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Authors: Sophia Henry

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Chapter 6
Indie

It was one of those mornings where everything goes wrong.

Mom left the house before five a.m., because she'd picked up a shift at the casino for another server who'd gone on vacation. Normally, she stayed home with Holden in the morning and worked afternoons or evenings.

Which threw our schedule off.

Damien's alarm never went off, so he spent the entire morning running around like the Tasmanian Devil before racing out the door to make it to school in time for his first class. Which meant he totally skipped our normal breakfast routine, where he and Holden ate cereal together while I showered and dressed for work.

Which threw our schedule off.

The day started with every single curve you could throw at me, but thanks to the multiple people in my life who've always been around to help me, I could handle it. Life with a three-year-old is crazy, and when things go wrong, it doesn't break my spirit.

We roll with it.

Mom told me over a week ago that she'd picked up a morning shift, so I'd asked Tim if he could take Holden for the day, just until I got out of work at four. He said he would. They could go to the movies or the park. He assured me they'd have a blast.

However, despite being able to roll with most things that come my way, I found myself at a complete loss when Tim called five minutes after I should have left for work and told me he wouldn't be able to watch Holden.

At all.

And he gave no other explanation.

My two options: call in to work or take Holden with me.

The latter is exactly what I did.

Ever since I had Holden, I'd been hell-bent on giving him the best life possible. Just because I got pregnant in high school didn't mean I had to let that define me—or my child. I could make my life exactly what I wanted it to be. I took eight weeks off to be with my son before I found a job as an office assistant for Noelle and John Ackerman, realtor duo extraordinaire.

When I got to the office, I checked their schedules, and was relieved that Noelle had showings this morning, and John had his monthly Rotary Club meeting. Lucky for me, winter months were slow, and there wasn't as much to do as there would be in a busy season, like spring. It didn't justify bringing my son to work, but it certainly helped my situation.

I set Holden up on John's computer with a Dora the Explorer marathon, since that was the only show that kept his interest. He'd been addicted to Frozen, but that movie phase, though not completely over, was being replaced with new obsessions. I hoped the little explorer and her friends would hold his attention long enough to give me a chunk of time to get work done.

Five minutes into the show, Holden scurried off John's chair and stood beside my legs.

“Lap,” he demanded.

“I've gotta get some work done, my sweet boy,” I said. My fingers flew across the keyboard, typing an email to a client. “Can you watch Dora at Mr. John's desk? I'll be over there in a minute.”

“No. Lap.” Holden pawed at my thighs and wiggled under my desk until I stopped my task.

I pulled him onto my lap, put my arms on either side of him, and continued to work, as I often did when I had an assignment for one of my classes to complete at home and he wanted to sit with me.

What am I going to do, say no? I spend enough time away from him. I don't want to deny him time being close to me when I have the chance.

Mom guilt wins again.

Thanks to a slow winter season, there were only a few new emails in my inbox. It took a few minutes to whip through them. Then I came upon an email reminding me to sign up for my real-estate exam.

The thought of retaking the test I'd already failed once stressed me out. Having worked with Noelle and John since I was seventeen, I thought I had enough knowledge to get by. I didn't take any practice exams. Didn't open one study guide. And it showed.

Because as I sat in the testing center, clicking through the seemingly foreign questions on the computer screen, it felt like waking up in the middle of a nightmare. One of the crazy ones, where I sit naked in the front of a classroom as a professor hands me a test on a topic I've never studied.

I should have walked into the real-estate licensure exam the same way I would any test I had at school, overly prepared for topics that might not even be covered. But arrogance and ignorance got in the way, and I'd failed miserably.

Minor setback. I'd pass when I took the exam again in a few weeks. I didn't have a choice.

Noelle told me, in a very nice way, she'd give me one more chance. Both she and John had made it clear when I'd started as their office assistant three years ago that they needed someone who had their license. Which was why they'd always been so supportive and worked with my undergrad schedule. As education advocates, pursuing my bachelor's degree was a plus in their eyes. And as their assistant, it made sense for me to have my license, so I could handle anything that came up in the office while either or both of them were out.

Only problem: I was going to school to be a pharmacist. The only reason I cared about passing the stupid exam was to keep my job. I couldn't give up great money, great hours, and supportive bosses. Not with a family who needed me to help provide.

I clicked the flag next to the email as a reminder to put the exam on my calendar. And to sign up for a study class.

“That Mommy's work!” Holden pointed to the logo that came up on the desktop when I exited out of my email.

“Yep. That's Mommy's work.”

“I watch Dora now.” He ducked under my extended arm and climbed off my lap. Then he waddled over to John's desk and situated himself in front of the screen, which had never stopped playing the episode I'd started for him.

Holden had a short attention span, so the window of time I had to do anything was small. I had to take advantage of every second he was engrossed in that show.

I grabbed a file off my desk and took it to the copier in the back of the room. As I made copies of a HUD statement for a client, I heard the door open and saw the shiny bald spot on the top of John's head as he entered.

“Hey, John!” I called. “Holden's here with me today.”

“I see! Hey, little guy,” John greeted him.

“Mr. John!”

“What'cha got there?” John paused. “Is that chocolate?”

Oh no.

I dropped the papers I'd been copying and dashed to the front. I hadn't given Holden any chocolate. There was no chocolate in the office. It could only be…

Holden sat at John's desk with his hands in the air. Brown paste covered the tips of his tiny fingers.

OH NO!

“That's not choc—” Words stuck in my throat, too embarrassed at the situation to finish my sentence. I whisked Holden off the chair, secured him under one arm, and grabbed the strap of the diaper bag hanging from the back of my chair. “Please don't touch your keyboard, John. Seriously. I'll be right back!”

“Don't touch anything else!” I said to Holden through clenched teeth.

Once we were locked in the safety of the bathroom, tears sprang to my eyes. But I wouldn't cry. I couldn't cry. Luckily, the parental situation at hand gave me something to focus on.

I set Holden on the baby changing table and removed his pants. “Buddy, you know you're not supposed to touch poop. It's dirty and gross.”

“I no poop, Mama,” Holden lied.

“It's all over your fingers.” I dug a pack of baby wipes out of my bag and removed the crap from his hands before doing anything else.

“I no poop!” he yelled.

Instead of arguing with a three-year-old, I continued cleaning him up. Then I changed him into a diaper and got him dressed again.

“Let's wash our hands.”

When we entered the office, John stood in front of his computer with a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. “Not chocolate,” he confirmed.

“I'm so sorry.” I edged past him and unplugged the keyboard from his computer. “I'm going to buy you a new keyboard right now. With my own money, not the office's. I—I don't know what to say. I'm sorry.”

The smell of poop permeated the entire room. It took all I had to keep my composure in front of John. I summoned all the strength I'd built up throughout my life and sucked it up.

Instead of standing there in embarrassment and shame, I fished a trash bag out of the cabinet underneath our coffee pot and threw the keyboard into it. The diaper bag slipped off my shoulder and hit the floor. I stooped to pick it up, then spun the garbage bag in my hand and began tying it into a knot.

“I thought you said things would be easier with Tim back in town. Seems like it's been quite the opposite,” John said. He lifted the coffee mug to his lips.

“Yeah, I—” I closed my eyes and took a breath before I stood. “I thought it would be.”

“Well, we've got to get this sorted.” John didn't hide the disappointment in his voice.

“I know, I know. I'm sorry, I really am.” I grabbed Holden's hand and backed toward the door. I held up the trash bag. “I'm going to throw this out and drop Holden off. I'll be back. I swear. Fast.”

“Okay, Mama?” Holden asked as I rushed him down the hallway of the office building and out the door.

Only after I'd secured my son in his car seat and collapsed into the seat of my car did I allow myself to break down.

Fuck Tim!

It wasn't enough for him to fuck up his own life with his irresponsibility, he had to come back to town and fuck up the one I'd built for myself and my son.

After one huge mistake in my junior year, I'd never had a chance to be self-indulgent again. I had a kid to take care of. Which meant the responsibility of going to school and having two jobs. It meant no more Friday-night football games. No more hanging out at the movies with my friends. No more hanging out with my friends at all, since most of them ditched me as soon as I told them I was pregnant. I couldn't blame them.

Honestly.

How many seventeen-year-old girls want to hang out with a baby if they aren't making money watching the kid?

And how many seventeen-year-old guys want to date a girl with a baby?

Not that I thought much about dating. Especially when my baby's dad was an idiot.

I read an article that claimed girls are attracted to men like their fathers. Which meant I was screwed.

Tim and my dad were two peas in a pod. Both of them just left. Neither looked back. Neither cared about what happened to their kids while they were gone. But when—if—they came back into town, they thought everyone's schedule should revolve around them.

They were different, too.

My dad made his living on the road, driving a semitruck. One day, he drove out of town and never came back. Up until I was eighteen, he'd send cards on every other birthday, with a ten-dollar bill inside and a lame note about buying myself something nice. But I couldn't remember the last time I'd spoken to him on the phone. He called a few times right after he left, but the calls became fewer and fewer, and stopped completely by the time I turned thirteen.

According to Mom, she and Dad didn't have a horrible marriage. Just two people who weren't on the same track in life. He wanted to drive across the country. Mom would never leave Bridgeland, the town she'd been born and raised in.

Especially not now, when she had her pick of the divorcés in Bridgeland. I thought she'd hit a big jackpot at the casino the day she came home from work screaming. But, no. Her excitement stemmed from snagging Mr. Kelso, former Bridgeland High School baseball stud, who now owned a GM dealership in town. He seemed like a nice guy, not the stereotypical sleazy-salesman type.

I'm like my mother in many ways. Hardworking. Family loving. Quick-witted and sarcastic. But I must've inherited my dad's wanderlust.

Not that I had any plans to leave Bridgeland, but the thought of traveling to a new country or a different state made me giddy with excitement. Someday I'd have a reason to get my passport, even if it was just taking Holden on a trip across the border to Canada.

“Mama?” Holden's voice broke through my thoughts. “Okay, Mama?”

“I'm okay, sweet boy. We're okay.”

And that was true, for now.

But after today, with Tim canceling again and my boss on his last nerve with me, I wondered if I'd catch a break soon, or if I should start planning for when the bottom dropped out.

Chapter 7
Jason

Relief washed over me when I spotted Linden Meadows bobbing her head and swishing her hips to the music as she poured a pint for one of her customers from behind the bar at Peak City Steakhouse. Not only because she looked hot dancing, but also because Mom would've known something was up if I'd scanned the restaurant, then randomly decided to eat somewhere else.

Technically, Linden never told me where she worked when I'd pulled her over, but she mentioned a brewery. And since Peak City was the only brewery in town, I put two and two together and hoped for the best.

“Can we eat at the bar?” I asked the hostess, pointing toward Linden.

“Sure.” The girl bent down to grab two menus out of a large, wooden chest on the floor beside her and handed them to me. “Sit wherever you'd like.”

“Do you mind, Mom?” I asked.

“No, that's fine.” She patted my shoulder. “You lead.”

I edged past a few high-top tables in the lounge area before pulling out a chair at the bar for Mom.

“Your father needs to see this place. I don't think he's been here yet,” Mom said, eyeing the row of taps behind the bar. She twisted in her seat as she hung her purse on the back of the chair.

Besides brewing their own beer, Peak City had an extensive selection of drafts on tap. My dad, a self-proclaimed beer connoisseur, had a personal mission to visit every brewery in the state of Michigan. At one time, he'd dabbled in brewing, but the sludge he'd made convinced him to leave the beer making to the pros.

“We'll have to bring him here next time you guys come up,” I said.

My dad, a busy cardiologist in Detroit, hadn't had a chance to visit me in Bridgeland yet. He had, though, spent many weekends as an undergrad visiting Mom, who got her degree in elementary education from Central State, the public university in town.

“Hi, folks. Welcome to Peak City.” Linden placed drink menus in front of us without looking up. “Can I start you with—” Our eyes met. “Oh, it's you.”

Mom giggled. I tried to send her an evil side-eye, but she'd lifted her menu to cover her face.

“Well, hello to you, too.” I smiled, though my sarcastic greeting probably didn't help pave the way to her good side.

“What can I get you, Officer Taylor?” Linden asked. She was a glacier; a completely frozen, not-a-chance-of-melting-even-in-global-warming kind of glacier.

I closed the drink menu. “We'll have the sampler flight of beers, please.”

“That'll be right up.”

The familiar scent of CK One by Calvin Klein wafted in the air, and I'd forgotten to spray myself tonight. I leaned into Mom. She smelled like a chick.

“Now I know why you brought me here when there's a perfectly good steak house at the casino,” Mom said, teasing, and pinched my side.

“It's not like that, Mom.” I brushed her fingers away.

“What's it like, then?”

“She hates my guts.” I glanced at Linden as her fingers tapped the computer screen behind the bar.

“Well, that much is obvious. What did you do?”

“My job. Both times,” I muttered. Mom's head cocked to one side, her disbelief obvious. “I swore at her little brother. In a game. Which is my job. And I pulled her over for speeding. Also my job.”

“Jason Riley! You swore at a little boy?”

“I said ass.” I defended myself. “It's barely a swear word. And he's not little. He's seventeen.” No reason to tell Mom I used “fuck” after Linden had walked away.

“Here you go.” Linden lined up six half-pint glasses of the brewery's beers on the bar in front of Mom and me. “Start on the left. They're in order according to the menu up there.” Linden pointed to the huge chalkboard above her head, which described each of the six beers on Peak City's current brew list.

“Thanks.” I tried to make eye contact again, but Linden didn't even glance my way. She must think I'm one of those egomaniac jerk cops. I let her go with a warning. How did that deserve the cold shoulder?

“I'll be back to check on you in a few minutes.” Linden smiled at Mom.

As she spun away, I caught the CK One scent again and realized it was coming from her. My stomach tightened, excited at how much I liked the smell of me on her. I shook my head, trying to shake the thought. If she smells like men's cologne, she's probably been all over a guy who wears it.

“She called you Officer Taylor. That's not a good sign,” Mom commented before she took a sip of the lightest of the six beers. Must've been the ale.

“Better than jackweed or ass,” I said, remembering what Linden had called me at the ice rink.

Mom choked on a laugh, then brought her hand to her mouth as if covering a cough.

“Don't even try to hide it, Mom.” I shook my head. “I didn't think I was that bad. I let her off with a warning and escorted her home.”

Mom leaned back in her chair, her eyes wide as she questioned me. “You followed her home? Is that protocol?”

I shrugged. “She said she had a family emergency. I wanted to make sure she got there safely.”

“It takes less than ten minutes to get from one end of this town to the other. Was the police escort necessary?” Mom asked.

“No, it wasn't necessary, but it would've been my ass if she got into an accident after I let her go.”

“Was she drunk?”

“No.”

Mom glanced at the chalkboard then scrutinized the beers in the flight. “You've got it bad.”

I rubbed my forehead to hide the truth and steer the conversation in another direction. “How 'bout those Red Wings?”

“I must be right on the money,” Mom said. “Okay, my dear, subject change. Have you seen Auden recently?”

And that's one of the reasons Mom kicked ass. She got her digs in, but knew when it was time to change the subject. But, in true Mom style, she moved from one sensitive subject to another. For both of us, not just me.

When I first found out about Auden, Mom feared I'd pull away from her and try to have a relationship with my biological mother's family.

I didn't want any part of that mess. I know who my real family is. But I did want to get to know my newfound sister. I wanted a relationship with all of my siblings, from Auden and my “real” brothers—Landon, Calvin, and Nate—to the thirty-some foster kids who'd come and gone through the Taylor household over the years.

“Funny you mention her.” I stopped to sip the darkest of the ales in front of us. “This was where we came for Auden's graduation dinner.”

“What's she up to?” Mom asked with genuine interest. Because Mom doesn't have a fake bone in her body. I appreciated that she approved of the relationship I've been trying to build with Auden. The entire situation is fucked-up for all of us.

“Living the life in Charlotte. That's where Aleksandr plays now,” I explained, though Mom is a huge Aleksandr Varenkov fan and probably already knew that. “But she's in Bridgeland now. I hung out with her the other day.”

“What's she doing in town?”

“They're getting married here next week. She wanted her grandparents to be there.”

“Are you going?” Mom asked.

“Yeah. It's at the courthouse. She probably needs a witness.”

“The courthouse?” Mom cocked her head. “Why there?”

“Don't know.” I shrugged. “She said she never wanted all the big-wedding stuff.”

“I think it's wonderful that you're going. She wants you there.”

I shrugged her comment off. “She needs a witness.”

“Jason Riley, she obviously doesn't need a witness if her grandparents will be there.”

True. It was cool that my sister wanted me in her life. She'd treated me like a brother from the first day she waited on me at Johnny's, even before either of us knew we were related. I always wondered if we'd been drawn to each other subconsciously. Must be the blue eyes we shared, our mother's eyes, according to Auden.

Our dead mother's eyes. Thinking about how much pain Auden must have gone through growing up without a mom made my stomach churn.

She felt the loss of Valerie Berezin a million times more than I did. And though I understand that our mom had to make difficult decisions, I still couldn't shake off the bitterness I had toward her.

Valerie signed the papers to give me up for adoption minutes after I was born. It sucked, knowing how easy it had been for her to turn her back on me. Even though the Taylors had been awaiting my birth in the visitors' lounge of the maternity ward, the pain of being the kid my biological mom gave away still rocked me to the core.

My adoption had been set up months prior. On one hand, it made me happy to know how much the Taylors wanted me. On the other hand, I always wondered how it could be so easy for my birth mother to let me go. Mom told me she'd met Valerie on two occasions during their interview process. Valerie had gotten pregnant in high school and her parents wouldn't let her keep the baby. Deep down, I know she made the right choice for herself and for me.

As a cop, I'd interacted with a shit-ton of teenage moms struggling to survive, yet still bringing kids into their lives. So, in retrospect, I should be more appreciative of the choice Valerie made. She'd given me a better life than I ever would've had with her. I'd grown up with a family who'd provided me with unconditional love and support, as well as every opportunity I ever needed or wanted.

The logical side of my brain knew that.

But it was one of those “easier said than done” situations. It's easy to see the good in someone's choice when you're on the outside. Deep down, it sucked to be given up because I wasn't convenient. And if that wasn't bad enough, finding out my biological mom got pregnant again and kept that kid definitely was. In my mind, that's the ultimate fuck you, even though I knew Valerie was at a different place in her life four years later when Auden came around.

Although I still had issues to work out about the situation, my sister is the one who got the worst end of the deal. Valerie had gotten pregnant by the same guy—my father—but that dude ditched her before Auden was born. Then Valerie was shot and killed when Auden was six, and she had to grow up with Valerie's parents.

It was a shitty situation all around. At least I had a supportive family to fall back on. Maybe that's why I was adamant about forging a relationship with Auden. We were blood. Brother and sister. I already felt a fierce protectiveness toward her that only a brother can.

I clasped Mom's hand. “Thanks again for being supportive about Auden.”

“I don't want to keep you from your sister. You deserve to know her, to have that bond.”

“Landon is pissed.” Because, for some reason, my brother always feels shafted.

“Give him time. He'll get used to it. He's never had to share your attention before.” Mom squeezed my hand.

“He's had to share me all his life.”

Landon and I had only a few solitary years together. More than thirty foster kids had come through Camp Taylor, which is what I started calling our house after the first dozen.

“Technically, yes,” Mom said. “But you two have been the only constants. You'll always be his big brother, and he'll always want your undivided attention.”

“Yeah, I get it. He's still making too big a deal about it.”

“He's allowed to feel how he wants. He's always been the sensitive one.”

“Whiney little bitch is more like it.” I laughed.

“Jason.” One-word Mom-warning. “He's feeling overwhelmed right now. He's playing in the NHL. He's got a girlfriend now.”

I could think of a few ways his girlfriend could help ease his stress, but Mom didn't need to hear that. I'd call Landon later.

“Cry. Cry. I'd give my left nut for his kind of stress.”

Mom patted my leg. “You have enough stress in your life, dear. Don't go making more by giving up your left testicle.”

Mom would sneak a joke in at the exact time I'd taken a drink. I grabbed a small square napkin from the bar and brought it to my nose before beer spewed out.

At just that moment, Linden chose to approach with a self-satisfied smirk on her face. “Are you ready to order?” Her voice was sweet, like an angel's, and she was obviously getting the utmost joy out of watching me struggle. I'd get her back in time.

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