mitch’s first wedding to Tess, and the second time to attend Tom Perkins’s funeral. Jake had avoided the town for over six years. Since Tom’s death. Since he’d slept with his best friend’s widow.
His high school girlfriend. Then his ex-girlfriend. Who became his friend’s wife.
Shame and guilt pressed down between his shoulders with razor-sharp precision.
“Why O’Sullivan’s?” Mitch persisted.
Jake shrugged. “It’s the best. And I’ve become used to creature comforts these past few years.”
He knew his brother didn’t believe him. “I told you that Abby’s working at the restaurant there, didn’t I?”
Jake stilled, wondering if Mitch could read his thoughts. Yes, his brother had told him she worked there. He also knew he couldn’t avoid her forever. And really, he didn’t want to. Which was why he figured he might as well move into the hotel for a while and let fate play its hand. Once, long ago, they’d been friends, and they had both cared about Tom…it was enough of a connection for Jake to want things between them to at least be civil.
“So you said.”
“She’s an amazing chef,” Mitch remarked and bit into a muffin. “I thought she might have left town when Tom’s parents moved to Oregon, but she stayed. I guess she wanted to be close to her grandmother.”
“I guess,” Jake said vaguely. Jake had always liked Mr. and Mrs. Perkins. They were good people and clearly great parents. Jake had spent many nights under their roof after one of his many confrontations with his own father. It was difficult now to think about Tom’s grieving parents, about how hard it must have been for them to cope with remaining in the town after they’d lost their only son. He wasn’t really surprised they’d moved to Oregon, since their daughter had been living there for many years.
“Abby’s got a kid,” Mitch said casually. “He’s a couple of grades behind Joss’s youngest.”
Jake had heard Abby had a child. He also knew that she’d remained in Cedar River.
“I’m glad she’s happy,” Jake said quietly.
Mitch’s brows shot up. “I didn’t actually say that. Are you still pissed at her for marrying your best friend?”
Jake sucked in a breath. “Abby and I were over long before she married Tom. Whatever we were to one another is well in the past. It’s just…history.”
“History has a way of repeating itself,” Mitch reminded him. “Take it from me… I never would have imagined that Tess and I would be back together. Let alone be about to have a baby.”
“You still loved Tess. And she loved you. That’s why you’re back together. I’m happy for you both…if anyone deserves it, it’s you.”
Jake shrugged. “Who knows.”
“No girlfriend back in Sacramento?”
He shook his head. “No one serious.”
The truth was, Jake had spent the last decade without forming one committed relationship. While he was in the military, it had been too hard to maintain something long-distance. And afterward, he hadn’t found the time to settle into a relationship. He’d dated several women in the last couple of years, but none seriously. At least, he’d usually broken things off before they became serious. He didn’t lie. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t ever set out to hurt a woman’s feelings. He wasn’t that guy. He’d simply never felt a connection deep enough with anyone to make it anything significant. The only woman he’d ever loved was Abby…and those feelings had faded long ago.
Maybe he just wasn’t a settle-down kind of guy.
“You plan on staying in town a while longer?” Mitch asked.
Jake nodded. “Sure. Maybe another couple of weeks or so.”
“I hoped you might hang around until after Christmas,” his brother said and shrugged lightly. “I mean, I know you’ve got a business to get back to, but it’s been so good to have you back here. I’ve missed you.”
A familiar guilt wound its way through his blood. Jake knew that Mitch knew he’d never felt at home in Cedar River. And he knew why. His memories were tainted by the last few years he’d spent living on the ranch—by their mother’s death, by Billie-Jack’s drunken rages, by the car accident that had nearly killed Hank when his brother was fourteen—an accident that had been caused by their father. And by his typically angsty teenage relationship with Abby. By the time he was eighteen, Jake had been desperate to get away from Cedar River and everything it stood for.
Abby Perkins ditched the apron she’d been wearing all afternoon, tossed her chef’s hat in the laundry tub and made her way out of the kitchen. Her cell beeped in her pocket, and she quickly extracted the phone to check the screen. Her grandmother’s text was brief, and she nodded to herself as she headed through to the staff room and opened her locker.
The picture tacked onto the back of the door made her smile. T.J.’s cheeky and infectious grin always put her in a good mood. Even when he was being bad-tempered and defiant, she adored her son and could not imagine a world without him in it. At not yet six years old, he could be a handful, but she was determined not to dampen his spirit and creativity.
Abby pulled on her jacket and tugged the band from her brown hair, hurled it into her locker and grabbed her bag before she shut the door. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror by the door and grimaced when she noticed how tired she appeared. It had been a long week. The sous chef had quit…again. And two of the waitresses had called in sick. Which meant everyone else was working longer or extra shifts. But Abby loved her job. Being head chef at O’Sullivan’s meant she could live with her son in the town she had been born and raised in.
Cedar River, South Dakota, population three thousand and something, sat in the shadow of the Black Hills. Once, it had been a vibrant copper-and silver-mining community. The mines were all closed now, except for a couple that were part of the growing tourist industry. Tourists came through Cedar River on the way to Nebraska and to stay at one of the many dude ranches popping up, or at the luxurious O’Sullivan Hotel. The place was considered one of the best around, and Abby was proud to be a part of that success.
She’d worked at the hotel for a few years. After graduation, she’d scored a position as an apprentice chef at a small restaurant in Rapid City and a year later headed to Paris to study French cuisine for eighteen months. By then, she was already engaged to Tom Perkins, and he had happily accompanied her to Paris. They had spent an idyllic year and a half together in the city—studying, dreaming, seeing the sights. Abby flourished under the guidance of one of the most talented chefs in the city, and Tom had the opportunity to pursue his love of art and music.
When they returned to Cedar River, Abby began working part-time at one of the best restaurants in Rapid City, commuting back to town on the weekends while Tom took a position at the local hardware store. They made wedding plans and bought a house and settled into their life together, marrying two days after her twenty-first birthday.
Four years later, Tom passed away.
Seven months after that, T.J. was born.
And Abby had to make a life for herself and her son.
She’d considered leaving Cedar River many times…to start fresh, to avoid questions and pity and maybe speculation. But her grandmother loved the small town, and other than T.J., she was the only family Abby had to rely on. She supposed she could have moved to Florida to be close to her mother. But her mom had remarried and had her own life, and although she loved her mom and her stepfather was a nice man, Abby had very little in common with her only surviving parent.
So, she stayed in Cedar River.
Always on edge. Never truly relaxed. Always wondering, always thinking, always knowing that someday, she would have to face the consequences of that one reckless and unforgettable afternoon.
And it was going to happen soon. She was sure of it.
Because Jake Culhane was back.
Just thinking about him made her insides quake.
She hadn’t seen him since two days after Tom’s funeral. Which suited her just fine. She didn’t want to see Jake. But she knew it was inevitable. Cedar River was a small town. At some point, their paths would cross. He’d been back a few weeks, since his brother’s accident, and Abby had deliberately kept a low profile, avoiding her usual routine, coming and going from work as discreetly as she could. She’d tried to stay away from the supermarket, the bank, the bakery—anywhere she thought he might show up. But of course, she still had to live her life, still had erands to run and things she had to do. She couldn’t hide forever.
Thankfully, none of the Culhanes regularly frequented the hotel eateries, as neither family liked the other very much. It wasn’t exactly a feud, but since the O’Sullivan and Culhane brothers had gone to the same high school, there was enough testosterone between them to cause a rift that was mainly borne out of a leftover football rivalry.
Abby headed for the staff parking area and within minutes was in her sedan driving from the hotel. She thought about dismissing her grandmother’s text message and then changed her mind. T.J. wanted pizza for dinner, and since it was Friday night, she relented and drove directly to JoJo’s Pizza Parlor. She scored a parking space outside and switched off the ignition. As always, the restaurant was busy, and she wished she’d called beforehand and placed her order.
Once she was inside, Abby walked toward the counter and waited behind a young couple placing a large order. She looked around, noticing how crowded the restaurant was. All the booth seats were occupied and most of the tables. A couple of women were sitting at the bar, and a few people were seated in the takeout area, clearly waiting for their orders. She fiddled with her car keys as she waited and scanned the restaurant again, catching a glimpse of a group in one of the booths. Four men. All tall and broad shouldered. She recognized the chief of police, Hank Culhane, immediately. And his twin, Joss. The two other men were darker haired. And then dread crawled over her skin when she recognized Jake Culhane’s all-too-familiar profile.
His military crew cut was unmissable. His shoulders were exactly as she remembered. His eyes, she knew, were brilliantly green and his jaw strong and uncompromising. He’d always been ridiculously attractive. Since high school. They’d dated for all of senior year, and Abby had been undeniably in love with him. Until he’d broken her heart. Of course, she knew his betrayal wasn’t deliberate. But Jake wanted a military career, and Abby had no intention of being the girlfriend—or the wife—of a soldier. She’d watched her own mother go down that path, and it wasn’t a life she wanted for herself. So, they broke up, Jake left town and Abby started dating Tom Perkins.
And then, as if on cue, his shoulders tightened, and he turned his head a fraction.
Goose bumps broke out over her skin, and she moved closer to the counter when the couple in front moved to the side, ready to give her order. She quickly selected what she wanted from the menu, paid for the pizza, stuffed the receipt in her purse and was about to head toward the waiting area when she heard an all-too-familiar voice behind her.
She took a breath, pulled on every ounce of bravado she possessed and turned.
Up close, Jake Culhane was just as gorgeous as she remembered. Six feet two, broad shoulders, the most dazzling green eyes, clean-shaven jaw—he was the perfect picture of masculinity. He was still the most handsome man she’d ever known. The only man who could churn her up inside. The only man who ever made her lose her good sense and reason.
Tom’s best friend.
And the father of her son.
“Oh, hey, Jake,” she said as casually as she could. “I heard you were back. How’s Mitch?”
The whole town knew about the accident that had almost killed his older brother. Thankfully, Mitch had survived, but the event had been serious enough to drag Jake back to the town he hated. She had no idea why he was still hanging around. Jake’s visits had always been a few days here or there at the most. In between his tours in Iraq, he’d rarely returned. Now, as he was retired from the military, she had heard he owned some kind of high-tech security business. Not that she cared. She’d stopped caring about Jake a long time ago. But they had history.
And a son.
A child he didn’t know was his.
To everyone who knew her, T.J. was Tom’s child. Only her grandmother, her mom and her best friend, Renee, knew the truth. Renee lived in Denver, which was where Abby had gone once she’d discovered she was pregnant. She’d needed to clear her head, to grieve for the husband she had lost and work out the next phase in her life. She spent six months with her friend, including the two months after T.J.’s birth. Born nearly seven weeks premature, her son had fought a fierce battle to survive. He’d spent three weeks in the NICU before she could take him home. She returned to Cedar River with a healthy two-month-old baby, and no one questioned his paternity.
Except Tom’s parents.
They knew Tom wasn’t able to get her pregnant. After two years of trying to have a baby, tests had proven that she would need to pursue a sperm donor if they wanted to have a child. They were considering their options when Tom unexpectedly suffered a severe stroke. He pulled through and for three weeks Abby believed everything would be okay—until another stroke claimed his life.
“He’s fine,” she heard Jake say, barely able to hear his voice above the screeching going off in her head. “Getting better every day. How are you?”
It was polite conversation. Too polite. The last time they had spoken, it had been heated and unpleasant. A morning-after conversation. A postmortem of the worst kind. Words she never wanted to hear again.
“Great. Never better. You?”
His eyes narrowed fractionally. “Fine. How’s your grandmother?”
Gran had always called Jake Abby’s quicksand. And she couldn’t disagree. When she was seventeen, she had been achingly in love with him. He had been her first real kiss, her first lover.
My last kiss. My last lover.
Her son’s face flashed in front of her eyes, and she willed the image away. She didn’t want to think about T.J. She didn’t want to make comparisons with the man standing in front of her. She didn’t want to acknowledge that her son’s eyes were exactly the same shade of green, or that they shared an identical birthmark, or that the tiny cleft in his chin was a shadow of the man whose DNA he shared.
Panic clawed at her skin, and she fought every impulse she possessed to run and not look back. And to pretend that nothing was going to change. That Jake would soon leave town and she could feel normal again.
Because it felt different.
Ever since she learned he was back, she’d been on edge. Because she knew what was coming—the truth she needed to tell. To Jake and to her son.
“Gran is her usual wonderful self,” she replied casually, and willed her food order to hurry up so she could make her getaway. “Still volunteering at the local veterans’ home. I hear you left the military?”
“My tour was up,” he replied. “It felt like the right time to hang up the combat boots.”
Abby didn’t want to think about what he’d seen and endured over the course of his tours in Iraq. Her own father had been killed in Desert Storm, and after watching her mother grieve for decades, Abby had been determined she would never get involved with a soldier. Instead, she’d married Tom—safe and dependable—exactly what her young heart had yearned for.
“Well, I’m happy you came back in one piece,” she said flippantly.
“I told you I would.”
His words had pinpoint accuracy. At eighteen, she’d made her feelings very clear. Terrified he would be injured, or worse, Abby had used his joining the army as an excuse to bail from their teenage romance. Jake had also been clear: he needed to enlist—it was all that mattered.
And Abby wasn’t naive enough to imagine that he’d changed. Jake didn’t have the reputation of a man who hung around. He’d left Cedar River without looking back. He’d left their relationship. And Abby had had every right to forge a new life for herself after he was gone. A life with Tom, because her husband had been a kind and considerate man who had loved her dearly. And he’d stayed by her side, fully supporting her decision to work in Cedar River when she could have had her pick of several of the finest restaurants on the West Coast after returning from Paris.
But Tom knew how important Cedar River was to Abby. Her grandmother had always called it home. Her father and grandfather were buried in the large cemetery at the edge of town. It was a town filled with memory and comfort and the hope for the future. The place where she wanted to raise her son.
But it was also Jake’s hometown.
And now that Jake was back, Abby had choices to make.
Don’t tell him…
Let him work it out for himself.
It wasn’t as though she’d announced to the world that T.J. was Tom’s son. She’d simply never been asked to explain why her child looked nothing like her auburn-haired husband. People made assumptions. And Abby was essentially a private person. Too private to be bandying around the details of her personal life.
But she also liked to think she was a truthful person. She was honest in every other aspect of her life. But not when it came to Jake. And now, since everything was different, the truth hovered on the edge of her tongue.
“Jake—” She said his name almost as though it pained her. “I think we should—”
“He’d want us to be friends, you know,” he said, cutting her off.
He. Tom. Abby knew how much her husband had liked the man in front of her. Tom had never failed to remind her what a great guy Jake was. About how Jake had stood up for him in high school, protected him from schoolyard bullies, because Tom was a small and sickly and quiet. While Jake was the motorcycle-riding bad boy. They were polar opposites…and yet, they had formed a solid friendship, grounded in trust and mutual respect.
But she knew her time was up. Jake would work it out.
Abby just needed to summon the courage to tell him first.
Jake was back at the booth right after Abby had collected her order and left the restaurant. And his brothers couldn’t wait to comment on the encounter.
It had been an uncomfortable interaction…although not exactly cold. They had too much history to act as though they were strangers to one another. Yet he’d felt the tension emanating from her. But damn, she was still so beautiful. Her brown hair still shone, her pale blue eyes were as mesmerizing as they’d been in high school. Back then, he’d been crazy for her. But it didn’t last. Abby freaked out the moment he said he was joining the army. She didn’t want to be a soldier’s girlfriend. Or wife. They broke up just after graduation.
Jake was already deep into his first boot camp when he’d received a short phone call from Tom, asking if he was okay with his dating Abby. Of course, he was far from okay with whole idea, but there was hardly anything he felt he could really do about it. They were adults. He and Abby were over. And Tom was an honorable guy. True, Jake was pissed for a while, but he got over it. The army, and the front line, were no place for a man haunted by the memory of a girl he’d once cared about. So he wished his friend luck and got on with his life.
And everything was okay for a long time. Until Tom died.
When Jake returned to Cedar River and, for a brief moment, he and Abby found solace in each other’s arms.
He shrugged and ignored his brother’s jibe. Joss was always the one to speak his mind. Jake had spent so little time with his family in the last decade, sometimes he struggled fitting into the brotherly dynamic that the others clearly shared. Sitting with Joss, Hank and Grant, he could see how close they were.
“It was okay,” he replied and drank from the glass in front of him. He’d never been much of a drinker, no doubt due to watching his father drown his sorrows in liquor time and time again. And Jake liked to be in control one hundred percent of the time.
“You’re a lousy liar,” Joss remarked and grinned. “But this is a small town, so you can’t avoid her forever.”
“I don’t plan on it,” he said casually, thinking it was exactly why he intended on staying at O’Sullivan’s for a while. “But it was a long time ago, and I don’t imagine Abby spares me a thought from one day to the next.”
Hank, always the peacemaker, changed the subject. “You staying for the wedding?”
“Of course. Weddings and funerals, that’s me.” Jake felt bad the moment he said the words, because he hadn’t returned for Joss’s wife’s funeral. He’d been unable to take leave at the time, as he’d been deployed on a mission. He looked at his brother. “Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
Joss shook his head. “It’s okay. We all get it, you know, what you did over there. We know how important it was. I don’t imagine it was easy settling back into civilian life.”
He shrugged again. His brothers knew some of where he’d been and what he’d done during his two tours. Only some. It wasn’t exactly dinner conversation. “I take it day by day.”
“We’re really proud of you.”
Grant’s words wrapped around his bones. He wondered how proud they’d be if they knew he’d slept with his best friend’s wife two days after the other man’s funeral. But perhaps they wouldn’t judge. Perhaps they’d understand that his connection to Abby ran deep—deeper than he’d ever been able to admit, even to himself.
When he’d returned to Cedar River a few weeks earlier, he knew he had some bridges to mend with his family. Other than Mitch, he rarely talked to the rest of them. He had a busy life in Sacramento and spent most of his time working. He and his business partner Trent had made a lot of money in a very short time, and they had recently been offered a ridiculously large sum by a competitor who wanted to buy them out. The offer was still on the table, as neither Jake nor Trent was certain they wanted to sell. If they did, he would have to do something else, and he wasn’t sure what. Buy a new house? A new car or motorbike? Go on a long vacation? Invest in another business? The truth was, Jake had no real inclination to settle anywhere. He leased a fully furnished condo in Sacramento, drove a top-of-the-range SUV, had more money than he knew what to do with…and carried around an emptiness he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to fill. Of course, he thought about the things some of his friends back in Sacramento had—a wife and kids, or at the very least, some kind of committed relationship with another human being.
But…something held him back.
He couldn’t work out why he was so reluctant to have a serious relationship. His dating life had been casual. Too casual. The last time he’d spent the entire night with a woman had been six years ago. With Abby. And that had ended up being a disaster.
Tired of thinking about it, Jake bailed on his brothers and headed for the hotel. O’Sullivan’s was a boutique-style hotel, with thirty-odd rooms, two restaurants and a bar, and several conference rooms. The place was considered one of the best accommodations in the state. The concierge greeted him and he was quickly checked in. Jake was just about to head to his room when he recognized Kieran O’Sullivan striding across the foyer. Kieran’s family owed the hotel—as well as half of the commercial property in Cedar River—and the other man was a doctor on staff at the local hospital. In fact, he’d been on duty the night Mitch had been pulled from the mine shaft accident, and Jake suspected that the reason his brother was alive was because of the man standing in front of him. They weren’t exactly friends, but over the years their high school rivalry had dissipated, and now they were friendly enough.
They shook hands, and Kieran spoke first. “How’s the patient?”
Jake grinned. “Eager to stop being a patient.”
Kieran laughed. “Well, I’m thrilled Mitch’s on the mend.” He glanced at the swipe card in Jake’s hand. “Are you checking in?”
He shrugged. “For a few days.”
They chatted for a few minutes about Jake’s work and about the hospital, even a little more about Mitch’s recovery. When they parted ways and Jake headed for his room, he experienced an odd sense of reconnect. He’d always though Kieran the most reasonable of the O’Sullivans, kind of like how he was sure most people thought Hank was the most likable Culhane. And was very grateful to the other man for saving his brother’s life. Plus he liked the idea of not being treated like a complete outsider in town.
He slept like a log that night and awoke the following morning feeling refreshed, which surprised him. Since he’d been back in town his sleep had been mostly restless. He showered, changed into jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a leather jacket and boots, and then headed downstairs to meet Hank for breakfast in the main restaurant. Out of all his siblings, Hank was the most reasonable and honest, with an abundance of integrity. He was the youngest person to have ever been appointed chief of police, a title he’d held for a few years. Jake respected his brother’s strict moral code and the way he’d shown such incredible courage all those years ago, when he’d almost been killed in a car wreck. The ordeal had galvanized them as a family—and had made Jake hate Billie-Jack more than he’d imagined he could hate anyone.
He knew the old man was still alive, knew he lived somewhere in Arizona…but he had no interest in ever reconnecting with his father.
“You paid that speeding fine yet?” Hank reminded him as they were shown to a table and sat down, his brother’s six-foot-three frame large enough to block the sun.
Jake had caught a speeding ticket on his motorcycle a week earlier. “Not yet.”
“Make sure you do,” his brother said. “Don’t want to lock you up for unpaid fines.”
He grinned. “I’ll stop by on Monday. So, what’s good here?” he asked and picked up a menu.
“If Abby’s cooking,” Hank remarked, “everything.”
Jake was well acquainted with Abby’s cooking. Even before she’d graduated and headed to Paris to study, she had spent hours in the kitchen at the Triple C. He loathed that he tensed at the mere mention of her name.
“You knew she worked here, right?” Hank asked.
He shrugged. “I knew.”
“Is that why we’re here?” Hank asked and grinned.
“We’re here because you said you wanted to catch up,” he reminded his brother. “And I happen to be staying right upstairs.”
“I thought breakfast would be a good idea,” Hank said. “You hardly touched the pizza last night.”
A waiter appeared and took their order, and within minutes, coffee was placed in front of them. Jake noticed how everyone acknowledged his brother. Hank possessed a kind of calming, likable aura that drew people in.
“You seeing anyone at the moment?” he asked and sugared his coffee.
Hank shook his head. “Nah. You?”
“Nope. Last I heard I’m afraid of commitment. What’s your excuse?”
His brother shrugged. “No time. No woman around here that hasn’t tossed me into the friend zone.”
“Ouch,” he said and grinned. “That’s gotta suck.”
He didn’t hear Hank’s reply, because at that moment Abby appeared at a table about twenty feet away and began chatting to the seated patrons. She wore her chef’s coat and clogs and was talking and smiling, and the moment she noticed his presence in her restaurant was absurdly obvious. Her shoulders tightened, her mouth pressed into a thin line and she met his gaze straight on. Never in his life had he met anyone with such a unique shade of pale blue eyes. He tried not to stare at her or to notice the way her body curved in all the right places. He’d had years to get over his physical reaction to her…ample time to forget the smooth texture of her skin or the sweet taste of her lips. But seeing her brought the memories back with lightning force.
“Are you okay?”
Hank’s voice again, drilling into his brain and reminding him what an idiot he was. “I’m fine,” he said and dragged his gaze away.
“Still got it bad for her, hmm?”
Jake scowled. “Ancient history.”
“I like Abby,” Hank remarked.
“I think she and Tom were happy. But…”
“But?” He met his brother’s gaze. “Your point?”
Hank shrugged. “Tom’s gone…that’s all I’m saying. And you and Abby are—”
“Nothing to each other,” he said, cutting him off.
“So, if I tell you she’s on her way over here, that won’t even register on your radar?”
His shoulders twitched. “Not at all.”
They both knew it was a lie. Seconds later, Abby was standing by the table, arms crossed, clearly trying not to look at him.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said with what was clearly a forced smile.
“Hey, Abby,” Hank said easily. “What’s good today?”
“Pancakes,” she replied. “With bacon and maple butter.”
Jake’s stomach groaned, and he realized he hadn’t really eaten since lunch at the ranch the previous day. He also suspected by the way Abby was deliberately avoiding his gaze that she was burning to put arsenic in his food.
“That sounds good,” Hank said and grinned, clearly knowing exactly how uncomfortable Jake was feeling.
“I’ll send the waiter back to take your order.”
“I was just telling Jake how everything on the menu is good,” Hank said so casually that Jake knew something else was coming. “And since Jake is staying at the hotel now, he’ll have a chance to try the whole menu.”
He saw her stiffen, and her blue eyes darkened. “You’re staying here?”
He nodded. “For a while.”
“Don’t you have to get back to wherever you’re from?”
“Sacramento,” he supplied and figured she knew exactly where he lived. “And no, not immediately.”
He saw something flitter across her face—like uncertainty and fear rolled into one. Which didn’t make sense. She had no reason to be afraid of him. They were ancient history. She took a deep breath and spoke. “Well, enjoy your meal. ’Bye, Chief.”
Once she was gone and out of hearing range, Hank spoke again.
“Yeah, you were right,” he said and grinned broadly. “You two are nothing to each other.”
“Don’t be a jerk.”
Hank laughed. “She looked like she either wanted to kiss you or kill you…for your sake, I hope it’s the former.”
He’s staying at my hotel.
Abby wanted to scream. She’d long ago made the decision to not be a temperamental chef, so she didn’t. But as she charged back into the kitchen, shoulders tight, her head pounding, Abby worked herself up in a frenzy so intense her ribs actually ached.
She didn’t want him at the hotel.
It was too…close.
She didn’t want him eating in her restaurant. Didn’t want to see him striding across the foyer, looking so good in his jeans and leather jacket, didn’t want to imagine him sleeping in one of the rooms upstairs. The hotel, the restaurant were her places. Her haven. Her escape from everything that was linked to Jake Culhane.
It was where she often brought her son on Sundays for breakfast. It was where she worked. Where people knew her. Trusted her. Where no one suspected the truth about T.J.’s paternity because she kept a low profile on her private life. Where she felt safe from the truth being discovered. What if he saw T.J.? Jake was a smart guy. It wouldn’t take a lot of effort to figure it out.
Damn Jake Culhane.
She pushed some strength into her limbs and got back to work, ignoring the throb in her head and the anxiety churning in her belly.
Abby wasn’t sure how she managed to get through the remainder of her shift, but she was relieved when eleven o’clock came and she could swipe out, allowing the other chef to take over lunch. She appreciated that Liam O’Sullivan was a good boss and understood her need to work shorter shifts. This enabled her to also work from home, planning menus, ordering produce, co-ordinating events for the hotel, as well as giving her time with her son, particularly on the weekends. She ditched her whites, grabbed her bag and left through the staff exit. Her car was parked in its reserved space, and she rushed toward the vehicle, stopping abruptly when she spotted Jake leaning on her hood and cursing the personalized plates that made it clear which vehicle was hers.
She stood about ten feet away. “What do you want, Jake?”
She shook her head, wondering, fearing, that he would ask her about her son. His son. But why would he? He’d never met T.J. “What about?”
“The past,” he quipped and pushed himself off the car. “The present.”
God, he was gorgeous. Everything about him was acutely masculine. His broad shoulders, lean waist and hips, long legs, dark hair, and glittering green eyes. Awareness flittered across her skin, and she chastised herself immediately. Thinking Jake was attractive was totally out of the question.
“I think we said everything that needed to be said years ago.”
“That was just guilt and regret talking,” he reminded her.
But Abby didn’t need reminding. She only had to look at her son to remember what they had done and how they had betrayed Tom. The irony was, Abby didn’t regret making love with Jake that afternoon so long ago. Because if she did, it would mean she regretted conceiving her son…and a world without T.J. was unthinkable.
She stepped closer, conscious that they were standing in the middle of a parking area and could easily be seen and heard. “I’d rather forget it happened. I wasn’t in my right mind. I was grieving and—”
“I know that, Abby,” he said, cutting her off. “We were both grieving. I actually wanted to apologize…to say I’m sorry for anything I may have said or done afterward. We both said some things we normally wouldn’t have.”
Abby remembered. She’d said she hated him and never wanted to see him again. Yes…they had said some harsh and hurtful things that day.
But they had also made a baby.
A baby she’d kept a secret for six years.
“Okay,” she said stiffly. “Apology accepted. And I’m sorry, too…for what I said.”
Despite the apologies, the tension between them was so thick, she knew he was as skeptical as she was. After a moment, Abby gave a brittle laugh. “Why don’t we let each other off the hook, Jake? We don’t have to do this. We can leave the past exactly where it is and simply get on with the rest of our lives.”
As she said the words, Abby felt like a fraud. Because until Jake knew the truth, she knew she would always be looking over her shoulder. Wondering. Fearing.
“I don’t want to be at odds with you, Abby. We were friends once… I’d like to think we could be again.”
Friends? Were they? Lovers, certainly. And their relationship in high school had been passionate from the beginning. A complete contrast from her relationship with Tom, which had been grounded in friendship and trust and common ideals. With Jake, it had been hot and angsty and all about passion and sex. Okay…maybe not all. There had been times when he was her best friend as well as her lover. And from the way her blood was churning though her veins, some of those feelings lingered still. There was no denying Jake was attractive and sexy as sin.
“Sure,” she said casually. “Friends. No problem.”
He held out his hand, and after a moment she took it, feeling his long fingers close around hers. It had been years since they’d touched, and a familiar jolt of electric awareness coursed up her arm and landed squarely in her belly. Like always, she was at the mercy of her stupid physical attraction for him. Desperate to get away, Abby pulled her hand free and walked to the driver’s side of her car.
“See you around,” she said and managed a half smile.
Then she got into her car and drove from the parking area as swiftly as the law allowed.
By the time she got home, Abby was a quivering wreck. She walked up the steps and was greeted by her grandmother at the front door. Moving next door once she returned to Cedar River with her newborn son had been a no-brainer. She’d grown up in Gran’s house and loved the leafy, quiet street. Her own home, next door to her grandmothers, wasn’t as big. And Gran’s had a spacious apartment above the garage that she rented out from time to time, but Abby loved her little house with its large yard and picket fence.
“You look terrible,” Patience Reed remarked as she crossed the threshold and walked down the hallway.
“Bad morning,” she said, following her. “Where’s T.J.?”
“Reading in the living room. He said he wanted to finish the next chapter.”
Abby knew her highly intelligent son was also looking to absorb new reading material, so she always had a fresh supply of books for him to read.
“I need coffee,” she said and walked into the kitchen.
Her grandmother was close behind her. “Difficult customers?”
“Just one,” Abby replied and sank down into a chair. “Jake.”
“You saw him again?”
She nodded. “He wants to be ‘friends.’” She put quotes around the word with her fingers.
Her grandmother’s brows came up. “And what do you want?”
“Part of me wants him to go back to California and leave me in peace,” she said honestly. “But that doesn’t look likely to happen anytime soon, since he’s just checked into the hotel.”
“So, he’s staying in town?”
“For the moment,” she replied and sighed. “I don’t understand why, since his brother is out of the hospital and making a full recovery, from what I hear.”
Her grandmother’s expression narrowed. “Do you think he suspects something?”
Abby shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t see how he could. I don’t know, Gran, maybe someone has said something to him and he’s hanging around to check it out. I don’t know what Jake thinks. I never have. The man is a closed book. I just know that he’s staying at the hotel and I’m a nervous wreck.”
Patience poured coffee and came around the countertop. “You knew this would happen, Abby. It was always inevitable, considering his family is settled here. And it’s the right time for the truth to come out. We both know that.”
“At T.J.’s expense?” She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“I can’t imagine Jake would be a threat to his son.”
“Don’t call him that, Gran,” Abby said tightly.
“It’s the truth, and the truth needs to be faced. I know you think you’ve done the right thing by allowing T.J. to believe that Tom is his father, but until you tell him the truth about Jake, it’s going to be a lie that you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life. And for his.”
Shame pushed down on her shoulders. Because her grandmother was right. She had allowed T.J. to think Tom was his dad. And she’d never corrected anyone’s assumptions about Tom being the father, either. But now, things were very different. Jake’s unexpected return had changed everything and she knew her son needed to be emotionally prepared for what was inevitable—meeting his biological father.
“I thought I’d have more time,” she admitted.
“You’ve had six years, Abby.”
Her guilt amplified. “I know you’re right. In my heart I know Jake has the right to know. And so does T.J. But I’m worried that Jake won’t hang around…and where will that leave T.J.?”
Her grandmother regarded her cynically. “Sounds to me like you’re looking for excuses to avoid telling Jake what you should have told him when you first discovered you were pregnant.”
Patience had always made her disapproval clear, but she had still supported Abby completely. And she knew her grandmother adored T.J.
“I don’t know what to do, that’s the truth. For all I know, Jake could pack his bags and leave tomorrow, so I don’t see the point in creating chaos unnecessarily.”
“Does that mean you’re not going to tell him?” her grandmother asked bluntly.
Abby sighed. “No, Gran, it means I’m going to take some time and see how things pan out. If Jake—”
“Proves himself worthy?” her grandmother suggested.
“Something like that.”
“Do you think that’s fair?”
Abby shrugged. “No…but I have to protect my son, and I will do that at all costs.”
Patience nodded agreeably. “I know you want to protect him. But do you think that perhaps you also want to protect yourself?”
Abby feigned ignorance. “I don’t know what you—”
Her grandmother held her gaze. “He’s always been quicksand for you, Abby. Did you think time would make that go away?”
“I guess I had hoped it would,” she replied and took a shuddering breath. “My feelings toward Jake have always been complicated,” Abby admitted on a sigh. “But if I tell him, it has to be because it’s what’s best for T.J.”
“You know I support you,” Patience said generously. “But you need to tell him the truth, Abby, while you have the opportunity and before that opportunity is taken from you.”
She knew her grandmother was right.
But the idea still scared her to pieces. She had no idea what Jake’s reaction would be. Anger? Disbelief? Or worse…indifference? What if he wanted nothing to do with T.J.? She hoped, deep in her heart, that there was a middle road, some way of Jake knowing the truth without the revelation having any negative impact on T.J.’s life.
Or on mine.
She got to her feet, pulled her cell phone from her bag and called the hotel.
Seconds later she was put through to Jake’s room.
He was silent for a moment and her knees trembled.
“I’m surprised to hear from you.”
Abby took a long breath. “We need to talk, Jake. Can you meet me somewhere?”
She was sure she heard him hesitate. “Ah…sure.”
“The Loose Moose, seven o’clock,” she said quickly, before she lost her nerve, and then ended the call before she could change her mind.