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Authors: Toni Blake

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One Reckless Summer

BOOK: One Reckless Summer
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One Reckless Summer
Toni Blake

This book is dedicated to the teachers
who most encouraged me to pursue
my dream of being a novelist
:
Sandra
Lillard
Adams,
the late Dolly West,
and Dr. Peter Schiff.

Prologue

M
eow, pussycat.”

Jenny lay sleeping on a lounge chair in the sun when a warm male voice permeated her senses, making her feel hot and
melty
inside. Was she dreaming? It was the kind of voice that wrapped around her like a blanket and made her want to snuggle down into it, even on a sweltering summer day.

“Hey, wake up—rise and shine.”

Wait a minute. Different voice this time
. More abrasive—and kind of menacing. Jenny flinched fully awake now, opening her eyes.

At the end of the small dock floated an old wooden rowboat with three guys inside, all of them ogling her in her new bikini. Oh God. Her stomach shriveled—they were older, rough-looking. Where on earth had they come from?

Then she recognized two of them—the Brody boys from across the lake. She’d just never seen them this close-up before.

She thought of replying, but how on earth did someone respond to “Meow, pussycat”? Her cat, Snowball, currently meandered across the dock, a few feet away, and in her sleepy haze, Jenny honestly wasn’t sure if the greeting had been for her or for Snowy.

“Cat got your tongue?” This came from Wayne Brody, the older of the brothers—he had to be at least twenty-one—and it turned out the abrasive voice belonged to
him
. And apparently the “Meow” had been for
her,
even if he hadn’t been the one to say it.

“What do you want?” she finally managed. She tried to sound mean, scary. But that was ridiculous, she realized as quickly as she spoke—how scary could a sixteen-year-old girl in a bikini be? Vulnerable was more like it. Yet attempting to sound mean was her only defense at the moment.

“What’s your name?” asked Mick Brody, and she realized
he’d
been the one to say, “Meow.” Now his voice poured over her, deep and enveloping, like a guy older than nineteen. But she still guessed that to be his age—he’d been a senior when she was a freshman. A senior who skipped class and got caught drinking and “raised every kind of hell there is to raise,” according to her father. Mick Brody held a beer can in his hand right now, and all three boys were smoking cigarettes.

She just sat there. She didn’t
want
to tell them her name, or let herself be pulled into conversation at all—somehow that would make her even
more
vulnerable. But her silence also made it seem like she was simply too frightened to talk. Her heart beat too hard.

“Fine,” Mick Brody said. “Guess I’ll just have to call you pussycat then.”

God, why did that make her pulse skitter? The word
should have
sounded dirty—a word you would see in pink neon outside a sleazy strip club or something—but instead it seemed to caress her skin. Or maybe that had to do with the way Mick Brody was looking at her right now. Everything about him made her feel threatened, yet at the same time his blue eyes shone on her like two shimmering stars in the night sky, captivating her.
Yeesh
.

Suddenly, she rethought the skimpiness of the bathing suit. She’d been comfortable in it with her friends, even with the guys in the group, when she’d worn it the other day—but she wasn’t comfortable
now.
Now she felt practically naked, like Mick Brody could see
all
of her.

Just then, Snowball padded to the end of the dock, where the boat had pulled up.

“Want something to drink, cat?” asked the third boy, who Jenny now recognized as Lucky
Romo
, a long-haired guy who frequently sped through town in his
souped
-up car. She happened to know her father had given him a ticket just last week.

Lucky leaned over to spill a puddle of foamy beer out onto the wood in front of the cat, and as Snowball bent to taste it, fresh anger surged through Jenny, pushing her to her feet to barrel toward the edge of the dock.
“Leave my cat alone! Get out of here!”

The white cat darted away, clearly much more frightened of Jenny at the moment than of anyone else—while the boys in the rowboat laughed. Rage burned through her, and she wondered if they could see her face turning red beneath the color she’d acquired from the sun. She also wondered if her nipples showed through her bikini because of the weird way Mick Brody affected her. She crossed her arms, trying to cover her breasts, but instead only succeeded in heaving them higher.
Ugh.

And Mick Brody continued to pin her in place with his dark, wicked grin. “Come a little closer, pussycat.
Wanna
go for a ride?”

Despite herself, she heard the sexual implication in the question, and even as it repulsed her, she couldn’t deny that it also aroused her.
Oh God.

She took a deep breath, tried to act a little
more cool
than she’d managed so far, and rolled her eyes. “Um, no thanks.” Her tone implied that the very suggestion was ludicrous.

“Aw, come on, honey, we don’t bite,” Wayne Brody chimed in.

“Unless you want us to,” Mick added with raised eyebrows.

Dear God—why did that make her feel so warm in her bikini bottoms? He was…dangerous. A guy you stayed away from. It was one thing to be attracted to
normal
boys that way—Adam Becker from school, Jimmy Raines who worked up at the Whippy Dip. But this boy? Something must be wrong with her. “You heard me,” she said. “Go away.”

“Or what?” Lucky
Romo
replied. “You gonna sic your big bad daddy the cop on us?” All three boys broke up with still more laughter as if it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

Jenny let out an irritated breath. “Fine. You won’t go away? Then I
will.

After all, she was pretty sure they were drunk. And from what she could tell, none of her neighbors along the lake were outside—she was alone here. Her father had always taught her: Get out of a potentially bad situation before it has the chance to escalate; it was better to be safe than sorry.

So she grabbed up her towel and swim bag, along with her Diet Coke, slipped on her flip-flops, and started away from the dock.

“Nice ass,” Mick Brody called, making her glad they couldn’t see her face anymore—since it was
surely
beet red after
that.
And she continued to feel the three boys’ stares on her rear all the way across the narrow road lining the lake and up the front walk to her house.

But especially Mick Brody’s.

She walks in beauty, like the night
;
Of cloudless climes and starry skies.

Lord Byron

One

Fifteen years later

A
s dusk fell over
Blue
Valley
Lake
, creating texture and shadow in the air, Jenny Tolliver pushed the old green canoe from the grassy bank down into the water. Still in the summer skirt and cotton blouse she’d worn to Mrs.
Kinman’s
mah-jongg party, the only concessions she’d made for the lake excursion were trading in her
slingback
sandals for a pair of canvas tennis shoes and zipping her telescope and other equipment into a large waterproof bag.

As she climbed carefully into the canoe, using the dock for balance, it felt like stepping back in time. She hadn’t crossed this lake in this canoe since she’d been eighteen years old, and back then she’d had Sue Ann for a companion. And Sue Ann probably would have left her mom’s party to come with her tonight if she’d asked, but her best friend had different obligations in life now—she had a husband and daughter to go home to.

Besides, Jenny had wanted to be alone. She’d wanted to…escape.

Good God—you’ve only been back in Destiny two short days and already you need to escape? Not a good sign.

But when people had said one too many nice things about her at the party, it had pushed her over the edge. Not that it made much sense to get upset over people being kind to her, but
nothing
about her life made sense lately.

When Rose Marie
Keckley
had seen the lemon bars Jenny had whipped up for the occasion, she’d said, “That was so nice of you, Jenny.” And when Jenny had refilled some iced tea glasses to keep Mrs.
Kinman
from getting up after just sitting down,
LeeAnn
Turner had said, “You’re so sweet.” Then
Lettie
Gale had added, “You’re so good, Jenny,” simply because she’d helped old Mrs.
Lampton
up from her chair. And that was
it,
the final straw—she’d had to get out of there.

Now the words echoed in her head, taunting her.
You’re so good. You’re so good.
Well, she was
sick and tired
of being good.

So what was she doing about it?

Canoeing across the lake.

Hardly a bold act of rebellion against society.

But at least it had gotten her away from the party and all those people she’d grown up with who thought she was so damn
good.
And now it was getting her away from her old family cottage just across the road, another place she wasn’t quite ready to go back to—at least not yet.

So despite knowing that paddling across a quiet lake as the sun set behind the trees wouldn’t take her any farther away from her problems than coming home to Destiny had, she pushed off from the dock anyway, dipping the oar in the water. And that old saying came back to her:
Wherever you go
,
there you are.
Meaning there really
was
no escape. Swell.

Then she knit her eyebrows.
Stop it. This isn’t you. You’re the girl whose glass is always half-full, the girl who always has a smile for everyone she meets. Where’s your smile?

Glumly, she answered herself.
Maybe I left it in Terrence’s classroom with the shattered heads of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
The expensive ceramic ones she’d given him for their first anniversary. The same ones she’d sent crashing to the floor when she’d found him lip-locked with Kelsey, the twenty-one-year-old student teacher who’d been working in Jenny’s science classes all semester long.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” he’d said when she’d walked into the schoolroom late that March afternoon.

She’d just stared at him in disbelief. “Seriously?” she’d asked. “That’s seriously the route you want to go here?”

“We should talk someplace private, Jenny. I didn’t want you to find out like this.”

“Then maybe you should have, say,
locked the door.
” That’s when George had hit the floor. She didn’t exactly remember making the decision to pick up the bust and throw it—it had just happened, and pieces had flown everywhere.

“Jenny, you need to calm down,” he’d insisted, his eyes all aghast—like
she
was the one doing something reprehensible here.

“Let me get this straight. I walk into my husband’s classroom to bring him a piece of the vice principal’s birthday cake, and I find him making out with my student teacher, and he thinks I should be
calm
? Well, how’s
this
for calm?” That’s when Abe had bitten the dust, as well, crashing down to explode into a thousand shards.

It was the most uncharacteristic thing “good Jenny” had ever done. But cheating on her was the most out-of-character move Terrence had ever made, too. And it was that night at home, when the blind rage had passed, settling into a good old-fashioned gnawing ache, that she’d asked him the question, “
Why
? Just tell me
why
,” and Terrence had dealt the lowest blow of all. He’d told her she was the twenty-first century June Cleaver.

June Cleaver!
Of all the cultural icons in
all the
world, he’d had to compare her to
June Cleaver
? Not that she had anything against June, but…she didn’t want to
be
her.

And it had grown even worse when he’d gotten down to the real heart of the matter. “It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s just that you’re too sweet to…well, to have the kind of sex I want. The kind I’ve been craving for
years
.”

It had been like a punch in the gut. “The kind you have with Kelsey, you mean.”

He’d looked down at the living room carpet they’d picked out together last year. “Well, yeah.”

Another punch. Since they hadn’t technically established, up to that point, that he was indeed having
sex
with Kelsey.

“You’re just…so
good
, Jenny,” he’d said, his voice pained. “
Too
good.” Ugh.

She didn’t bother reminding him that not once in all their years together had he let her know he desired anything different. And that he was the only guy she’d ever
had
sex with, so that everything she knew she’d learned from
him.
“So what is it you want exactly?” she’d snapped instead. “Whips and chains? Stripper poles in the bedroom?
What?

And just like earlier, he’d had the nerve to look at her like
she
was the crazy, unreasonable one. “It’s not about…props,” he’d said. “It’s about…heat. Passion.”

Since then, Sue Ann had taken to calling him a “rat bastard,” and what the term lacked in originality, Jenny felt it made up for in accuracy. Sue Ann also liked referring to Kelsey as “the
chippy
” and “the tart,” and in some odd, weak way, that helped ease a little of Jenny’s grief, too.

Although as she got far enough out into the lake to truly start feeling isolated, she suffered a blip of emotion—one that continued to hit her often. It was a fraction of a second when she remembered what life had felt like back when it was normal, back when she’d felt safe, happy, content.

Her life with Terrence had been simple but good—she wasn’t a woman who asked for the moon, even if she loved watching it through her telescope. They’d been together since college; they’d taught in the same middle school. He specialized in history, she in science. She’d once had aspirations of becoming an astronomer, working at NASA or doing research at a university, but Terrence had urged her to settle for teaching, and she’d discovered that when you’re young and in love, it was shockingly easy to agree to anything—even giving up your dream.

And so they’d taught. And they’d had dinner parties. They’d been active in the community. They’d never had children—she’d just never gotten pregnant—but they loved the kids in their classes, and they were the kind of stable, happy couple people envied. Or they
had
been. Before the tart.

Losing her marriage had been devastating. But the part that still seemed to hang over her now, every day, every hour, was that Terrence had betrayed her because he thought she was
too sweet, too nice.
The dreaded Catch–22: He loved her because she was a good girl, but he secretly desired a bad girl. She could
never
be
everything
he wanted.

So she’d pushed the divorce through quickly, and she’d quit her job—no longer willing to work so closely with Terrence, and now she suddenly found herself back in Destiny, Ohio, where her father was still the chief of police and where the old cottage by the lake on Blue Valley Road sat completely furnished but unlived in since he’d bought a small second home in town. And where she was still the perfect good girl. Like it or not.

She’d come home to think, and to heal. Just for the summer. Partially because her father had insisted, and partially because she hadn’t really had anyplace else to go when the bi-level she’d shared with Terrence had sold practically overnight. And she had big decisions to make over the next couple of months. Like where to live. And how to earn an income. And how to come out of this unscarred. Since people in Destiny didn’t
get
divorced. And good girls like Jenny didn’t, either.

Of course, when people had started asking at the party tonight what she was doing in town, she’d had to tell them. “Terrence and I have split up, so I’m spending the summer here to be closer to Dad.” That was how she and Sue Ann had decided it would be simplest to say it. And she’d left out the parts about the rat bastard, the
chippy
, and not really having anyplace else to go. But the whole time, she kept seeing a black-and-white version of June Cleaver’s body in her mind—with
her
head placed on top, and she’d felt just as monochromatic as ever.

And now she was canoeing across the lake of her youth, headed toward the darkness, toward the jagged, tangled woods on the other side because it was a clear enough night that she might be able to spot the Hercules Cluster with
all its
fine, glittering points of light. The skies, the heavens: one more form of escape.

She hadn’t been able to see much of
anything
through her telescope in Columbus—too much light pollution, and if she was honest with herself, Terrence had never encouraged her passion for astronomy any more than he’d encouraged her passion in bed—so that was
one
good thing about coming home. She could see the stars again.

Part of her couldn’t believe she was back here, in this precise spot on the globe. Crossing this lake without her father’s permission, usually with Sue Ann in tow, was the one rule Jenny had broken as a girl. Unlike
her
side of the lake, where well-kept cottages and bungalows lined the shore in pastel colors, the southern edge of Blue Valley Lake was rimmed with steep, rocky hills and untamed woods. No one had ever lived here but the
Brodys
—in a scary little shack—and back then, coming here had been trespassing, and it had felt wildly dangerous and freeing at the same time.

And maybe a little foolish, too, now that she thought back on it—but the property had possessed a hill with a wonderfully elevated rocky outcropping, perfect for climbing up on and stargazing. Given the proliferation of trees in her yard, some even big enough to shadow the dock—plus the fact that she’d probably been hoping to catch some brief glimpse of scary, hot Mick Brody back then—crossing the lake had seemed worth the risk.

And it still did. But thankfully, there remained no more
Brodys
here to trespass against. From what she remembered hearing from her father and Sue Ann over the years, Wayne Brody was in prison, the Brody parents were
dead,
and Mick Brody was just…gone.

No one knew where. Or cared much. People in Destiny were just generally relieved that the
Brodys
were no more.

Thinking back, she could still hear Sue Ann’s nervous whispers all those years ago as the canoe floated smoothly across the water. “You realize that if we tip this canoe over and drown, no one will ever know what happened to us.”

“No—someone will find the canoe, and then they’ll drag the lake,” Jenny had explained. She was a cop’s daughter—she knew about these things.

“Well, what if some Brody shoots us and buries us in unmarked graves? No one will ever find us.”

“Oh, would you just relax?” Jenny would spout. “Nothing bad is going to happen.” Even if she hadn’t been a hundred percent sure of that herself.

So given the departure of all the
Brodys
, as the canoe came to a halt against the same small, sandy landing Jenny had used all those years ago, she didn’t feel that same sense of nervous excitement about being here—and it was just as well. She’d come here for peace, after all. And as she stepped out and pulled the canoe farther up onto land, then reached in and hefted out the bag holding her equipment, she sensed herself getting closer to it. At least for tonight.

Mah-jongg at Sue Ann’s mother’s house had been pleasant enough, but right now she needed the stars, the planets,
the cosmos—to
remind her that in the big picture of the universe, her troubles were small potatoes. She needed the night sky to whisk her away to another world.

She’d brought a flashlight but didn’t yet need to use it. Still, as she began the initial ascent up the rocky hillside, the tall trees closed in around her, blocking out much of the remaining daylight. When some low brambles seemed to reach out and latch on to her skirt, she decided she probably should have changed into jeans, but she just untangled it and went on. Then glanced down at the flowered skirt and thought—
oh God
,
it’s
true! I
am
June Cleaver!
Even June would have the sense to put on pants for a hike through the woods!

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