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Unchained Memories

By Dena Blake

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Dena Blake

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Unchained Memories

Jillian McIntyre is ripped from her home in Oklahoma after she witnesses a brutal crime, even though she cannot remember the details. Years later, following her sister’s death, Jillian must return to her hometown to locate her niece’s father, neither of whom knows the other exists. A TV investigative journalist by trade, Jillian conceals her identity to complete the task.

Amelia Mathews is a family attorney who doesn’t have time for romance. After growing up in a volatile household, she’s devoted to advocating for abused and mistreated children. When a woman and her niece come to town in need of assistance, Amelia can’t seem to detach this time. As her attachment to them grows, Amelia’s world becomes more complicated than she ever imagined.

The last thing Jillian expects is to fall for the girl she left behind. Confronted with unreconciled feelings for Amelia, Jillian begins to fall in love with the woman she’s become. Will Jillian give up her high-powered career for a second chance at love?

Unchained Memories

© 2017 By Dena Blake. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-994-5


This Electronic Original is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: September 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Shelley Thrasher

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Where the Light Glows


Unchained Memories

Acknowledgments

Thank you to Radclyffe and Sandy Lowe for letting me do what I love. Seeing it in print is a dream come true. My editor extraordinaire, Shelley Thrasher, will never know just how grateful I am to her for making me look like I can form a well-written sentence. Thanks to Kris Bryant and Lisa Moreau for coaching me through the ins and outs of the publishing process and never letting me miss something important. The BSB family is truly fantastic.

Thanks to Robyn for catching all those words I can’t seem to ever get right, and for asking all the right questions. To Kate for never failing to tell me your thoughts about my writing as well as the world around me. I hope those conversations never stop coming. To my kids, Wes and Haley, for giving me true-life writing material for this book. Some things you just can’t make up. To my family for being the most awesome support system a girl could ever want.

Last, but never least, to all of you who will read this book, thank you for taking a chance on me.

For Wes and Haley. I’m so proud of the adults you’ve become.

I love you more than I can ever put into words.

Chapter One

“I bet there’ll be a sequel to that one.” Jamie twisted in the passenger seat and made a goofy face at Jillian.

“Not,” they both said in unison.

“What’s not to like? You had aliens, zombies, and teenagers?” Ken asked.

“Right,” Jillian blurted as she laughed. “I think it was the teenagers that threw it over the top.” Jillian and Jamie had spent the entire movie doing what sisters do, whispering in each other’s ears, making fun of the plot and the characters.

Jamie twisted to face her again. “Plus the aliens…and the zombies.” She choked on her words as she sucked in a breath and laughed.

Jillian pulled up Rotten Tomatoes on her phone. “It got a green splat on the Tomatometer.” Which it totally deserved. The movie had been unrealistic and hokey. It was their fault for letting Ken choose the day’s entertainment. The last few times Jillian was in town, she and Jamie had chosen the movie so, in all fairness, he was due a turn. Jamie fully admitted Ken was a great husband and father, but he had a uniquely odd sense of entertainment. Jillian just hoped it didn’t rub off on their daughter, Abby, who was too busy with her friends to spend any time with them lately.

“Whatever. Abby would’ve loved it,” Ken said, still trying to convince them of its cult merit. “She’ll probably go see it with her friends.”

Jamie’s eyes widened. “Never. That’s a make-out movie if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Are you letting her date now?” Jillian’s voice rose. She hadn’t realized Abby was that old.

“Not yet, but she’s almost fifteen. It won’t be long,” Jamie said as she scrunched her face.

“Fine. I’ll pick something better next time.” Ken squeezed Jamie’s hand.

Jillian couldn’t hold her laughter. “Oh my gosh, how sweet is that? He actually thinks we’re going to let him choose again.”

“That’s my husband, always the optimist.” Jamie leaned across the console and gave Ken a quick kiss on the cheek. Jillian’s heart swelled at how well her sister and brother-in-law fit together. They were the perfect couple, balancing each other in everything they did. She couldn’t remember ever seeing them fight.

Ken had been such a good sport about their teasing. He’d even began slinging one-liners from the movie as they got closer to home. He was in the middle of one when “Oh, shit!” came out of his mouth.

Jillian had only seen the truck coming toward them from the corner of her eye. Then everything slowed. Jillian heard the metal crunching before she felt the impact. The jolt sent her phone flying from her hand. She heard the ear-splitting pop as the air bag hit Jamie in the face and the back of her head hit the headrest. Jillian went flying next as the air bag punched her in the side. Pain in her arm, now her face as she catapulted into the side of the driver’s seat. She was going to be sick. This roller-coaster ride needed to end. Now. The car scraped the pavement as it launched across the beltway and tumbled into the ditch. All sound was gone. Only ringing in her ears remained. The car wobbled back and forth as it came to a stop. Jillian wiped the moisture from her eyes. It was thick, sticky almost. It was hard to see. Pain shot through her nose when she tried to suck in a breath.

“Jamie,” she said. No answer from her sister. “Jamie!” Again, no answer. She tried to pull herself forward. The passenger seat was empty. She reached forward, felt Ken slumped against the driver’s door, his head resting forward on the air bag.

“Ken, where’s Jamie?” She heard a gurgle, an attempt to speak. She had to find Jamie. A metallic taste in her mouth overwhelmed her. Her stomach lurched as she found the door handle and pushed out of the car. Oh God. Her head spun. Her face throbbed. She braced herself against the side of the car and took a breath before she scanned the road, looking for Jamie. There she is. She lay on her side crumpled in the grass not far from the car. Jillian stumbled over and fell to the ground next to her.

She put her hand on her shoulder and shook. “Jamie,” she said. No response. She rolled her onto her back. Her chest wasn’t moving. She’s not breathing. CPR instructions flew through Jillian’s head. She knew how to do that. Her heart hammered as she took Jamie’s face in her hands and put her mouth over it. Breathe, Jamie, breathe. Then the paramedic was there, pushing her out of the way. She watched him pump her chest and try to breathe life into her sister.

Another paramedic’s voice came through the constant ringing in her ears. “Miss, please look at me. I need to see your eyes.” He was talking to her. She pulled her gaze from Jamie, and the paramedic flashed a light in her eyes. She blinked and veered her gaze back to Jamie. The paramedic had stopped CPR. A wave of helplessness shot through her when he looked back at Jillian and shook his head.

Her vision narrowed. Her limbs felt heavy and her world swayed. Nooooo! She shot up and tried to push past him to Jamie. Her head spun again. She took a few steps and stumbled. Everything went black.

Chapter Two

Tires screeched and a horn blared loudly as Jillian pulled into traffic on the two-lane road. All she could see in the rearview mirror were arms flailing wildly and an open mouth she knew was spouting some very choice words into the windshield right now.

Abby twisted in her seat to look back. “What’s wrong with her?”

“I guess I cut her off when I pulled out. They drive differently here than they do in New York.” She glanced in the rearview mirror again. “She has no reason to be upset.” Jillian had put on her blinker, and the other driver was going way too fast for this road.

“She’s acting crazy.” Abby pulled the headphones from her bag and slid them over her ears.

The woman was right on her ass. Jillian took a right at the next light onto the four-lane road, trying to lose her, but the woman didn’t let up. She pulled to the right, hoping she would pass, but the woman pulled to the right also. She could still hear the woman screaming out the window, “Pull over. I want to talk to you.” Jillian knew better than to pull over. She’d reported too many stories on road-rage victims. Confronting someone like this could end up getting both her and Abby killed. She had to lose this lunatic before they got to where they were going. She didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself than necessary, and she definitely didn’t want to end up dead on her first day back home. She gunned the engine, slipping between two cars to her left, then swerved into the left-turn lane, barely making the light. She circled around, went back the other way, and headed to the house where she and Abby would be staying for the near future.

Jillian squinted, thinking she’d made a mistake, but she’d already passed the house three times, and from the numbers tacked above the porch, there was no mistake about it. Fifteen-thirty-two Sycamore. She sighed. It looked exactly the same as the day she’d left. The over-the-top gingerbread ornamentation her mother loved, the single tower in front hovering above the open porch. Bay windows at each end of the house. This was it, all right. It even still had the sunflower flourish on the front façade and decorative shingle siding she remembered. The only difference was the porch railing. It no longer had the elaborate decorations of the Queen Anne style. That particular piece of history must have been removed during the renovation.

The place was huge—one, two, three stories, she counted—but it wasn’t quite as large as it was in her memories. She guessed that was a creation of her childhood mind. After giving it a more thorough look, she decided the house was just as she remembered. Large and looming. Somehow, in her absence, she’d forgotten just how frightening it actually was. Maybe it was because she’d put this place out of her mind the day she and her sister had boarded that flight to New York.

Now she was right back where she’d started, in her hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. Among people who wouldn’t recognize her the way she was dressed now. No fancy clothes, no high heels, barely a stitch of makeup. Even a new nose. Not a single shred of Jillian McIntyre was left. She was plain old JJ Davis now. Taking on the false persona every time she left New York had been her sister, Jamie’s, idea. In a small town like Norman, Jillian knew if she showed up as herself, she might possibly be recognized. JJ Davis, however, went virtually unnoticed. With her thrift-store wardrobe and minimal amount of makeup, she blended right in. Right into the woodwork, that is. Changing her look hadn’t been difficult since the accident. Her broken nose had made it much easier, but pulling off a mild-mannered personality was a completely different story.

Jillian McIntyre hadn’t planned to abandon her broadcasting career to move back to Oklahoma, and she hadn’t counted on raising an angry, pubescent teen either. Nevertheless, years ago, when her sister had drawn up her will, she’d made Jillian promise only one thing. If anything ever happened to her and Ken, she was to make sure her niece, Abby, was brought up in a household with two loving parents. Now she had to find one of those loving parents, and this was the only way she knew how to accomplish that.

When she’d gone to the Department of Human Services office, Jillian had almost blown the whole thing. She knew she’d talked too much. Patience was a virtue she no longer retained. Fame and fortune can change a person in many ways. Jillian was no exception. When she wanted something done, she wanted it done now. Her assistant had created the alias, but she’d failed to create a work history and financial records. Essentially, JJ Davis didn’t exist except for the Social Security number she’d stolen from some child who’d died at birth and the phony driver’s license she carried. No way would she be approved for aid. The Department of Human Services would do a thorough background and financial check before assigning her to the group home. They would never believe she was an out-of-work schoolteacher trying to raise her sister’s kid. What a farce that was, in more ways than one. She’d had to tell the supervisor, Maxine Freeman, the same story she’d told Abby to get her to buy in on the trip. That she was doing an investigative report on the benefits of outside-funded housing assistance to bring more light to the needs of the system and to possibly obtain them more funding. Due to the nose reconstruction after the accident, Maxine hadn’t recognized her and was a little skeptical at first. When Jillian had mentioned the possibility of filming her for a spot on the final TV show, she could see the excitement in Maxine’s eyes. After that, she was all in.

In addition to the nose reconstruction, Jillian had dyed her hair blond and chosen to wear brown contacts to disguise the unique color of her eyes. She looked enough like her sister to pass as her. Jamie had a teaching degree, so there would be no questions. Thankfully, only her initials were listed on her credentials. She would now be JJ Davis. Her only concern now was that two people thought she was here on assignment. Which one of them would be likely to let the cat out of the bag first?

She’d waited in Maxine’s office long enough to overhear a very important phone conversation. The new tenants at Heartstrings House, the group home Jillian funded and also needed to access, were going to be delayed a month. That would give her more than enough time to accomplish what she came for.

Jillian felt a little guilty taking someone else’s slot. She certainly didn’t need it, but she’d promised herself when she’d left the DHS office this morning. She would donate double—no, she would donate triple the amount it cost each week to support her and her niece and make sure it got back into the system somehow. She hated doing it this way, but the only way she could get anywhere near Abby’s father without scaring him off was to pretend she needed help. Which, ironically, was true in many ways.

Jillian held the steering wheel, her hands shaking. Knowing she was about to see him again threw her into a tizzy. Blake Mathews, her sister’s first love. Would he still be the same? Would he recognize her? Would he even remember Jamie? Would his sister, Amelia, still be around? Those were only a few of the many questions racing through her head. She adjusted the rearview mirror to look at her reflection and chuckled. It had been so many years ago, and from what Jamie had told her, Blake had never had a clue she was pregnant. Glancing over at Abby, she let her gaze leave the road momentarily again. Fifteen years ago, to be exact. Abby returned her look with a spiteful glare. She had Jamie’s startling eyes, just like her own. When she chose to share it, her smile was as warm as Jillian remembered her father’s to be.

She pulled the old Honda up to the curb and moved the shift knob into park. Glancing at her watch, she slid it off her wrist and tucked it into the side pocket of her bag. A Rolex was much too expensive for someone like JJ Davis to be sporting, but it was the only thing she’d brought with her. She needed something to remind her of Jillian McIntyre’s existence.

“We’re here,” she said, receiving no response from Abby. She reached over and pulled the headphone from her ear. “Hey, we’re here.”

“Great.” The resentment in her crystal blue eyes came through loud and clear. “Looks like paradise.”

Jillian let out a slow sigh. She hadn’t wanted to uproot Abby from her home in New York, but under the circumstances, she had no other choice. The loss of her parents had been devastating, and leaving her behind while she investigated Blake wasn’t an option.

“Who’s that?” Abby pulled the lever on the seat and bolted straight up.

Jillian glanced up at the doorway, and her heart stopped. She squeezed her eyes shut. The young man standing on the porch was surely something she’d conjured up from the past. She opened her eyes and he was still there. Tall and lanky, his forehead sprayed with auburn hair, he looked to be only about seventeen. She’d driven straight through, but she didn’t think she was that exhausted. She pinched her leg. She must have fallen asleep. The boy threw them a wave, and she pinched harder. This had to be a dream, or maybe she was dead.

The front door opened, and a man with hair the color of dark-red Oklahoma clay stepped out next to the teenager. Dressed in khaki pants and a blue-and-white, long-sleeve, button-down shirt, he slid one hand into his pocket and placed the other on the porch beam as though he were a model posing for a shoot.

Jillian’s mouth dropped open. This wasn’t possible. It was Blake. Then and now.

The men started toward the car, and Jillian couldn’t move. He was older, but he hadn’t changed. Even now, Blake Mathews was still the most handsome man she’d ever seen. He was her sister’s first everything.

Her plan seemed feasible when she’d run it through her head the hundred times on the drive over here, but now she was having second thoughts. What if Blake didn’t understand what had happened so many years before? What if he didn’t care? She looked at Abby, still planted in the front seat, flipping through her CD case. What if he didn’t want anything to do with Abby? Damn it, Jamie. I can’t believe you did this to me. Jillian took in a deep breath to steady herself. It was too late to think about any of that now.

As Blake came around the front of the car toward her, the young man rounded the back of the old brown Honda CRV and yanked at the hatch.

“Blake Mathews,” he said, pulling the driver’s door open and holding out his hand.

“Good morning, Mr. Mathews.” She hesitated before swinging her legs out and taking his hand. “I’m JJ Davis, and this is my niece, Abigale Davis.”

“Abby.” The fifteen-year-old corrected her.

“Nice to meet you, ladies.” He peeked in and gave Abby a subtle smile. “And please, call me Blake.”

Jillian rounded the car and stopped by the teenager taking the bags from the back. Still caught by the resemblance, she couldn’t form a sentence.

“This is my son, David.”

Son? She darted her gaze to Abby and then back to David. Abby was fifteen, and this young man looked to be at least seventeen, maybe older. She stared back at Blake. He couldn’t possibly have a son.

“You have a son?”

“I do.” He nodded and pulled his eyebrows together. “Have we met before?”

“No.” Jillian scrambled for words. “I don’t believe so.”

“I thought you said the kid was a dude,” David said, and gave Blake a questioning look.

“Maxine must have made a mistake.”

David pulled the largest bag out and dropped it onto the asphalt. “You sure have a lot of stuff.”

She watched him struggle with the next bag. “Oh, just bring in the two big ones for now. We can get the others later.”

David grabbed one of the bags, Abby grabbed the other, and they both headed into the house. Jillian stood on the sidewalk watching Blake pull the rest of the luggage from the car before closing the hatch.

She’d found him. He was no longer the tall, gangly teenager she remembered. He was definitely a man now. Could she trust him with Jamie’s beautiful little girl? She heard Abby’s voice echo in stinging complaint as she lugged her bag up the porch stairs. A little girl was how she’d remembered her, but she wasn’t little anymore. She was an attitude-filled young woman.

When Blake looked up and his gaze met hers, she looked away quickly. Don’t blow it. Spinning around, she walked toward the house, preparing to enter the so-called sanctuary she swore she would never set foot in again. Not able to do so immediately, she hesitated, trying to clear the knot developing in her stomach. She glanced back at Blake, and the knot immediately disappeared. Just watching him gather the rest of the bags in his arms before following her up the cobblestone walk was enough to make her forget the terrible horror that had happened within these walls.

The bags began to tumble back into his face, and he shouted, “I could use a hand with these.”

“Oh, sorry.” She hurried back to help him, swiped the small black cosmetic case from the top of the heap, and then bounced back up the steps and through the door.

“Thanks.” He let out a chuckle. “That helps a lot.”

Jillian stepped inside and took a deep breath. The house no longer smelled of her mother’s famous meat loaf and home-baked chocolate-chip cookies. All that lingered now was the smell of fresh paint. “Where to now?”

“Up the stairs, to the right.”

After climbing the U-shaped staircase, Jillian stood at the top, staring to the left toward her parents’ bedroom. The room where it had all happened. Sweat formed on the back of her neck, and her stomach churned. She was going to have to visit them while she was in town.

“You have the two rooms with the Jack-and-Jill bathroom between them.”

Forcing herself to move, Jillian headed the short distance down the hall, set her bag just inside the door, and looked around. She remembered the path well. She’d spent a lot of time in this room. The scent of fresh paint filled her nose. The color of baby blue now covered the pink walls she remembered. She walked through the bathroom to Jamie’s room, and her stomach shot to her throat. Sadness overwhelmed her, and she grabbed hold of the door jamb. Put it out of your mind, Jillian. She took in a deep breath and forged ahead.

The furniture was sparse—a twin bed, nightstand, and lamp in each room. No dresser, mirror, or decorations. The rooms weren’t nearly as comfortable as they were when she was a child, but more stuff wouldn’t make it feel like home again.

“Kind of bare in here, isn’t it?” she said, shrugging off the tingling chill climbing her spine.

“We haven’t finished furnishing it yet. The department’s a little behind with our funds. I think some of the original furniture is in the attic. I’ll check on that this weekend.”

“Thanks.” It might be comforting to have some of her old stuff around her, but then again, it might not. The sun blinded her as she looked toward the window. “Are there any curtains?” They’d taken down the old frilly ones that had hung here when she was a child.

“Not sure if that’s in the budget, but I’ll check on it. If so, I’ll get to it as soon as I can.” He went to the window and glanced out at the setting sun. “You’re on the west side. The sun shouldn’t be too bright in the morning.”

“Yeah, but I bet in another few hours it’s going to be blazing hot in here.” Thoughts of the blistering nights from her youth flashed through her mind. Endless tossing and turning, twisted in the sheets, unable to get comfortable. Then there were the hot sleepless nights she’d spent lying here with Amelia. Nights Amelia had sneaked out of her house and climbed up the trellis to be with her when the arguments in her house were so loud there seemed to be no escape. She shook herself out of the thought, flipped the latch on top of the wooden frame, and hoisted the window open. She stuck her head out of the opening. The old wooden trellises that led to the window in each room were gone, replaced by ones made of aged copper patina and now covered with beautiful roses. The wood had probably rotted away long ago, just like the family who had once lived there.

“None of these old houses have central air. It would cost a fortune to put it in now.” Blake moved across the room and raised the other window. “If you open both windows, you can get a good cross-breeze going.”

“It’s too bad you don’t have something newer.”

“This is a good old house.” Blake smiled and looked around the room. “I’ve spent some pretty good days here.” His gaze drifted back to Jillian, and he seemed lost in thought. Maybe he did remember Jamie.

Jillian stepped across the room. “Is this the bathroom?”

“Yes, but…”

She closed the door before letting him finish. She had to. If she stayed out there one more minute, she would blow it. Her back against the wall, she slid down the door and squatted, holding her face in her hands. Can I really pull this off? The recurring doubts surfaced again. This is the right thing to do. I can’t possibly take care of Abby myself, can I? She shook her head. No, that can’t happen. She had no experience with children whatsoever. Besides that, she had a career to get back to, and Blake had experience. He had a child already, a teenager who couldn’t be more than two years older than Abby. Two years older and she had no idea. How could that happen? It didn’t make sense. The thought that Blake might have been sleeping with someone else when he was seeing her sister had Jillian’s anger bubbling. What the hell was that about? Maybe that was why Jamie had never told him about Abby. Maybe Jamie had left him without a single word, no explanation, and no clue as to where she was going. Granted, there were extenuating circumstances, but she could have, and probably should have let him know, somehow. Her thoughts wandered to Amelia. Jillian should have done the same.

They had every right to go on with their lives or go back, as the case seemed to be for Blake. Would he love Abby in spite of Jamie’s betrayal? Swiping her fingers across her tear-stained cheek, Jillian hoped when he found out the truth, Blake would love Abby no matter what Jamie had done. She smiled. Blake seemed like a good guy. He might hate Jamie, and possibly her for keeping it from him, but she was optimistic that he would accept Abby.

Seeing the toilet lid taped closed and the connections dangling from the back, she shot up to the basin and splashed a handful of cold water on her face. After she dried it with the only thing in sight, an old T-shirt that smelled of men’s cologne, she grabbed the knob and sucked in a deep breath, hoping she hadn’t been gone too long.

When she pulled the door open, Blake met her with his arms crossed and an if-you-had-listened-to-me look. “I’m not quite finished with the plumbing in there. I should have it done in a few days.”

“I see that. Is there another bathroom I can use? It’s been a long trip.”

He led her into the hallway. “Down here to the right.”

As she followed, Blake picked a T-shirt and a pair of dirty socks from the handcrafted, built-in bookcase she remembered. Her father had spent months building it. Giving her a prickly smile, he tossed the dirty clothes into the room across the hall, then reached in and pulled the door closed.

She pushed the door slowly, waiting for some sort of nasty critter to jump out at her. “In here?”

“Yeah. That’s it.”

Closing the door behind her, she walked gingerly, trying to avoid the magazines scattered across the floor. When she lifted the lid of the toilet, she was relieved to see that at least the bowl looked clean. At this point, running to the corner gas station wasn’t an option. Messy, but clean. She could deal with that.

After she washed her hands, she reached down to straighten the magazines into a pile. As she looked at the covers, she could see they were probably all David’s. World Wrestling Federation, Hot Rod, MAD Magazine. She smiled, thinking about her teen years. She used to read MAD. She remembered sneaking into her parents’ bedroom to read her mother’s copy of Vogue. The trendy fashions had dazzled her the first time she’d looked in mother’s closet and the first time her mother had let her wear something out of it. It was a spectacular place, where Jillian could dream of being whoever she wanted, a place where she used to love to spend time.

The beginnings of a headache poked at the back of her head, and she took a deep breath before she flipped open the MAD Magazine. She wondered if it still had the same satirical punch. When did they add so much text? She flipped through a few more pages. And pictures? Naked pictures! She peeled the cover back. It wasn’t MAD Magazine. Someone had glued the MAD cover onto an adult magazine. She picked up a few of the others and found the same had been done to those. No, no, no. These will not stay. Jillian gathered them all up quickly. Abby was much too young to be exposed to the realities of the male libido. Okay, just settle down, Jillian. He’s an adult, an adult male. If he wants to look at pictures of naked women, there’s nothing wrong with that. He certainly doesn’t have to explain it to you. She’d met enough men and women with far worse habits than magazines.

Blake was standing by the top of the stairs when she came back out. Jillian shoved the magazines into his hands. “Please get rid of these.”

“Sorry. The boys are kind of messy.” He hedged his way down the hall and peered inside.

“You shouldn’t leave stuff like that lying around.” She eyed the magazines.

He looked puzzled. “MAD, Hot Rod, WWF. Nothing questionable here.”

“Take a closer look.”

She didn’t know whether to be amused or irritated at his show of naiveté. This definitely wasn’t the same man she knew from years ago. If the first hour was any indication, things might not go as planned. What was she saying? Her plan had to work. There was simply no other way. He flipped through the pages and his eyes widened.

“Changing the cover is a little extreme, don’t you think?” She wasn’t sure if it was from embarrassment or anger, but his face turned beet red. Maybe he didn’t know.

“Sorry. I’ll take care of them.” He took the pile of magazines, and she followed him to the other end of the hall into her parents’ old room. She peered into it as he entered. It looked different than it had before. The hardwood floor had been refinished and the furniture was new. It was nicely decorated in vibrant colors. He’d made it different. It wasn’t her parents’ room any longer. The bed was made, there were no stray clothes, and the dresser was neatly organized. A man who cleans up after himself. Every woman’s dream. She heard him pull out a drawer and slap the magazines in before he reappeared and yanked the door closed behind him as he came out.

“Excuse me a minute, please.” He headed straight down the stairs, his feet thumping in a quick rhythm as he descended into the living room where David and a couple of other boys were watching TV.

“I found your magazines.” He waited with his hands on his hips for a response. Jillian stopped at the bottom of the stairs and watched as David’s face paled. The boys seemed truly scared. What was Blake going to do? Punish him? Ground him for life? Blake moved closer, and David sank farther into the couch.

“Oh, no,” she said, covering her mouth in a shuddered whisper. He’s a bully just like his father. Remembering the repeated reprimands Blake had endured as a child, Jillian stepped into the room. David might deserve some sort of punishment, but she certainly wasn’t going to let him hit the boy.

He looked at her, then back at David. “You get to cut the lawn this summer.”

“The whole summer?” David asked with a tinge of protest clear in his voice.

“You wanna do the edging too?” His face was concrete, his eyes still and blazing.

“Okay,” David said.

Blake rubbed his face as he turned away and then back to look at David again. “Don’t bring anything like that into this house again. Any of you.”

“Yes, sir.” All the boys answered together.

Abby came bouncing down the stairs, dropping the book she was carrying onto the last step.

“Did you unpack?” Jillian asked.

“Why? I don’t want to stay here. Can’t we go to a hotel? There’s no place to put my clothes.”

Jillian crossed her arms. “We are staying, and you can hang them in the closet.” Jillian had filled Abby in on the investigative report, only a half-truth, and Abby had begged Jillian to let her stay with one of her friends in New York. However, in order to carry out her sister’s wishes, Jillian needed to see how Abby and Blake interacted.

“I’ll do it later.” Abby rolled her eyes. “Is there anything fun to do in this rinky-dink town?”

David’s gaze followed her across the room. “You can hang out with us.”

“Yeah.” The rest of the boys hooted as they quickly made room for her on the couch.

Blake stepped in front of her. “Negative. She’s only fifteen, boys.”

David’s head tilted, looking around him. “Doesn’t look fifteen to me.”

“Nevertheless, she is. I expect you to keep your distance.”

Jillian saw Blake glance at Abby in a fatherly fashion. The man wasn’t an idiot. He knew the girl had all of the right parts, and she was certainly putting them out there for everyone to see. “This is Shane.” He pointed to the boy who looked to be the oldest. “And this is his brother Logan.” He pointed to the younger, skinnier one. “They’re my foster sons and live here also.”

Logan got up from the couch, walked over, and shook their hands. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too, Logan,” Jillian said before turning to Abby. “Maybe you should dress a little more conservatively while we’re here.”

“What’s wrong with this? It’s just a midriff, Auntie.” Abby plucked the book off the steps where she’d left it.

“Look, dude. She’s got a tattoo on her back.” Shane bumped David’s shoulder with his fist.

“It’s not a tattoo. It’s a birthmark,” she shot back with a venomous look, swiping her hand across the jagged crescent-moon shape on her lower back, just to the left of her spine.

“Blue. That’s an odd color,” Blake said.

“Aunt JJ has one too.” They all gave their attention to Jillian, and she nodded. Not that she wanted everyone to know.

“It’s called a Mongolian blue spot.” Jillian absently rubbed the similar one just below and to the right of her belly button. Hers had never faded. She was in the lucky five percent who were marked for life, just as her mother had been. They were considered sexy now, but it had never been revealed in any of her photographs, even when she’d done the story on modeling. In that world, body art, natural or artificial, was usually covered with makeup for all shoots.

“Mongolian blue spots are common among people of Asian, Native American, Hispanic, East Indian, and African descent.” All eyes were on Logan as he spoke. “The color comes from a collection of melanocytes in the skin. The cells that make the pigment in the skin.” He turned to Abby. “Are you Native American?”

“I don’t know. Am I?” She looked at Jillian.

“You have a little Native American in your heritage.”

“Oh,” Abby said thoughtfully.

“Me too,” Logan said.

“I’m gonna go outside and read for a while.” Abby slapped the book cover with her hand.

“Is it okay if I come too?” Logan’s voice had a waver. It wasn’t nearly as steady as it had been when he was giving the anatomy lesson.

“Sure.” Logan opened the screen door for her, and they went out on the porch. David and Shane sprang from the couch and went with them.

Jillian followed them to the door and said, “Don’t wander off. Maybe later we can take a walk.” Jillian looked back at Blake, and he smiled that charismatic smile she remembered.

Chapter Three

“This is unbelievable.” Amelia jumped out of her car. “Jules, let me call you back.” She headed up the front walk and into the house. “Whose car is that?”

“It’s my Aunt JJ’s,” Abby said.

Amelia stopped, put her hand on her hip, and cocked her head. “And who are you?”

“This is Abby. She and her aunt are the new tenants,” David said.

“Really. Well, that’s just peachy.” She blew out a breath and smiled. “Amelia Mathews. Nice to meet you, Abby.” She held out her hand and Abby shook it. “So, where can I find your Aunt JJ?”

“I think she’s upstairs.”

“Thanks.” Determination in her step, she strode into the house and up the stairs. “Blake, I hear you have a new tenant. Where is she?”

Jillian spun around at the top of the steps. “I’m, uh—”

“You’re what? Sorry? You could’ve killed me this morning.”

Jillian let it register. She was the road-raged woman in the car. “But I didn’t.” Her gaze raked up and down Amelia. “You look…fine to me.”

Amelia narrowed her eyes, and Blake moved in front of her. “Amelia, I’m so glad you’re here. This is JJ Davis. She and her niece are going to be living here for a while.”

“I know. I met Abby downstairs. She said Aunt JJ, the crazy driver, was up here.”

“I was just about to start painting. You want to help?” he said, a blatant attempt to deflect her attention.

“Do I look like I’m dressed for painting?” She motioned to her cream-colored Calvin Klein skirt and jacket. “Why don’t you ask Aunt JJ to help you?”

“I feel a headache coming on. If you don’t mind, I’m going to take a short nap,” Jillian said.

“Take some Tylenol. We don’t do a lot of napping around here,” Amelia said, pulling her lips together into a tight smile.

“I understand. You’ve had a long trip, and the paint fumes probably aren’t helping.” Blake took Amelia by the elbow to guide her to the steps. “Come on, sis. Why don’t you run home and change, and then you can help me paint.”

“We need to go over the house rules,” Amelia said over her shoulder.

Blake attempted to move her down the stairs. “What the hell are you doing?”

Amelia continued to glare at JJ, determined not to budge. “She needs to learn how to drive.”

Blake changed directions and pulled her down the hall into his bedroom, closing the door behind them. “It’s not like my day hasn’t already been hard enough.”

She shrugged out of Blake’s grasp and straightened her suit jacket. “She practically ran me off the road, and she has the nerve to just stand there acting like she’s done nothing wrong.”

“You could be a little nicer, you know.”

“And what’s with the nap? Aunt JJ is in for a rude awakening if she thinks she’s not going to have to pitch in around here.” She snapped her lips together.

“Give her a break. She just got here.”

“I hope she at least knows how to cook and clean. No slackers in this camp.”

“What’s the matter? You don’t like my cooking all of a sudden?” Blake had to admit he needed some help with the domestic stuff while he worked on the house. Fae Cooper, their part-time cook, helped out a lot because her family was grown and had children of their own. But she was exactly that, part-time. “Come here.” He took the magazines from the dresser drawer. “She found these in the bathroom.”

She flipped through the magazines. “Shit. Are you serious?” She couldn’t help the smile from spreading across her face.

He rubbed his face. “Here I was hoping David hadn’t left his usual mess in there.”

“Way to make an impression.” She chuckled and dropped them onto the bed. “Did he steal them from you?”

“Funny.” He clenched his jaw and scowled. “I don’t know where he got them.”

“Yeah, well, now that you have a young girl in the house, you’re going to have to watch the boys more closely.”

“Yeah. I know.” He rubbed his eyes. “And now I need to figure out what to cook for dinner. Coop took the day off.”

“Why’d you go and let her do that?” Mrs. Cooper had been part of the Mathews siblings’ lives for close to two decades. She’d worked at the middle school and had taken them both under her wing after she’d caught Blake sneaking back into the school one evening after football practice because his dad was drunk and he didn’t want to go home and be his target.

“She had something to do with her granddaughter.”

“I guess we can give her a pass on that one.” Amelia could see by Blake’s bloodshot eyes that he’d been up all night getting the bedroom ready. Plus, the paint fumes were still thick in the hallway. Even though Amelia was beat from a long week at work herself, she felt the usual pang to help him. “I have some extra clothes in the car. Why don’t you head down to the hardware store and get the stuff to fix the toilet? I’ll stay here with the boys,”

“Thanks, sis. If Maxine had given me a little more notice these two were coming, I would’ve made sure the bathroom was done. At least I had the toilet hooked up.”

Amelia couldn’t believe Maxine had placed the two of them with him. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already with the three boys. The house wasn’t even finished yet, and they were sending him this little princess and her niece. Weren’t there any women out there with teenage boys who could help finish the renovation? Of course not. Amelia knew as soon as she saw them that they were both going to be a distraction. For everyone.

“I need to put the chicken in the oven before I go to the hardware store.”

“No. You go get the stuff for the toilet. You have women living in the house now, and they can’t be sharing a bathroom with the boys. I’ll take care of dinner.”

After they went down the back stairs, Blake headed out, and Amelia headed to the kitchen. She gathered up the dirty dishes the boys had left on the counter and slid them into the sink to soak before she poked her head out the swinging door into the living room to find David and Shane on the couch playing video games. She peeked out the window to see Logan and Abby sitting on the steps, talking. It looked harmless enough, so she spun around to go back in the kitchen.

“You boys need to get your clothes off the furniture and put your shoes in your room. We have women in the house now.” The house would never be totally clean. Since the boys hit puberty, the place always looked like a tornado just blew through.

* * *

Rattled, Jillian pushed the door closed and leaned against it. There she was in the flesh, Amelia Mathews, Blake’s twin sister. Deep-blue eyes, long auburn hair, looking absolutely gorgeous. She was just as beautiful as she was the first time Jillian met her. So beautiful, she’d made Jillian’s head spin. Still did. Amelia Mathews was the most attractive woman she’d ever seen. Jillian thought she would have been long gone out of this town by now.

She flopped down onto the bed. How could she begin to tell her the mistakes she’d made? Would she think she’d left town without giving her a second thought? Of course, she would. On the contrary, she hadn’t been given a choice at the time. Over the years she’d given it a lot of thought and realized her grandparents had done what they thought was best for all of them. The deafening silence between then and now made it very clear how Amelia felt.

Jillian looked around the room. It was different now, but Amelia always said being here somehow made her forget the unbearable noise of her parents’ arguments at her home. All the while she was filling Jillian’s mind with stories and dreams of a life together, a life without hostility, expecting nothing in return except comfort.

Did she still think of those nights? No. Probably not. This Amelia Mathews was different—hard, in fact. She had house rules that weren’t to be broken. Her first love had turned into a cold bitch. She was definitely not the same woman Jillian had fallen in love with so long ago.

Jillian thought about going back out the door and giving Amelia a few choice words that were floating around in her head, but her head was throbbing, and she was so tired right now, she was about to drop. Way too tired for quick banter.

* * *

Amelia heard the door creak open and looked at her watch. A two-hour nap. Wouldn’t she love to sack out in the middle of the day like that? No matter how tired she was, snoozing didn’t fit into her schedule. During the time JJ had slept, Blake had already been to the hardware store and back, fixed the toilet, and helped Amelia paint the hall and part of the stairwell. They would’ve gotten more done if Blake hadn’t let David off the hook to go hang with his friends. He should’ve grounded him for life for having those magazines, but he just couldn’t do it. Amelia knew Blake couldn’t stand to be like his father in any way, shape, or form.

“Hey. You want to take a walk into town?”

Amelia swung around and flipped the almost empty paint tray off the ladder. In what seemed like slow motion, droplets of powder-blue paint splattered across JJ’s yellow camp shirt. Amelia climbed down the ladder quickly and was all set to apologize, but the disgusted look on JJ’s face was so funny, she had to laugh. You would’ve thought she’d thrown rotten tomatoes on her.

“You think this is funny?” JJ wiped the paint from her face, smudging it across her cheek in the process. “I just bought this blouse.”

“I’m sorry.” Amelia tried to hold back the grin. “The look on your face was just so…”

“So what?”

“Um…cute.”

“Cute?” JJ’s anger vanished, and she seemed nervous all of a sudden. Amelia wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw JJ’s cheeks redden.

Amelia tipped her head sideways and assessed the giddy feeling that had just rushed through her. “Yeah, in an odd sort of way.” She spread her lips into a wide smile.

JJ scrunched her cheeks into a forced smile. “Thanks. I guess this makes up for the almost-killing-you thing.”

Amelia lifted an eyebrow. “This is water-based paint. You were never in any danger whatsoever.” She swiped a droplet from JJ’s collar with her finger. “Take it off. I’ll put it in the wash. It should come right out.”

“It had better. It’s not like I have a huge wardrobe.” JJ went back into her room.

Amelia shook her head and headed into the bathroom to wash the paint roller. How had this woman reversed the situation on her? She was usually pretty smooth with women, but even though she’d heard the doorknob turn and knew JJ was coming out of her room, her voice had startled her. Something about it rang deep within her, and it had definitely thrown her off. After rinsing the paint tray and roller in the bathtub, she folded the drop cloth and set the paint supplies at the end of the hallway with the ladder. They should be out of the way down there. She didn’t need any more accidents with Aunt JJ.

She ran her hand across the stair railing as she waited for JJ. Something was familiar about her. Amelia couldn’t place her, but she had the feeling she’d met her somewhere before. The door opened, and JJ came back out dressed in an old gray, form-fitting T-shirt. Amelia guessed she wasn’t taking any more chances with Ms. Fumble-fingers.

“I’m sorry if I was nasty.” JJ held up the shirt. “I don’t have very many blouses, and this is one of my favorites.”

“No problem.” Amelia hesitated, trying to think of something witty to say, but for once in her life, she was speechless. Amelia didn’t know what was the matter with her. She reached for the shirt. “Here. Let me take that. I’ll just throw it in the wash.” It was the least she could do. “You still want to take that walk?”

JJ nodded, giving her a more forgiving smile.

“Okay. Just give me a minute to take care of this.” Amelia held up the shirt.

“I’ll meet you on the porch.” JJ slipped past her, bouncing down the steps.

Amelia heard the phone ring and shouted over the railing. “Can you get that, David?”

“I’ll get it,” JJ shouted back.

She’d been here only one day and was already taking over. Amelia went down the back steps to the kitchen and leaned through the doorway, trying to catch some of the conversation. She couldn’t make out what JJ was saying, but her tone seemed pleasant.

“Who was that?”

“It was just Maxine, checking to see that we made it all right.”

“Maxine, really? That’s new. Maxine hardly ever calls the house.” Amelia wondered when she’d become so attentive.

“Well, we kind of hit it off this morning. While we were talking, we found that we like a lot of the same things.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Clothes, reality TV—”

“Enough said. You lost me at reality TV.” Maxine had a penchant for trendy clothes, but the reality-TV watching gave Amelia a completely different perspective on both Maxine and JJ. “Shirt’s in the wash. It should be done by the time we get back.” Amelia held the door open for her.

* * *

Whew! That was close. Jillian hadn’t expected Maxine to call so soon. She’d hoped she would let her get settled, but instead she’d called to tell Jillian about an open counseling position at the school that should work well with her undercover story. She also wanted to know if Jillian had time to have lunch next week. She’d even indicated she wanted to get to know her better, become friends. Jillian had lied and told her that there was too much going on at the house for her to have lunch. The plumbing had gone haywire, and the floor was going to take at least a week to dry out. The repairs would take another two weeks on top of that.

When Maxine had continued to probe her about the story, she’d lied again, telling her she needed to go, that David needed her help with his homework. Maxine continued to talk, telling her she was impressed about how quickly she’d eased herself into the household. She hadn’t thought Maxine was the kind of woman to be starstruck, but after the phone call, she guessed she was wrong.

“You know all that reality-TV stuff is contrived, don’t you?” Amelia trotted down the steps and scooted up next to her on the sidewalk.

“Possibly.”

Amelia stopped, tilted her head, and raised an eyebrow. “No possibly about it. It is.”

Jillian stopped abruptly. Oh, my God. Stop looking at me in that incredibly sexy way. She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, focused on the bridge of Amelia’s nose, and squelched her surprisingly powerful reaction. “A lot of it may be contrived, but some of the consequences are very real.”

Amelia smiled. “Possibly.” She turned back toward the pathway and walked slowly. “What do you plan to do tomorrow?” Amelia asked.

“I hadn’t thought about it yet.” The phone conversation from earlier with Maxine popped into her head. “Maybe look for a job.”

“You should probably get Abby enrolled in school first.”

“Where do I do that?” Jillian watched the leaves dance on the pavement in front of her as they walked.

“The administration building.”

“On Walker Street?”

“No. They moved it a few years ago. It’s on Flood now.” Amelia’s brows scrunched together, and Jillian knew she’d blown it. “How’d you know it was on Walker before?”

Her neck tingled and heat fled through her. “I kinda got lost on the way in and drove by it.” Shit, Jillian, just keep your mouth shut and listen.

“Oh, yeah. They still have some of the signs on the building.” Amelia tucked her hands in the pockets of her down vest and let her gaze move to the path in front of her. “So what did you do in New York?”

“I was a teacher.”

“Really?” The surprise in Amelia’s voice was unnerving.

“Uh-huh.”

“While you’re at the administration building, you should see if they have any openings. They’re always looking for teachers at the high school.”

She cringed at the thought of being around teenagers every day. “That’s a good idea.” Damn it, you did it again. A minor in education does not make you a teacher.

“I have a friend who works at the high school. I can call her, see if she can find out who to talk to.”

“Thanks. That would be great.” Shut up, Jillian. She could do this. The TV show had given Jillian plenty of experience in many areas. She was good at being anything she wanted to be. All it took was a lot of research.

“You’ll probably fit right in over there.” Amelia’s lips pulled into a wide grin.

“What do you mean by that?”

“You just seem like the type of person they’d be looking for.”

“And what type of person is that?” Only known me for a day, and she already thinks she knows my type.

Amelia stopped again and looked at her curiously. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Really. I just thought…” She blew out a short breath. “Well, you have Abby, so you might be good with kids.”

“Oh.” Jillian could see the sincerity in Amelia’s eyes, and instead of pressing the issue, she decided to take her at her word. Amelia was dead wrong. Jillian and kids didn’t mix.

They rounded the corner and came upon the old park where the two of them used to meet when they were younger.

“You want to sit for a minute?” Amelia asked.

“Sure.” Jillian plopped into a swing as Amelia leaned up against the beam of the metal A-frame anchoring it.

Closing her eyes, Jillian sucked in the all-too-familiar scent of the magnolia trees dotting the landscape and relaxed. She’d loved this place. Her mother had taken her here daily when she was a child.

“Are you okay?” Amelia’s voice rang through her sanctuary of thoughts.

The swing slowed. “Yes, why?”

“You’re crying.”

“What?” She put her hand to her cheek, and the moisture heated her fingers. “Allergies,” she said, choking out a cough. “It’s just my allergies.”

“Are you sure?” Amelia knelt in front of her and put a hand on her knee.

She looked deep into Amelia’s eyes. They were the soft and warm eyes she remembered. Not the cold, dark ones she’d seen earlier in the day. She pulled her gaze away. “Yes, I’m sure. Can we go back now?”

“Of course.” Amelia popped up and offered Jillian her hand.

Jillian took her hand and allowed Amelia to help her out of the swing, letting her hand linger in Amelia’s for a moment. Her hand was soft and warm, her grip gentle. The tingle that shot through Jillian caught her off guard. She’d never forgotten the feeling. Get a grip, Jillian. All this reminiscing wasn’t doing her any good. She needed to straighten up. Tomorrow would be the most challenging part of playing this role. She would have to find a normal job.


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