Authors: Ava Miles
Tags: #romance, #contemporary, #small town, #New Adult, #foodie romance
ill headed up Peggy’s sidewalk. God, she needed to talk to someone who could talk back—the reality of Jemma’s absence had been hammered home after the double whammy of Pete and Brian.
Peggy opened the door after one knock. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“No.” Jill stomped her feet on the rug. “But no one’s molested me, if that’s what you mean.”
“Clearly you’ve been crying. Let me grab you a washcloth. Is that Brian’s coat?”
“No,” she whispered, trying to reel the pain back in. She couldn’t think about Pete—not when her talk with Brian was front and center in her mind.
“Do you need a hug, Jillie?” Keith said in a froggy voice, peering down from the staircase. He’d been suffering from a bad cold all week.
“You need to be in bed, young man,” Peggy called up to him.
sad.” Jill took a deep breath. No need to bawl in front of Peggy and Keith. After she cleaned up, she’d have Margie bring her stuff over from the shop and drop her home. “You feeling any better, Keith?”
His coughing answered for him. Peggy darted up the stairs. “Jill, there’s a washcloth in the half bath. Keith, back to bed. Now.”
“But mom,” came the pathetic, congested response. “I want to hug Jill, and Uncle Tanner is coming over.”
“Jill needs to talk to Mommy. I’ll send your uncle up as soon as he gets here. Now, get in bed, or I’ll handcuff you.”
Peggy picked him up, and he curled around her. “You only cuff bad guys.” He waved a limp hand at Jill as he was carried up and out of sight.
Throwing Pete’s coat onto the crayola-colored rack, Jill headed to the bathroom to clean her face. The person in the mirror resembled someone she didn’t want to be—a grief-stricken, broken woman. The warm water felt comforting as she washed. Restored, she retraced her steps to the main room. A knock at the door made her jump. She headed to the door.
“Hi, there,” she said with forced gusto when she opened the door for her brother-in-law.
“Well, hey, didn’t expect to see you here.”
He gave her an easy hug, and she wrapped her arms around him. His big, strong body was a comfort. She hadn’t had a brother growing up, but she appreciated having one now.
“What’s the matter, honey? You look like you’ve been crying. Did you and Brian have a fight?”
“Brian’s ex-something came back from New York today. She wants him back, and she asked him to open a restaurant with her in New York.”
He lifted her chin, his brown gaze gentle. “So? He’s with you now.”
She rabitted away. “It’s what he always wanted. Plus, he’s conflicted. And it’s no wonder. She’s this gorgeous French chef, and here’s the kicker. I’d say she’s got at least ten years on him.”
“An older woman? You don’t say.”
She punched his arm. “He left New York over her.” She got all angry and hurt again just thinking about it. Whatever.
Tanner led her to the kitchen. “Did he confirm all this?”
“Mostly. He’s still being pretty evasive.” Still feeling shaky, she appreciated that he held out a chair for her. “And cut the reporter lingo. You sound just like Meredith and Grandpa.”
“You’re from a newspaper family. You should be used to it.” He grabbed three sodas from the fridge and sat down across from her, sliding one of the drinks over. “What exactly did he say?”
Since he was still giving her that
trust me, you can tell me things
look, she pulled her hair and kept talking. “He wouldn’t tell me everything.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Peggy asked, coming into the kitchen. She hugged Tanner. “Little man has been waiting for you all morning. He’s watching a video upstairs. Oh, a beverage. Thanks. I’ve been getting zero sleep. He was up coughing all night, poor guy.” She tugged on her wrinkled black T-shirt. “I look like shit, don’t I?”
“Mommy shit, so it doesn’t count,” he answered.
Peggy kicked him under the table. “Funny. So, I take it we’re talking about Brian?”
“Yes.” Jill played with her soda’s pull-top.
Tanner cleared his throat. “Seems Brian had a secret relationship with an older French woman he worked with back in New York. Now she’s in Dare, she wants him back, and she’s hoping to open a restaurant with him in New York. Jill thinks he’s conflicted. How’s that for journalistic efficiency?”
Jill crossed her arms. “I think it sucks.”
“That explains the raccoon eyes. How much older?” Peggy asked.
“Hard to tell. She’s got perfect skin.”
“Bitch,” Peggy said. “Okay, start from the beginning.”
Her account covered everything except for the whole
plan. She brushed at her tears when she finished. “What? No advice?”
Peggy’s leaky faucet was the loudest thing in the kitchen.
“Well, that explains the coat,” Peggy murmured. “It sucks that you had to run into Pete on top of everything.” Her friend knew she was having a hard time forgiving him for what he’d done to Jemma.
“Yeah…So, we’re totally screwed, right? Brian won’t admit he loves me, he’s keeping secrets from me, and—”
“‘Secrets’ is a strong word,” Tanner interrupted. “He didn’t tell you the full truth now, but said he would. All of us have things in our past we’re not proud of, things we don’t want to share with our loved ones.”
Really? She’d missed the boat on that one, since she didn’t have much of a past. “Are you saying there are things you haven’t told Meredith?”
“Let’s return to the subject at hand,” he said. “There might be good reasons for him to keep quiet, but you need to remember something. When he chose to leave New York, he didn’t go to Chicago or Los Angeles. He came here. That’s telling. As for the business offer, you’ll just have to see what he decides.” He stood up with his soda. “I’m going up to see Keith. Jill, you Hale women are made of strong stuff. Don’t forget it.”
Right, she felt like the Rock of Gibraltar right now. Jill leaned forward after he’d left. “I was going to have sex with him tonight,” she whispered. “No way that’s happening now. What do you think?”
Peggy rubbed her face. “I don’t like secrets either. I lived through all that crap with my ex. Keith was a newborn when I found out Frank was having an affair. Plus, if Brian had told you he loved you—none of that
best friends forever
crap—it would have helped you feel better.”
Jill knew what Peggy was leaving unsaid: Yes, it would have, but he didn’t do it. Jill chugged her soda. “I don’t know where we stand or what to think.”
“You don’t think he’ll stay?”
Banging her head on the Toy Story placemat seemed like a good idea. Maybe it would help clear the fog. “I don’t know. It’s not New York, and I’m certainly not Chef Barbie. We both like the idea of working together, but we disagree on just about everything when we try talking business.” She lifted her head and scratched at a fleck of food on Woody’s sheriff outfit.
“Then maybe it’s better to focus on the personal stuff.” Peggy grabbed a napkin and spit on it, reaching across. “Last night’s macaroni.”
Jill lurched back. “Gack, did you just do the mommy thing?”
Her eyes narrowed like Jill was a murder suspect. “Don’t make me hurt you.” She threw the napkin aside. “I need to get back to work. Cuff some drunk and disorderly college students or something. God, I even miss the paperwork. I love my kid, but he’s
sick. And now I’m afraid he’s given it to me. I had a sore throat this morning. I can’t get sick!”
“Well, don’t get any closer. I can’t get sick either.”
“Like I was going to lay one on you. I may be a single mom, but I’m not that desperate.”
A laugh huffed out, and it felt good. “If I were a guy, I’d totally marry you. Then I wouldn’t need to worry about Brian. We could raise Keith together. Plus, you know how to use handcuffs.”
The corners of Peggy’s mouth tipped up. “I can get a resisting suspect cuffed in five seconds. Made the guys hang their heads in shame.”
“Not that you’re not competitive or anything…”
“Like you’re not? Okay, wise ass, back to Brian. What are you going to do if he decides to open a restaurant with her?”
Brian leaving? God, the thought hurt. Jill leaned back in her chair. “Well, I have another option.” Even without knowing the details, she didn’t think Peg would approve of Mac Maven. “Not sure how viable it is though.”
“What aren’t you telling me?” Peggy asked, drumming her fingers on the table.
Was she that transparent? “Do you have ESP?”
Her friend leaned back in her chair like she had all day. “Comes with the job. Now spill.”
Jill threw up her hands. “Fine, but I don’t really know much. He won’t discuss it without a confidentiality agreement. The one thing I do know is he’s smoking hot.”
Peggy’s eyebrow arched. “Single?”
Jill made a trilling noise, this conversation a welcome distraction. “Have you decided it’s time to join the land of the living and dance the horizontal mambo?” The thought sent a few bars of laughter bubbling through her, easing the tension in her diaphragm. “He’s
not for you.”
“Just because I look like Mommy slime doesn’t mean I don’t clean up well. What’s his name?”
Jill cocked her head. This wasn’t prurient interest. “You’re planning on running him in your whatchamacallit police database, aren’t you?”
“Guy wouldn’t make you sign a confidentiality agreement if he’s up for citizen of the year.”
Jill grabbed her hand. “Peg, seriously, he’s a good businessman. I’m sure there are excellent reasons for the confidentiality.” Even if she didn’t know them. “One of my regulars vouched for him.” Jack had been using a soft-sell strategy on her each time he came to the coffee shop, telling her how incredible Mac was and how much he wanted to work with her. But his lips had remained zipped about the nature of the business, which frustrated Jill to no end. Didn’t a girl at least deserve to know what she was being courted about?
“If that were true, you would have told Brian about it, and you wouldn’t balk at giving me his name.”
Dammit, she never should have said anything. “How did you know I didn’t tell Brian?” Jill popped out of her chair. “I wasn’t planning on pursuing it.” Until now. “Please leave this alone.”
Peggy stood. “I don’t like you holding out, but back to Brian. What do you want to do?”
she want to do? Jill rubbed a hand under her tingly nose. “Honestly, Peg, I don’t know, but I’m done waiting for him. I’ve done that most of my life.”
What could it hurt to inquire about Maven’s offer? If nothing else, it would keep her mind off Brian. If he left, at least she’d have something else to pour her broken heart into.
Peggy shut the door after Jill and headed upstairs. Poor girl. Men could really mess you up. She’d had her quota of that with Frank; as far as she was concerned, she was done for life.
Tanner was reading Keith another story, and her kid was curled against him like bread dough in a pan. Too bad her camera wasn’t handy.
She ducked into the bathroom to clean up. Her eyes had a glassy shine like she’d been on an all-night stake-out. Were those dark circles? She really did look like Mommy shit. Thank God, she wasn’t the type to go
mirror, mirror, on the wall…
But her T-shirt smelled, and that was pretty bad even for her. When had she last done laundry?
She eyed her badge, propped on the vanity. Frank thought she was weird for keeping her badge in the bathroom when she was off-duty. For Peggy, it was a reminder of the kind of woman she was. Far more than just cold cream and hair products. She twirled the plastic slinky Keith had left on the side of the tub when he took his bath. She was a mommy too. Sometimes the two people inside her seemed incongruent. Staring at her reflection, she wondered where the woman had gone. The cop and the mom seemed to have taken up all the space inside her.
She reached for a new shirt and pants. At least she could wash her face. Brush her hair and teeth. For today, it would be enough.
When she came back out, Tanner was waiting.
“He’s out cold. Poor kid didn’t even make it through one chapter with me.”
She walked downstairs with him. “This virus has zapped him.” Her sore throat spiked her worry quotient. Sometimes being a single mom was as nerve inducing as bursting through the door to a perp’s house.
Tanner put his arm around her. “Meredith and I can help.”
She knew she was having a girl moment, but she wanted to lean on her big brother and let him take care of everything. “I think I’m coming down with it too.”
“It’s no wonder. You’ve pushed yourself to the max. You bought this place and set it up faster than anyone I’ve ever seen; you started a new job, where you’ve had to clean up after a dirty cop; and you got Keith settled into a new school.”
“When you put it that way…” she said. “You coming over here every day means so much to Keith.” She patted him on the arm. They weren’t sentimental people, but she wanted him to understand. “It means a lot to me, too. I missed you when you were overseas.”
The hug he gave her was oddly comforting. He’d never been into hugs before meeting Meredith. Then again, neither had she.
“I missed you, too. It’s funny. With you guys and Meredith, I don’t have the itchy feet I was so worried about.”
“I’m glad. I didn’t know if you could stay state-side.”
His arms fell away so she stepped back.
“I need to head back to the university for my class.”
“My brother, the journalism prof.” When he reached the door, she called out his name. “Could you do me a favor?” she asked when he turned around, going with her infamous gut.
“Could you get me a list of people who’ve bought property in the area over the last six months?” Time to see if she could find a thread to pull. She didn’t have much to go on from Jill.
He tugged on his navy coat and leather gloves. “Are you going to tell me why?”
His intense gaze didn’t make her squirm like it would other people. “It’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“Is this about this French woman?”
She almost laughed. “Not at all.”
Silence filled the hall for a full ten beats. “Okay, but if you want to let me know why you can’t run this at work, you can trust me.”