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Authors: Rachel Gibson

Any Man Of Mine (6 page)

BOOK: Any Man Of Mine
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“I saw you on the boat.”

“What boat?” He was pretty sure no one had taken photos on those trips. It was kind of an unwritten rule. He turned and raised his glass to his lips.

“In the paper.” A Cheerio stuck to the corner of Conner’s mouth, and he pushed it in with the back of his hand.

Ah.
That
picture. The one taken of him on a yacht last June pouring beer from the Stanley Cup on a few big-busted bikini models.

“I didn’t like those girls.”

“That’s ’cause you’re five.” Sam lowered the glass and licked his top lip. “You will someday.”

Conner shook his head, and one disapproving brow rose up his forehead. Good God, he looked just his mama. “Take me on your boat. Not those girls.”

“That wasn’t my boat.”

“Oh.” Conner took a big bite and chewed. “Josh F’s dad takes him to the kindergarten,” he said around a mouthful of Cheerios. “Dads should take their kids to the kindergarten sometimes.”

How had they jumped from boats and fishing to kindergarten? “Doesn’t your mom take you?”

Conner nodded and swallowed hard. “You can take me, too.”

“Maybe when I’m in town sometime.” He took a drink. “How do you like ‘the’ kindergarten?”

“It’s okay. I like my teacher, Mrs. Rich. She reads to us. And I like Josh F.”

“Is he your friend?”

He nodded. “Yep. Not Josh R. though. He’s dumb. I don’t like him.” He scratched his cheek. “He punched me.”

“Why?”

Conner shrugged a skinny shoulder. “ ’Cause I touched his Barney backpack.”

“The purple dinosaur?”

“Yep.”

Sam licked his top lip. “Did you punch him back?”

“Oh no.” He shook his head. “I don’t like to punch people. It’s not nice.”

If the kid didn’t look just like him, Sam might wonder. He’d spent so much time in the penalty box for fighting last season, he’d been tempted to hang a picture and maybe set up a lava lamp, it had felt so much like home. “I thought Barney was for babies.”

Conner thought a minute, then nodded. “I liked Barney last year.”

“Barney sucks.”

Conner laughed, again showing his little white teeth. “Yeah. Barney sucks.”

 

 

Any Man of Mine:

Is Responsible

 

B
y noon, Autumn was dressed in jeans and plain white T-shirt. She flat-ironed her hair until it was smooth and shiny and brushed on a little mascara and tinted lip gloss. And yeah, she’d made the effort to look presentable because Sam had called and said he was dropping Conner off himself at noon. No, she didn’t care about impressing him, not that she could, anyway, but neither did she want to open the door looking tired and scary. Which was how she usually looked on Sundays.

By half past twelve, she stood in the living room, looking out the big window. By one, she paced with her cell phone in hand dialing Sam’s number. He didn’t answer, and all sort of horrible scenarios ran through her brain. Everything from a car accident to kidnapping. Every time she heard an engine in the distance, she pressed her forehead to the glass and looked down the street. Every time it wasn’t Sam, her anxiety shot up a notch.

When Sam finally pulled his big red truck into her driveway at one thirty, she was out the door before he put the vehicle in park.

“Where have you been?” she asked as she tore down the steps, her gaze scanning the inside of the truck and stopping on Conner strapped inside. At the sight of her son, all her worry and anxiety turned to anger.

Sam slid his long legs out of the truck. His running shoes hit the pavement, and he stood there in jeans and a dark blue pullover fleece as if he were in no hurry. As if he weren’t an hour and a half late.

“Hey there, Autumn.” A pair of old-school Ray-Bans sat on the bridge of his slightly crooked nose, and the afternoon sun shone in his hair like he was some golden warrior.

Her cheeks felt all hot, and she had to take a deep breath to keep from screaming. “Do you know what time it is?” There, that sounded calm.

Sam pulled back the sleeve of his North Face fleece and looked at the big platinum watch on his wrist. “Sure, it’s about one thirty,” he answered as if she’d merely inquired. He reached inside the truck and pulled out Conner’s little SpongeBob backpack.

“Hi, Mom,” Conner said as he followed his backpack out the driver side.

“Where have you been?” she asked again.

Conner jumped to the ground beside his father. “Shorty’s.”

Was that some sort of bar? Strip club? God knew Sam loved the strippers. “Whose?”

“It’s an arcade downtown,” Sam elaborated. “Just a few blocks from my condo.”

“We had hot dogs.” Conner’s blue eyes got wide with excitement. “I played pinball. I got lots of points.”

The two high- and low-fived each other, and Autumn felt the familiar tic behind her right eye whenever she had to deal with Sam. She didn’t know if it was an aneurysm or blood clot. Neither was good. “Great. Wonderful.” She forced a smile for Conner’s sake. “Tell your dad good-bye.”

Sam squatted down, and Conner stepped between his widespread knees. “Bye, Dad.” He wrapped his arms around Sam’s neck and held tight. “Maybe we can go to Shorty’s again.”

“Sure.” He hugged him, then pulled back to look in his face. “Or we’ll go to a movie or you can come to a game like we talked about.”

Autumn didn’t need to see Conner’s face to know he was looking at his dad like he was the best thing since double hot fudge cake. All the guy had to do was feed him the crumbs of his attention, and Conner totally ate it up.

Conner nodded. “And fish.”

Sam laughed as he rose. “Maybe next summer.”

Conner grabbed his backpack from the ground. “Okay.”

“Run inside and put your stuff away.” She laid her hand on her son’s cool, fine hair. “I’ll be in in a minute.”

Conner looked up at her, then back to Sam.

“See ya, buddy.”

“See ya, Dad.” He gave his dad’s leg a quick hug, then headed up the steps to the front door.

Autumn folded her arms beneath her breasts and waited until he was inside. Then she turned to face Sam. She didn’t want to yell or scream or sock him in the head. She didn’t want to be that crazy person. Like before. She was in control of herself now. “You said you’d have him here at noon.”

“I said ish.”

“What?”

“I said noon-
ish
.”

The tick in her eye moved to the center of her forehead. “What is that? Some sort of special Sam time? While the rest of the world lives and operates in time zones, you’re special and operate in
ish
?”

He smiled like he thought she was funny. “I wanted to spend a little more time with him, Autumn. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend a little time with my son.”

He made it sound so reasonable. “You’re an hour and a half late. I thought something might have happened.”

“Sorry you were worried.”

That wasn’t good enough. Besides, she didn’t believe him. He threw the word around, but he didn’t mean it. Sam was never sorry about anything. “When you didn’t show up, I called.”

He nodded. “I forgot my phone at home. When we got back, I saw that you’d phoned.”

“What? You didn’t think to return my call? To let me know Conner was okay?”

He folded his big arms over his equally big chest. “It occurred to me, but by the way you blew up the phone with all your calls, I knew you’d chew my ass. Just like you’re dying to do right now. And to tell you the truth, I’m never going to purposely call anyone who’s dying to chew my ass.”

She took a deep breath and glanced up at the big window and Conner’s little face glued to the glass. Holding on to her control by a thread, she calmly said, “You’re immature and irresponsible.”

“Well, sweetheart, I’ve never said I wasn’t irresponsible. But you’re too controlling.”

“He’s my son.”

“He’s my son, too.”

“He’s your son when it’s convenient for you.”

“Well, it was convenient today. Get over it.”

Get over it? Get OVER it?
The tic in her forehead stabbed her brain, and her control snapped. “What about next time? What about when you blow him off next week or the week after? What about when he’s looking forward to seeing you, and you blow him off for a party with your buddies?”

“I have events that I am required to attend.”

“Were you required to attend that harbor cruise with half-naked women? Or how about all your trips to Vegas for craps and lap dances?” Although how, given their history, he could ever set foot in Vegas again was beyond her.

He rocked back on his heels. “Is this about jealousy?”

She rolled her eyes. Pain squeezed the bridge of her nose, and she was instantly sorry. “Get over yourself, Sam. You might think the sun rises and sets on your sorry ass, but I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t.” She glanced up at Conner, staring down at her. “And the one person who thinks it does, you totally blow off.”

“I’d be with him more if I could. You know my schedule makes it difficult.”

“If he were a priority in your life, you’d make time.” She pushed her hair behind her ears. “You had this past summer off, but you only spent three weekends with Conner. You canceled on him at least eight different times, and every time you did, I had to try and make it up to him. Every time you’ve ever let him down, I’m the one who has to tell him that you love him and would be with him if you could. I’m the one who has to lie to him.”

His jaw tightened. “I do love him.”

“And we all know how much your love is worth.” She shook her head. “While you’re off playing hero to thousands of other little boys, your own son cries himself to sleep like his heart is breaking.”

His arms fell to his sides, and he rocked back on his heels as if she’d hit him. “I’m no one’s hero.”

“I know that.” She pointed toward the window without looking up at her son. “But he doesn’t. Not yet. He doesn’t know you’re just a selfish prick unworthy of him, but he’ll figure it out someday.” She gasped and covered her pounding forehead with one hand. “Oh my God. I wasn’t going to do that. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to lose control. I don’t want to be angry and call names. No matter how true.”

He said just loud enough for her to hear, “He cries himself to sleep?”

“What?” She glanced up at the window. At her son looking down at his parents. He didn’t look upset. He hadn’t heard her call Sam a bad name. “Yes.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Why would you?” She brushed her hair back and sighed. Suddenly tired. “You never stick around to pick up after yourself. I’m sure you never even give it a thought.”

“Are you talking about Conner?”

“Who else?”

Over the top of his sunglasses, one brow rose up his forehead.

“Other than how your actions affect my son’s life, I don’t care about you, Sam. I haven’t for a long time. My only concern is Conner.”

“That makes two of us.”

Hardly, she thought. “I see that he has everything he needs.”

“He needs a man’s influence.”

Had he been talking to her brother? “He has Vince.”


Vince
is an asshole.”

“So are you, but at least Vince keeps his promises. Conner knows he can count on Vince.”

He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out as if
she
exhausted
him.
“I told Conner he could come to my games, and I’ll make sure he gets a good seat.”

“He can’t stay up that late, or he’ll fall asleep at school.”

“Not on Saturdays he won’t.” He climbed inside his truck and shut the door. “I’ll have Natalie call you.”

Conner didn’t like hockey. He was a pacifist, but if he wanted to go, she didn’t have a problem with Natalie taking him. Besides, Sam would lose interest, and it wouldn’t be an issue anyway.

Sam didn’t wait for her response. Just shoved the truck in reverse and backed out of the driveway. From the window above, Conner waved, but typical of Sam, he didn’t look up and notice. Autumn frowned and shook her head as she moved up the steps to the front door. Off in the distance, the rumble of bad-dog pipes rattled the air.

Great. Vince. Like she didn’t have enough drama.

She paused on the top step and raised a hand to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun. The hatred Vince and Sam shared was no secret, and she hoped the two didn’t stop and duke it out on Morning Glory Drive. She held her breath as the two passed, and although she couldn’t see that far, she wouldn’t put it past either to flip each other the bird.

She stood on the porch and waited. She loved her big brother. Loved him for a lot of good reasons, but mostly because he had her back. No matter what. He was loving and fiercely loyal. He fought for her. Always had, but sometimes he took his job as big brother and uncle a little too seriously. But that was Vince. He was a former Navy SEAL who didn’t believe in half measures. He had dark demons that he never talked about and lived by the motto: “Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”

He pulled the Harley to a stop in the driveway where Sam’s truck had just been parked and killed the engine. He swung one long leg over the bike, stood, and ran his fingers through his short dark hair.

“I thought the idiot was supposed to stay away from you,” he said as he walked up the steps. His boots thudded on the concrete.

“He just dropped Conner off. No big deal.” No need to mention that he’d been an hour and a half late and had worried her. No need to poke the bear with a sharp stick. “So, why are you here?” Although she figured she already knew.

“Maybe I just wanted to see you today.”

“You saw me yesterday.” She made a motion with her hand. “Come on. Get it out before we go inside.”

He smiled, his bottom teeth slightly crooked but very white. “After last night, I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“You could have called.”

“You would have lied.” He dipped down and looked into her eyes. “Do I need to kill him?”

She might have laughed if she knew with a hundred-percent certainty that he was joking. She wasn’t certain, but she didn’t hold it against him. There were probably a lot of people who wanted to kill Sam. She’d seen him play hockey, and a few minutes ago, she’d wanted to kill him herself. “No. I didn’t really even see him last night.” Which wasn’t technically true. She’d seen his blond head every time she’d entered a room. “We didn’t talk much.” Which was true.

BOOK: Any Man Of Mine
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