Authors: M. Malone
“Well, good morning.”
At the sound of the voice behind her Ridley stood up straight, bumping her head on the dryer. “Ouch!”
The clothes in her arms fell to the floor in a scattered heap. She held a hand to her forehead as she turned around.
One of the men she remembered from yesterday stood in the doorway to the laundry room. He looked just like Jackson so she had to assume this was Nick, the rude brother she’d overhead him talking to in the hallway. The two young boys she’d met in Raina’s backyard stood directly behind him watching her curiously.
“I wasn’t expecting you to still be here.” He looked down at her borrowed shirt and Ridley squirmed under his gaze. Despite the fact that she knew nothing had happened, it was still weird to have his brother see her wearing Jackson’s shirt this early in the morning. She tugged the hem a little lower.
“Unfortunately, the locksmith hasn’t called back yet. Your brother was kind enough to let me stay. And to loan me something to wear while my clothes are washing.”
“How did you sleep?”
“Okay, I guess.” Ridley blushed. The way he said it came across more like
where did you sleep?
She turned her attention to the two boys behind him.
“Did you guys have fun with your uncle?”
“Yes! We played games and ate ice cream. All night!” The oldest boy,
, if she remembered correctly, was practically quivering with glee as he said it.
The little one took his thumb out to say “Ice cream!” then immediately stuck it back in his mouth after answering.
Nick smiled ruefully. “That was supposed to be our secret, remember?”
Ridley knelt down so she was more on their level. “That’s okay. I won’t tell. I like ice cream, too.”
“Where’s you mommy?” The little boy asked. Ridley looked up at Nicholas uncertainly. He looked a little stunned.
“Sorry, he’s been really curious about that subject lately. Okay, Jase. Let’s go find your dad.” He tried to herd them back through the door. Jase didn’t move, just stood watching her. Nicholas sighed.
“It’s okay, really.” She moved a little closer to Jase and looked him in the eyes. “I don’t have a mommy, anymore. She’s gone.”
“Our mom’s gone, too. We’ve just got our dad.” Chris said. He looked down at his sneakers, then peeked up at her shyly.
Ridley smiled at him. “But you’ve got a really awesome dad.”
“You look like Miss Raina.” Jase giggled and launched himself into her arms.
Nick looked at her curiously.
She grabbed Jase and pulled him into her lap. “That’s because I am Miss Raina.” She laughed weakly. “I guess I look a little different without my makeup on. Should I take that as an insult?”
Ridley couldn’t resist squeezing his chubby little body. It filled her with a small pang to think that she might not ever get to have children of her own. When she was still young enough, and stupid enough, to believe in fate, she’d always assumed she’d meet the perfect guy eventually. They’d get married, and have the kind of family she’d always longed for.
But all the friends she’d envied, who’d gotten married after college, had also gotten divorced just a few years later. Considering her track record with men, she wouldn’t have fared any better if she’d actually married any of her boyfriends. The thought of putting her children through a nasty custody dispute made her feel ill.
“Okay guys,” Nick’s voice broke through her daydreaming. “Go on upstairs and put your stuff away. Make sure you wake up your father while you’re at it.” He rubbed his hands together in mock delight.
The boys whooped and raced for the stairs. Nick turned back to her. “Sorry about that. Jase has been curious about moms lately. It’s hard to explain to a toddler why everyone else lives with both parents except for him, you know?”
Ridley waved away the apology. “It’s fine. They’re adorable. Besides, I understand. I grew up without my father and I’m still looking for him.” She sighed and wiped a hand over her face. She definitely didn’t want to think about her search for her father.
After a few moments, she looked up to find Nick staring at her. She glanced behind her and then back at him. “What? Did I say something wrong?”
“No, it’s just that you really do look different without makeup.” He stopped and held up his hands. “In a good way.”
“Right. I’m sure vulture was meant as a compliment, too.”
“No,” he barked. At her strange look, he cleared his throat and then said in a more normal tone of voice, “It wasn’t a compliment. But let’s be real. You know
why I said it.” Then he turned and walked out without another word.
“What was that about? These Alexander men are all crazy.” An image of Jackson sleeping on the couch the prior night, his handsome face soft with sleep, crossed her mind. “Gorgeous, but crazy.”
She got up off the floor and finished transferring her clothes from the washing machine to the dryer. Then she went back upstairs to call her sister again. She had to get out of this house. All the testosterone was clearly rattling her brain.
If Raina didn’t answer soon, she’d be forced to resort to breaking and entering!
THAT AFTERNOON, JACKSON glanced up the stairs, guilt twisting his stomach. It was past noon and Ridley still hadn’t come down.
God, the memory of her.
He wished, in that moment, he’d gone upstairs before the movie ended. The memory of her tight, little body against his was the last thing he needed right before a family picnic, but not kissing her last night would have taken more self-control than he had.
He closed his eyes and tried to think of something else before he got an erection. He ran through baseball stats, the track listing for the last album he’d produced and was halfway through mentally reciting the states in alphabetical order before he felt calm enough to open his eyes.
He walked back to the kitchen and stared blankly out the window into the backyard where his brothers were setting up the last of the picnic tables.
He’d done the right thing in walking away but damn if it hadn’t been one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Seducing her last night would have been a mistake. He didn’t want her to come to his bed because she was scared and feeling vulnerable. He wanted her to come to him because she wanted him just as much as he wanted her.
He just hoped she hadn’t interpreted his “make yourself at home” last night as “make yourself scarce.” He really wanted her to come down and join the party. After everything she’d been through, she needed to relax and get her mind off things.
“Hey, what are you doing in here?” Nick stepped in from the patio, pulling the sliding glass doors closed behind him. “Everyone’s starting to arrive.”
Irritated that he was just standing in the middle of his kitchen mooning like a teenage boy, Jackson turned to dig in the refrigerator. A second later he handed his brother a platter of sliced tomatoes, lettuce and cheese.
“I’m just getting the last of the food together.”
Nick arched a brow. “Right. The fact that you’re inside has nothing to do with the beautiful girl upstairs in your bedroom.”
He didn’t look at his brother as he yanked the ketchup, mustard and relish bottles from the refrigerator and set them out on the table.
“Of course she’s beautiful. She’s a model, so she’s hardly going to be ugly, right? And she’s not in my bedroom, get your mind out of the gutter.”
He slammed the last bottle on the table harder than he’d intended and the wood responded with a loud
“Can't you just put her in a hotel?” Nick grumbled.
Jackson looked back at the stairs again. “Look, I already called a locksmith, but you and I both know that no one is coming out on a holiday. In the meantime, Ridley is staying here with us where she’s safe.”
“Ridley?” Nick asked.
“Yeah, it’s her real name. Anyway, she's a nice girl and there's no reason to push her off to a hotel where she'll be by herself.”
Before his brother could question him further, namely about why Jackson felt it was his responsibility to keep her safe, the sliding door opened again and Matt came barreling inside.
“Whoa, watch it!” Nick juggled the tray in his hands trying to keep the tomatoes from sliding off the edge as Matt clipped his shoulder in his haste to get by.
“Sorry, man. I just need to get out of here.” Matt’s cheeks were bright red beneath his normally dusky skin color. He’d either gotten an instant sunburn or was really pissed.
“What happened?” Jackson crossed his arms. Matt didn’t say anything.
Jackson looked at his brother and motioned toward the door. Without a word, Nicholas carried the tray outside to the backyard and closed the door behind him. He was glad his brother wasn’t the type to take offense. They were all great friends but he knew how Matt was. He’d have a much better chance of finding out what was bothering him if they didn’t have an audience.
“You look pissed off. You were in a decent enough mood when you got here, so what’s happened in the last hour that has you looking like you’re ready to spit nails?”
“It’s nothing. I think I should go. I don’t want to ruin your party for everyone else.”
“Let me guess, Trent and Mara just arrived, right? Man, you have got to let it go. She’s a grown woman. She’s had boyfriends before and you haven’t been this crazy.”
“He’s going to ask her to marry him. He just told me.” Matt growled and then in a sudden move turned and punched a hole in the wall next to him.
The sliding glass door opened again. Trent and Mara stood on the patio gaping at them. Nicholas walked up behind them and peered over Mara’s shoulder.
“Damn! Cleanup on aisle four,” he joked.
Matt stalked into the living room and Jackson ran his hands over his hair roughly. How had a simple family cookout turned into a soap opera?
“WHAT DO YOU mean you won’t give me the code?”
Ridley bit her lip and hoped no one downstairs could hear her. Not that they needed any more evidence of the crazy town her life had become.
“Exactly what I said. I am not giving you the code,” Raina pronounced. “I am so sorry about what happened to David. I didn’t like the idea of him poking around in our past but I wouldn’t have wished him dead, especially not in a fiery car crash. But if the police think it wasn’t an accident, then that means he was mixed up with some pretty shady people. And if they’re looking for you, the first place they’ll look is my house.”
“I told you, I never told David about you.”
“I know but if he had any investigative skills at all, he would have figured out that you were a twin. It wouldn’t have taken much for him to figure out who I am. And if he figured it out, then someone else could have, too.”
She paused and took a breath. “Plus, if the FBI really does think you
re involved in David
s accident, you need to stay hidden. They can
t arrest you if they can
t find you. At least at Jackson’s house, I know you’re safe.”
Ridley mentally counted backward from ten. “Raina. I cannot just stay at some guy’s house that I don’t even know. What am I supposed to tell Jackson?”
“All I want you to do is stay safe until I can get home. Don’t worry about Jackson. He owes me a favor. I’ll talk to him.”
“No! You can’t do that!” Ridley bit her lip.
There was silence on the other end of the line.
“Okay, what is going on here?” Raina asked. “Why wouldn’t I talk to Jackson?”
Ridley groaned and flopped down on the bed. She wasn’t sure what kind of outcome she’d been envisioning, but she’d never expected for Raina to want to call Jackson and explain everything. Now she had to come clean and, considering how many times she’d chastised her sister for lying, Raina was never going to let her hear the end of it.
“Because he thinks you’re here. When he saw me outside, he thought it was you. And I didn’t tell him otherwise.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! You’re pretending to be me?”
Ridley gritted her teeth at the howls of laughter coming through the phone. “This isn’t funny, Ray. I didn’t know what else to do! I needed a place to stay and I figured I could get in contact with you and get the money to get out of here without anyone ever being the wiser.”
“I know, I know. Miss Honesty telling a lie. It’s probably killing you having to pretend to be me.”
“I hate lying to him. That
s it. I
m telling him the truth. Hopefully he won
t throw me out.”
t do that! As soon as you tell him, he
s part of this. He
s harboring a criminal. Is that what you want?
s not fair, Raina. Of course I don
t want that. I never wanted any of this.
I know you hate keeping secrets but he won
t be able to resist looking you up and asking questions.
t afford that right now. I
m sure the police have no proof against you but I
d still rather no one knows where you are. The shoot is wrapping up in less than a week. Once I’m home, we can figure out a long-term plan. You’re going to stay with me, right?”