Authors: Joleen James
She glanced away. In that moment, he understood why the men had been fighting. Trouble followed Tawney, it always had. She was too beautiful for her own good. No one knew that better than he did. Obviously time hadn't taught her anything. She was still in the business of twisting a man's gonads into knots, but that didn't excuse the way he'd treated her ten years ago.
"Tawney O'Hara," he said as the hot wash of shame chased the chill from his bones.
"Rick Tabor," she returned, her frosty tone bringing his chill back with a slap.
He could see hostility in her eyes. She hated him, hadn't forgiven him. And why would she? He'd left her at the altar. Walked away from her without a backward glance. Not his finest moment. In his defense, they'd been teenagers. He'd been caught up in the moment, his Johnson doing the thinking for him. Until he'd realized that marrying Tawney would most likely crush his dreams, ruining his chance at leaving town for a career in law enforcement. They'd been too young. He'd done the right thing, yet his betrayal had ridden on his back the better part of ten years.
"What brings you back to town?" he asked.
"Family," she said simply.
He took in the black sweater she wore, the jeans that hugged her hips and long legs like a second skin. An apron was tied around her waist. The familiar teenaged longing filled him. Damn. When it came to her he couldn't think straight. "You working at The Junebug?"
"She started today," his aunt June confirmed. She smiled at Tawney. "Why don't you head back inside, honey? You don't have a coat on. It's freezing out here."
Without a word, Tawney did as June asked.
"I don't like the look in your eyes," June said. "Leave her be, Rick. I had every right to hire her. It's my bar. In my mind I owed her something for my part in the past."
"For my mistakes?" Rick asked, making an effort to unclench his jaw. "What happened between Tawney and me had nothing to do with you."
"That girl's had a rough time," June said. "She's come home to heal, just like you have. She needed a job. Just like you did. I gave her one. End of story. She's not looking for trouble."
"I disagree." Rick frowned. "With a face like that, trouble follows her. You know as well as I do that men will fight over her, especially when liquor is involved. She's not going to be good for business."
June's mouth tightened and Rick knew he'd pushed his aunt too far.
"Again I'm going to tell you," June said, "she was doing her job, nothing more."
"We'll see," Rick said, unconvinced.
June smiled. "I'll keep a closer watch on her. Will that satisfy you?"
"I hope I don't have to say I told you so," Rick said with a shake of his head.
"You won't. Now go and enjoy your day off." June gave him a pat on the arm before heading back inside.
Rick gave himself a mental shake. His aunt June was the closest person Rick had to a mother. She knew him, knew his history with the town, understood his reasons for coming home. He trusted her.
But hiring Tawney O'Hara? Man, what a blast from the past. Now here she was, a constant reminder of the coward he'd once been. He'd grown up enough to know he owed Tawney a man-sized apology. No matter their past, in no way had she deserved what he'd done to her.
He wondered how long Tawney had been back. Why hadn't Cade mentioned that Tawney was in town? He and Cade were best friends. Cade was marrying Tawney's sister, Star. Cade knew Rick's history with Tawney. Maybe Cade had his hands full with the upcoming wedding and Star's family, especially her mother, Destiny. The day he'd left Tawney at the altar, Destiny had come after Rick with a loaded shotgun, threatening to blow his Johnson clean off for what he'd done to her daughter.
Destiny. Man, what a piece of work but a beauty just like her daughters. Earlier this year, Destiny had been caught in the sack with one of the O'Briens' Bed & Breakfast guests. She'd given the guy a heart attack. He'd lived. Rick had heard through Cade that Destiny had married the guy. Husband number six!
Tawney exuded sex appeal, just like her mother.
Rick wondered how many husbands Tawney had had. And as much as he hated to admit it, it bothered him to think that she might have married someone else.
No, he was not going to let Tawney's looks get to him. He needed to remember the craziness that came with her, that special need for self-destruction she'd been born with. He wasn't about to get on that rollercoaster again. A former adrenaline junkie, he'd just spent the past four months trying to detox the need for excitement from his system. He lived a quiet life here, a calm, simple life.
He wasn't about to let one leggy brunette undo all his hard work. As soon as he apologized to her, he planned to stay far away from Tawney O'Hara. Far, far away.
* * *
Tawney took a seat at the breakfast bar in the O'Brien kitchen.
Her sister, Star, added coffee to the pot, switching the machine on. The scent of fresh-baked bread and some kind of roasting meat triggered a rumble in Tawney's stomach.
"Of course you'll stay with us," Star said. "No need to rent a place in town. We have an empty guest room right now. I'm just glad I'm home. I've been working in Oregon the past two weeks."
"I'm glad you're here, too," Tawney said. After the altercation with the two men at the bar and then her face-to-face with Rick Tabor, the brave front she'd been hiding behind was crumbling.
Rick Tabor. What the heck was he doing in Seward anyway? She'd figured he'd be miles away, maybe New York, fighting crime like some damned superhero. Seeing him made her feel eighteen again. She'd been so in love with him, the kind of love that centered like a sweet ache in your heart. He'd destroyed her once, and she'd let him. Because of him, she trusted no man. She'd nicknamed him the Destroyer—a nickname she'd used often over the years with her sisters.
"Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" Star asked, taking the seat next to Tawney. "I can't believe you drove all the way up here alone. What were you thinking?"
Tawney shrugged. She wasn't about to tell her sister she was on the run from a mobster, that she hadn't wanted to leave a paper trail. A man like Fox could get his hands on airline information. He could find out anything. She'd been careful to use cash only. She'd cut up her credit cards. Once she'd reached Seward, she'd tossed her cell phone in the bay. She'd only kept the phone with her to use in case of an emergency—which thankfully she hadn't had. Tawney wasn't about to involve Star in any of this. The less Star knew about Fox Lassiter the better.
"It's not like I don't know my way around Alaska," Tawney said. "I've made the drive before."
"With someone," Star said. "Not alone."
"It was on my bucket list," Tawney lied. "Like some kind of vision quest."
"And you lost your phone?" Star asked.
"Yes. Somewhere between Canada and here," Tawney lied.
Star shot her a skeptical look. "And you already got a job at The Junebug? That was quick."
"I need rent money."
"I told you, stay here. Rent free." Star studied her, her sharp green eyes missing nothing.
Tawney glanced away, afraid Star would see too much. "Thanks, but no. I'm not a good mix with your guests. One of them hit on me at the bar today."
"Oh yikes," Star said with sympathy. "But guests come and go here. This latest bunch will leave in the morning."
"It's better if I go ahead with the rental on the cottage. I like that it's near the bay. I can breathe there. After living in Vegas I can't get enough of the air here, even when it's heavy with the smell of fish." She smiled. "It's not bad and there's a garage for my car—a big plus in this weather."
Star's eyebrows rose. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, besides you're busy with the wedding," Tawney said. "I want you to tell me everything."
The coffee pot beeped, and Star rose to fill the waiting mugs. She passed Tawney a coffee. "What are you really doing here, Tawney? Are you in trouble?"
She'd been expecting the question. Star was no fool. "Of course not. I wanted a change, that's all."
"Oh no, you sound like Mom," Star said. "What's really wrong?" Star resumed her seat at the counter.
"Nothing," Tawney said, the word totally unconvincing.
Star's eyes narrowed. "I don't believe you."
"Star," Tawney said before sliding off her stool. She paced over to the sink. "Can't I visit my sisters without being grilled like a criminal? Cut me a break. You did send me an invite, remember? The timing just seemed right."
"No," Star said, the word matter-of-fact. "I can tell that something is wrong."
"Nothing's wrong, I promise." She faced Star. "I'm just tired of being alone. Now that Ruby's working in Reno, I'm alone in Vegas. Mom's in Canada. You and Brandi are here. I miss you guys."
Star studied her so long Tawney almost gave in and told her everything.
"Okay," Star said.
"Okay." Tawney blew out a breath, knowing the worst was over. Star wouldn’t harp on her for the truth. It wasn't her style. "Thanks, Star."
"I'm glad you're here." Star smiled. "I've really missed you."
"Me, too." Some of the fear left her body. Tawney so badly wanted the security Star offered. The time had come to focus on the good things in her life—her sisters. "I went by to see Brandi, but she wasn't home."
Star nodded. "Brandi, Bud, and baby Will have gone to visit Bud's sister in Fairbanks. They'll be back this weekend for the party." Star sipped her coffee.
"The O'Briens' annual 'it's January and we're sick of snow' party," Star told her with a smirk. "We've invited the entire town."
"Sounds like fun," Tawney said, but she didn't really think so. She'd rather remain anonymous, hidden away in her tiny cottage by the bay.
Star laughed. "Wow, don't sound so excited."
"Sorry." Tawney set her coffee down. "I'm just tired. My feet are killing me."
"Are you sure you're okay?" Star asked again.
"Yes. How are Cade and the kids?"
"Fantastic." Star smiled. Her entire face relaxed, softened. "Cade is a dream. And the kids are great. I really love them. I didn't realize I had this kind of love in me. It's unconditional, huge."
Tawney nodded. "You deserve happiness, Star."
Star squeezed Tawney's hand. "So do you, kiddo."
The sudden sound of many voices came from the foyer. A door banged shut.
"Cade and the kids are back from the store." Star stood. "Come on, they'll be so excited to see you."
Tawney got to her feet, trepidation filling her. She knew Cade from when they had been kids, but she'd hated him, just like Star had. In November, when she'd come for Thanksgiving, she'd seen Cade and his kids briefly. A few pleasant words had been exchanged between them, but it was hard to switch gears and think of Cade as a good guy.
Eight-year-old twins Finn and Emma hit the kitchen first, heading straight for Star.
"Look what I got, Star," Emma said, holding up a pair of hot pink rubber boots.
"Me, too." Finn thrust a pair of navy boots at Star.
Neither twin noticed Tawney at first, then Emma said, "Tawney!"
Both kids ran to her.
"Hi." Tawney pulled them both into an awkward hug. Finn and Emma were so giving. They barely knew her, yet they greeted her like they'd known her their entire lives. She didn't understand them, but she hugged them anyway.
Cade came into the kitchen. "Hey—" The rest of his words died when he saw her. He smiled. "Tawney."
"Surprise," she said, waving.
"It is." Cade hugged her. "A good surprise, I hope."
"You sound like Star." Tawney hugged him back, noting he smelled good, like fresh air. "Can't a girl visit her sister without an ulterior motive? You and Star are getting married. I wouldn't miss it."
"You are doing more than visit," Star said. "Tawney has moved back to Seward."
"Moved back?" Cade's eyebrows shot up.
Cade's sixteen-year-old son, Brad, entered the kitchen next. "Whoa," he said when he spied her. "You changed your hair."
Tawney laughed. "Hello to you too, Brad." Tawney touched her dark hair. "Got tired of being blonde. Went back to my natural color." Fox was looking for a blonde, not a brunette.
All the O'Briens started talking at once, firing questions at her until Star finally shooed them away. When the sisters were alone again, Star said, "It's crazy here."
Tawney smiled. "Good crazy. Not like Vegas."
"No, not like Vegas," Star agreed. "Come on, you can help me get dinner started. Unfortunately, Ron, Trudy, and Daniel won't be here tonight. They are eating in town with Trudy's parents. They'll be sad to miss this dinner. Especially Trudy. She loves company."
Tawney wasn't hot to see Cade's brother, Ron. His wife, Trudy, however, was a different story. They'd been friends in school, and she liked Trudy very much.
"I don't want any fuss, Star," Tawney said.
"Don't be silly," Star said. "It's not every day my sister comes home! If I want to make a fuss over you, I will."
Tawney let Star's words warm her. It felt good to be loved for who she was, not for her boobs or her body. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had gotten to know the real her. And that was probably a good thing. No one in her circle of friends in Vegas knew about her ties to Alaska. No one even knew her real name. She'd always worked under an alias—Tawney Gold.
She prayed that Fox Lassiter would never find out the truth about her, her name, where she came from. She'd die if anything happened to her sisters or their families.
Maybe she'd been wrong to come here, but for now, tonight, she'd stay put and enjoy her family. She could always head to Canada where her mother currently lived and start over there.
Yes, maybe she'd do just that.
But for tonight, she just wanted to feel loved.
Tawney pasted on a smile. It was one evening. She could do this. Being the center of attention usually made her feel good, but here, in this town, she wanted to avoid scrutiny, not be the guest of honor at an impromptu dinner party.