For a Thursday it had been one hell of a bad day.
Jillian Delaney navigated across the grocery store parking lot, cursing her rotten luck. It wasn’t a Monday or a Friday the thirteenth. She hadn’t broken a mirror, walked under a ladder or tripped over a black cat. There was simply no explanation for the words that had come from her boss’s mouth.
She stopped the cart and let it rest against her hip while she opened the back door. The cart slipped and she cringed as the shopping cart gouged a trail across the cherry red fender of her new car.
“Damn,” she hissed, examining the wound. Could this day get any worse?
The Fates only laughed at the foolish question and split the bottom of the plastic bag in her hand. Groceries showered the pavement. Two cans of vegetables hit the asphalt with metallic thuds before splitting up and rolling in opposite directions. A can of soup ricocheted off a can of tomato paste. And the jumbo thirty-nine-ounce can of coffee landed on her foot.
Jill let loose a short, frustrated scream and threw the torn bag into the car. Tears burned her eyes, but she concentrated on her anger. She was not going to cry in the grocery store parking lot. She would cry when she got home, then comfort herself with the one-pound bag of chocolate she’d just bought. One by one she picked up her canned goods and pelted them into the backseat. Half bounced back at her—par for the course today.
Some idiot had stolen her promotion. For four years she coveted that job, waiting for Mrs. Bright to retire. Now some out-of-towner with a fancy résumé—she wasn’t even from New Hampshire—had swooped in and pulled the rug out from under her. In two weeks, somebody else would be the head librarian at the Carlson Memorial Library.
Jill swore and kicked the fender, leaving a nice little dent right below the scratch. In for a penny… She kicked it again.
Pain exploded in her toes. An anguished growl tore from her throat and she sat on the edge of the backseat. With one hand, she rubbed her bruised toes while the other hand massaged her temple. Maybe a good, public cry was inevitable, because her day was getting worse by the second.
A pair of men’s Reeboks stopped in front of her. “Hi there. Is there a problem?”
Geez, do I look that bad? Or maybe the screeches of outrage had given her away. She stood with a weary sigh.
The man occupying the Reeboks smiled at her and she completely forgot what she was going to say.
His tall frame was a tad bit thinner than she usually liked, but he still managed to fill out his worn jeans and Red Sox T-shirt pretty well. Her gaze skimmed over his clean-shaven jaw, his sensually curved lips. He had thick, mahogany-hued hair she would bet curled like mad if he didn’t keep it trimmed short. And those dark chocolate eyes…
Jill pressed her lips together to keep from grinning like an idiot. Spring was most definitely in the air, and it had been a while since spring had sprung. “I’m fine—really. Thanks for asking.”
“I, uh…I appreciate the groceries but I bought my own,” he said, waving toward his own cart.
“What?” Wasn’t it just her luck to bump into a cute guy whose elevator didn’t go all the way to the top? If only she was more superstitious, she’d have a clue what she’d done to bring this on herself. Had she spilled salt at lunch and not tossed it over her shoulder? “Look, pal, I’m not in the mood for any games right now, so if you move your cart I’ll just leave, okay?”
“That’s my car.”
“What? I don’t…” She looked over her shoulder and the words died on her lips. Her travel mug was red, not blue. And her center console hadn’t been that organized since it left the dealership.
“This isn’t my car!”
The man smiled at her—cautiously, as if she might bite. “Like I said, it’s my car. But there’s a lot of them out there, so it’s an easy enough mistake.”
The tears welled with renewed vigor and she flicked her wrist at the freshly abused fender. “I beat up your car.”
He bent low to examine the damage and, despite her distress, she couldn’t resist a quick peek at his ass. Nice. Very nice indeed. Too bad it had taken her less than a minute to make a fool of herself in front of the best-looking fish she’d seen in the sea lately.
“It’s fixable. I doubt it will cost more than what my insurance deductible is, so there’s no sense in going through them.”
“Please don’t call the police. My brother-in-law is the chief and I’ll never live this down.”
“No need for cops. We can exchange info and I’ll let you know what the estimate comes to. You will pay for it, right?”
“Of course,” Jill muttered while she dug in her purse for a pen.
She didn’t look forward to tightening her belt another notch. The damage she’d done to her credit cards in anticipation of her promotion was substantial. “My name is Jill Delaney. Here’s my address and phone number.”
He took the slip of paper she handed him. “Jill Delaney?”
“Yeah, it’s all right there.” She leaned into the car to gather up her loose canned goods.
“You’re the children’s librarian?”
How does he know that? She jerked back and smacked her head on the roof of the car. “Ouch!”
Real concern furrowed his brow. “Are you okay?”
She rubbed at the spot, wincing against the pain. “No, I am not okay. I’m having the worst day of my life!”
“I’m sorry. I—”
“No—the second worst day,” she continued after a shaky breath. There were those pesky tears again, and she blinked them back. “The worst day will come in two weeks when I have to meet the bitch who stole my promotion.”
She stopped rubbing her head and looked at him as a horrible suspicion wormed its way into her mind. “How did you know I’m the children’s librarian?”
“I’m Ethan Cooper,” he replied, extending his hand. “The bitch is my mother.”
She knew her jaw dropped, but she couldn’t help it. Of all the people she had to run into right now, why did it have to be him? Humiliation surged from a trickle to a raging flood. She felt reason slipping away, as it always did when she embarrassed herself.
Angry words bottlenecked in her throat, fighting to be first. “I don’t… Son of a bitch!”
He jerked back, giving her a startled glance. “You’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you? They let you work with children?”
She blew upwards at the blonde wisps forever escaping her ponytail. “I can’t believe this is happening to me! Do you know what your mother did to me?”
“My mother didn’t do anything to you.” He looked confused and maybe a little angry. “There was an opening for a job she’s qualified for and she applied. The trustees hired her. It has nothing to do with you, sunshine.”
The bastard made the endearment sound like an insult. It was an insult. Normally, it would make her feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But right now she just wanted to stomp on his toes.
“I know it had nothing to do with me. But that was my promotion. I worked so hard—”
Jill swallowed the rest of the sentence and started throwing her groceries back into her cart, muttering words she didn’t care if he heard. “Nothing to do with me… I waited four years… She’s not even from here.”
Ethan leaned over her shoulder to peer into the car. “Do you need a hand with those?”
“Please just leave me alone. If you’re nice to me I’ll start bawling right here in the parking lot.”
He held up his hands. “Look, sunshine, I—”
She stood and put her hands on her hips, looking him in the eye. “Stop calling me sunshine.”
His narrowed gaze didn’t flinch away from hers. “It’s better than some of the other names that have crossed my mind in the last two minutes.”
“You don’t even know me,” she protested.
He crossed his arms, dragging the hems of his T-shirt sleeves up over his biceps. Very nice biceps, too. She tried not to look, but it wasn’t easy. And those shoulders…
He didn’t speak again until she made herself look up. “You don’t know my mother, but you called her a bitch.”
“She stole my job.”
He threw up his hands. “I don’t have time to talk in circles with a crazy woman—”
“Crazy?” Just who did he think he was?
“Fine—she stole your job. We’re horrible people and there’s a massive conspiracy out to get you. Happy? Now get your shit out of my car so I can go home.”
Fury tied Jill’s tongue so all she could do was turn around and start piling cans in her arms. She was going to start crying any second, and she didn’t want to add that to her list of already pathetic behavior. For every two she picked up one fell and she finally just dumped what she had into the cart and threw the rest in, one at a time. Of course a can had rolled under the car, so she got down on her hands and knees to fish it out.
Her fingers closed over it just as Ethan Cooper mumbled something above her. She struggled to her feet. “What did you say?”
“I said I’ll be sure to tell my mother she can look forward to working with you.”
The sarcasm was as thick as cheap mascara and she glared at him. “You know what? Fine—I quit.”
She swung her cart around and walked away, her chin thrust in the air. Oh God, where did I park my car?
“Wait,” he said, and her heart lurched in her chest when he grabbed her elbow. “You can’t quit.”
“Why not?” she demanded, wondering even as the words left her mouth if she’d gone insane. He was right. She couldn’t quit her job. She had bills to pay—a lot of bills.
His hand was warm through her thin sweater, making her flesh tingle. She shook it off. She didn’t take chemistry in school, but she knew it when she felt it. And Ethan Cooper was the last man on the planet she wanted to share any kind of sexual chemistry with.
And oh boy, did she ever feel it. Why was this happening to her? Why couldn’t she have met this guy at a bar, or at the damn laundromat? Instead of sharing a drink, they were having a pissing match in the middle of the grocery store parking lot.
And she’d just quit her job. “Your mother is very capable from what I understand.”
“She is, but she hasn’t even started yet. What is she supposed to do without you?”
Jill refused to back down from his anger. “Melinda—the page—knows my job almost as well as I do. She can be the children’s librarian.”
She thought of the upcoming summer reading program and squelched a pang of regret. She’d promised the kids a sundae party for any who met their reading goals.
Well, Miranda could shelve books like a whirling alphabetizing dervish and knew the Dewey decimal system by heart. Surely she could scoop ice cream.
Still, there was that file full of grant forms to fill out and fundraising letters to send. And performers to book. And she so loved to watch the kids’ faces during the puppet show.
“And what are you going to do?” he asked, dragging her thoughts away from the to-do list that wouldn’t be hers to do anymore.
Good question. “I’m going to travel. I want to see the world.”
She was amazed she even managed to say it with a straight face. Wanting to see the world was one thing. Paying to see it was an entirely different story. Maybe a little vacation wouldn’t hurt, though.
Ethan chewed the inside of his lip, and Jill was fascinated by the way the muscles in his jaw worked. It really was too bad he was the promotion thief’s son. Those Reeboks would look damn fine under her bed.
“So that’s it?” he demanded. “You don’t get your way, so you quit?”
He made her sound like a petulant child. Maybe she was acting like one—just a little—but she was having a really shitty day. “That’s right. I’m quitting my job and I’m going to see the world. And I’m going to find the man of my dreams so he can sweep me off my feet.”
The corners of his lips twitched. “Good luck.”
Okay, that hurt. “I’m leaving now. Have a nice life.”
“Why didn’t you quit three weeks ago?”
Jill took a deep breath and blew the hair out of her eyes again. If he disliked her so much, why wouldn’t he just go away? She couldn’t hold the impending emotional meltdown at bay much longer. “Why would I have quit three weeks ago?”
He hesitated and the answer hit Jill like a wrecking ball. “They hired her three weeks ago?”
He nodded. “We’ve already rented her condo and moved her in and everything. She wouldn’t have come up from Connecticut without a concrete offer.”
Disappointment and rage battled for Jill’s emotions. “Why did they wait until today to tell me?”
“Maybe the trustees thought you might react like this,” he suggested.
Jill’s cheeks grew hot and she clenched her jaw to keep any more juvenile comments at bay. Then she just turned and walked away.
Those three weeks were the icing on the cake. After the years she’d been there, they hadn’t had the respect to tell her straight out. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—work at the library anymore.
“What?” she shouted, spinning back to him.
Humiliation kept her from looking him in the face when she walked back for her cart. She pushed it up the row, then down the next until she found her own car—the messy one with the red travel mug.
Loading the loose groceries into the backseat, she came to a decision. She was going straight from here to the bank. And then she would take the best trip her savings account would buy.
* * * * *
“This oughta be good.”
Jill rolled her eyes at her father’s bemused smile. It was the same smile he gave the clowns on stilts at the Rotary Club circus, or his son-in-law when he had a power tool in his hand. Her life was a disaster waiting to happen and he was going to laugh his butt off when it did.
Her mother, on the other hand, didn’t look a bit amused. “Don’t you think you should get another job before you go running off?”
“I’m not running off. It’s just a vacation.”
“When the going gets tough, Jillian gets going…in the other direction,” her father muttered, then he chuckled.
Why he chuckled was beyond Jill. Maybe it had been funny the first sixty thousand or so times he said it, but it got old sometime around her fourth grade year.
At that moment her sister, Liz, and her tribe of heathens exploded through the back door. Shit. They must have gotten the exhaust fixed. Jill cursed herself for not hearing the beat-up minivan pull in the driveway—it was too late to run and hide.
Three boys ranging from two to eight took off in the direction of the TV room, leaving in their wake one muddy sneaker, two coats, a baseball and one very sticky sippy cup. Her five-year-old niece stayed behind and yanked the hem of her dress up to her chin.
“Lookie my panties, Auntie Jill.”
Jill oohed and aahed over the pink and purple hearts until little Bethany took off after her brothers. Last time it had been little ruffled panties with “Saturday” embroidered across the butt. On a Tuesday. It was little wonder Bethany was Jill’s favorite.
“What does her teacher think of Bethany showing off her underwear?” Jill asked Liz, who slumped into a kitchen chair.
She shrugged. “It’s kindergarten. As long as the kids don’t pee in them, the teacher doesn’t care if they flash them around.”
“I saw a T-shirt yesterday I wanted to buy for her. It said I’m too sexy for Barney on the front.”
Liz snorted and took the coffee cup their mother handed her as if it was the fabled mead of Valhalla. “You better not. So…what’s up?”
“She quit her job,” her mother answered before Jill’s brain had even processed the question.
Liz shook her head mournfully. “You’ll be sorry.”
Jill mouthed the words as she said them. She thought about making a fast break for the exit, but it wasn’t worth the effort. They knew where she lived.
You’ll be sorry and I told you so were the basic staples of conversation for Martha Delaney and her older daughter. Her younger daughter didn’t need to use them, since they were usually aimed in her direction.
Mom quickly brought Liz up to speed on the situation, which sounded far less reasonable in her mother’s tone of voice.
“Vacation?” Liz asked in a voice that dripped disbelief. “To where?”
Nowhere she had to fly to, unless she could come up with a much better plan for glue and feathers than Icarus. Her bank account didn’t reflect any of the frugality that had been her New Year’s resolution—for three years running.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Don’t you think you should get another job first?”
Jill resisted the urge to stick out her tongue at her sister—barely. “If I get another job first I’ll have to work for months, maybe even a year, before I get vacation time.”
“And you quit because somebody else got Mrs. Bright’s job?”
“Yes, it’s about my dignity, thank you.”
Her mother slapped a plate of cookies down on the table. “Unemployment is very dignified.”
Dad shoved a cookie in his mouth just in time to stifle another chuckle. Jill ground her teeth and reminded herself that this was a man who thought Archie Bunker would have been the comedic genius of the century if only he’d burped a little more on television.
A scream ripped through the small house and Jill’s brain like a banshee on crack.
Liz didn’t even flinch. “Is there blood?” she shouted in a voice that would drown out Aerosmith’s woofers.
Murmurs in the negative floated into the kitchen, so Liz shrugged and returned to her coffee.
Not for the first time, Jill wished there was some way she could capture the essence of her niece and nephews and market it as birth control. She didn’t need the FDA to tell her it was effective.
If Jill even thought her biological clock was winding up to tick, all she had to do was think about Liz to make it freeze up like a cheap computer. Her sister looked so…tired all the time.
Not a second went by that she wasn’t running, fetching, feeding, washing, wiping or yelling. Jill never had any aspirations of greatness, but she sure as heck had aspirations of a life.
“I can’t believe you got into a pissing match with the woman’s son. In the middle of the parking lot, no less. And you dented his car?”
Her dad shook his head. “I told you you should have bought that yellow El Camino from Fred. No mistaking that sucker for anything else.”
“Yeah, that would have solved all my problems,” Jill said, earning herself a don’t use that tone of voice with your father look from her mother.
She shouldn’t have mentioned Ethan Cooper at all. She could have told them she quit right after she learned about the new children’s librarian. Instead she’d ranted about the entire episode, only leaving out the accelerated heart rate that wasn’t totally due to anger.
The man was scrumptious. Arrogant and smug, but scrumptious nonetheless.
“This is just like the time you left Poor Eddy at the altar,” Mom said.
Jill groaned. The Delaney family didn’t subscribe to the water-under-the-bridge philosophy. Bygones were never bygone.
“Absolutely,” Liz agreed. “If things get a little rough, get out of the way of the door.”
“She’s always been that way,” Dad added. “When the going—”
“I’m still in the room,” Jill shouted. “And it’s not the same thing. I wasn’t ready to get married, so I saved Eddy and myself from a life of misery.”
All three of them snorted in long-practiced unison. Though Jill had given up on her dreams of finding secret adoption papers a long time ago, there were still times—like now—when she was certain the Delaney family had found her on the doorstep.
Her parents and Liz were conservative, sensible people who worried and debated every side of an issue before making a decision. They even read the nutrition labels on cans. Jill took a more…unstructured approach to life.
“Back to the issue that’s actually relevant,” she said firmly. “I’m going to take a vacation. I want to spend a little quiet time by myself and consider my options—decide what I want to do with my life.”
To practice asking “Do you want fries with that”?
“Where are you going?” Mom asked as she took the nearly empty plate of cookies out of Liz’s reach.
Somewhere cheap was the only thing that came to mind, but she managed not to say it out loud. Fiscal responsibility was another dominant Delaney gene she’d missed out on.
It wasn’t easy being a totally broke black sheep in a family of peroxide blondes.
* * * * *
“Is that you, Ethan? I’m in the kitchen.”
He smiled and tossed his keys on the TV. Those were the same words his mother had said to him every time he walked in the door since his first day of kindergarten. Her kitchen was the center of Debra Cooper’s universe—even in her new condo.
“It’s me.” He walked down the short hallway, then stopped short. “What on earth are you doing?”
His mother was standing on a chair, stretching to hang a bright yellow valance. One end of the curtain rod was up, the other end was still in her hand. How many times had she swatted his butt for standing on chairs? It was dangerous.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Her wink took the edge off the question.
“Why didn’t you wait for me? You shouldn’t be climbing on chairs. You could fall. You could break a hip or something.”
She hooked the rod on the bracket and hopped off the chair, landing on sure, Keds-clad feet. “I’m not ninety, Ethan. And I swear you worry more about my hips than my obstetrician did. I take my vitamins every day—the extra calcium ones. Which you know since you ask me about them every day.”
“I know, but—”
“And you better not have any of those disgusting nutritional shakes in there,” she interrupted, pointing at the grocery bag he set on the table. “I’m not drinking any more of them.”
“I’m just watching out for you, Mom. I don’t like you being alone.” Not for the first time, Ethan wished he had a few sisters. Preferably at least one with a spare bedroom. He hated her living by herself.
“Do you really think your father did all this for me?”
Ethan felt a small pang in his chest, just as he always did whenever he thought of his dad. He’d passed away a year ago and it wasn’t getting any easier.
“He didn’t,” she answered for him. “I took care of the inside of the house and you. Everything else was his job. He didn’t hang my curtains and he certainly didn’t count my vitamins.”
He knew that. But he also remembered all the times growing up his father clapped a hand on his shoulder and said, “You’re the man of the house while I’m gone, son. Take care of your mother for me.”
Those words had echoed through his mind as they laid his father to rest and he couldn’t shake them. Sure, he knew it was only something fathers said to sons to take the sting out of being left behind with their mothers. He knew his mother was still healthy and vibrant.
And she was all he had left. She and the memories of his dad. He hadn’t been able to take care of his wife, or protect his business, but he wouldn’t let his father down.
Ethan gripped her shoulders and kissed her cheek. “I’m sorry. I just… I worry about you.”
She smiled and patted his arm. “I have nosy neighbors and thin walls. And I’ve got my cordless phone and this surveillance collar of yours. I’m never truly alone.”
Ethan laughed and started taking groceries out of the bag. “It’s not a surveillance collar. It’s a necklace. If you fall—”
“And break a hip?”
“—you can press the button on the pendant and the rescue squad will come. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“I swear those were your first words. Beddah safe ven sowwy,” she said in a high baby voice.
Nothing wrong with being cautious, he thought. It was a philosophy that served him well. Not with his ex-wife or vice cops, but other than that, it usually worked for him.
“Mrs. Bright phoned while you were gone,” his mother told him. Ethan didn’t even blink—he was used to his mother changing subjects at will. “The children’s librarian called her and quit this afternoon.”
A picture of the woman from the parking lot popped into his head. She hadn’t wasted any time, surprisingly. Somehow he hadn’t thought her that decisive.
“I met the woman. You should be glad to be rid of her.”
His mother pinned him with that maternal, lie-detecting look. “Did you have anything to do with her quitting?”
“Of course not!” Ethan could feel the heat in his cheeks. He hated that. All his life he’d responded to any accusation with a guilty flush, even when he was innocent. If a polygraph technician ever so much as asked him his name he’d flunk for sure. “She thinks she should have been promoted instead of the library hiring you.”
“That’s understandable. I’d feel the same way.”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little too reasonable?”
“Why? She was there four years and the only reason they hired me was my master’s degree. The state is trying to phase out trained-on-the-job librarians.”
Ethan slammed the deli drawer shut and closed the fridge. “That doesn’t excuse her leaving you high and dry.”
“It’s not personal, Ethan.” Content the curtains were straight, she returned the chair to its place. It knocked against the table and he winced.
The year he was ten, Ethan and his father spent the entire summer refinishing the cherry monstrosity. It looked out of place in the tiny, bright kitchen, but he was glad she hadn’t left it behind.
“Ethan.” His mom laid her hand on his arm and he blinked a few times before smiling at her.
“I was thinking about when Dad and I refinished this table for you. I miss him.”
“So do I, sweetie. I swear my feet get cold at night just from missing him. You need to date more.”
Ethan shook his head. That was quite a leap, even for her.
“There must be some nice young ladies in this town,” she continued.
He hadn’t met any nice young ladies yet. Only a blonde, not-so-nice young basket case. His lips twitched as he thought of the way her hair kept falling across her eyes, and his hand clenched at the memory of wanting to sweep it away for her.
Then his cock twitched at the memory of her sweet ass presented to him while she picked up her groceries. On paper her height and weight probably listed as average, but there was nothing average about how they added up to Jillian Delaney.
Her legs were long enough to really wrap around his waist. And when she’d bent over and her shirt lifted, the little bumblebee tattoo at the small of her back had damn near driven him mad.
Ethan had to step sideways to stand behind a chair, hiding his erection. He needed to get a grip.
But, damn, she’d been hot. Tousled blonde hair, blue eyes and hips made for holding on to. She was a damn fine package except for that matter of her not being on the same planet with sanity.
Hooking up with a frazzled iceberg was something his half-sunk ship of a life didn’t need. His priorities were simple—mother first, his own life next. The sexy blonde was on her own.
“After you’re settled in and comfortable in your job,” he said. “Then I’ll go back to Connecticut and see about selling the house. At some point I’ll figure out what I’m going to do after that.”
“Good. In the meantime, I thought it might be nice for us to take a little trip before I have to start at the library.”
Ethan looked down at her too-innocent face. His mother hated to travel and she absolutely refused to fly. Images of a tacky singles cruise flashed through his mind. “What did you do?”
“I joined the senior center today and signed us both up for the Spring Fling bus tour. We’re going to Orlando!”