MEANT TO BE MOM
Book 4 in the Jersey Boys series
April 2015

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4.5 stars, Top Pick, Romantic Times


Since the idea of ever living again in tiny Maple River, New Jersey, gives fashionista Sabrina Noble the heebie-jeebies, she’s only returned from Manhattan for the occasional visit. Until a series of unfortunate events, including a broken engagement, sends her “home” to both lick her wounds and get her financial feet back under her. At this point, she’s pretty much done with men, and romance, and ever thinking she’ll have a family of her own…until she runs into her old BFF Cole Rayburn, and his two preteen children, all of whom need more from her than she can give. At least, not now. And possibly not ever.

As for Cole, he’s never forgotten Sabrina, who saw in the geeky boy she “rescued” from the playground bully more than he ever saw in himself. And it pains him to see how much the once confident girl he loved has changed. However, so has he. Yeah, he might still be a geek – if a successful one – but now he’s the one doing the rescuing.

If she’ll let him, that is…

 

EXCERPT

One

“Dad. Dad!”

His brain already in knots from grocery shopping with a pair of adolescents, Cole Rayburn frowned at his shivering twelve-year-old daughter. Who was clearly about to freeze in her tank top and short-alls in the frigid store, despite the curtain of blond hair shielding her bare shoulders. But would she listen to Cole’s suggestion to take a sweater with her? Oh, hell, no—
           
The slight note of alarm in Brooke’s voice belatedly registered, echoing through his entire nervous system. Not that he’d let her see it—
           
“What is it, honey?”
           
“That man over there,” she whispered, sidling closer to Cole’s elbow. Much as she’d done for the past week, as if afraid he’d disappear if she let him out of her sight. Gratifying and terrifying all at once. “No, the one by the apples. With the white hair. He keeps staring. Like he knows us or something.” A few feet away her slouching, dark-haired brother Wesley gawked at a towering display of canned soda. Longingly. Cole briefly met his son’s silent plea, ignored both the stab of guilt and Wes’s sigh, then finally looked to see who Brooke was talking about.
           
And damned if his own adolescence didn’t flash before his eyes.
           
He’d assumed, of course, he’d eventually run into one or more of the family he’d practically grown up with. Just not this soon. Or that he’d have such mixed feelings about the reunion, even after all this time.
           
Or whether the man everyone called the Colonel would be more inclined to welcome him home like the Prodigal Son…or splatter his guts all over the grapefruit.
           
“Cole?” Preston said, still smiling. Grinning, actually. So far, so good. “Cole Rayburn?”
           
“Yes, sir,” Cole said, returning the grin, even as he reminded himself it’d been more than twenty years since Sabrina Noble had dragged home, like a stray puppy, the flabby dork he used to be. The Colonel still had a couple of inches on him – although, at well over six feet, he pretty much towered over everybody  – but Cole understood why the older man hadn’t recognized him at first. Few people from those days would.
           
By now they were side by side, their carts facing opposite directions like a pair of horse riders meeting up on a trail. Unlike Cole, the Noble clan patriarch hadn’t changed much that Cole could tell. Although he had to be in his seventies by now, the retired Air Force officer had lost none of the imposing bearing that had gone a long way toward keeping the motley group of adopted and foster children in line for so many years. The shoulders were still square, the posture still ramrod straight, his intense blue gaze as direct as ever. But not, Cole could see now that he was closer, as bright.
           
It also occurred to him he couldn’t remember Preston ever doing the grocery shopping. That had been his wife Jeanne’s domain.
           
Now he clasped Cole’s hand in a firm shake. All forgiven? Forgotten? Unknown? Although Sabrina would’ve had to say something, wouldn’t she? To explain—
           
“Didn’t mean to creep you out,” the Colonel said, “but I wasn’t sure it was you at first. What on earth are you doing back here, boy? Thought you’d fled New Jersey years ago.”
           
Cole smiled. “I’m only in Maple River for the summer. Taking care of my parents’ place while they’re away.” He grinned down at Brooke, frowning so hard Cole had to fight a laugh. “This is my daughter, Brooke. And this guy,” he said as Wes wandered back, curiosity clearly overriding – for the moment – his annoyance with his father’s junk food ban, “is my son Wesley. Kids, this is Preston Noble. Spent a lot of time at his house, when I was around your age.”
           
Because I had the mother of all crushes on your daughter, sir.

And how is Sabrina, by the way?

The Colonel’s brows dipped slightly behind his glasses, as if he knew exactly what Cole was thinking. Which wouldn’t surprise him in the least. It used to rattle all the kids, Preston’s uncanny ability to read their minds, to put the kibosh on trouble before they could get into it. Most of the time, anyway.
           
But not all.
           
Both kids politely shook the older man’s hand, although Brooke hung back, more like a much younger child would have. Not surprising, Cole supposed, considering recent events.
           
And damned if the Colonel didn’t somehow pick up on that, too, immediately engaging both kids in some tale or other from when Cole had been a fixture in the Nobles’ kitchen, when Jeanne Noble had known his food preferences better than his own mother. And as he watched his still shell-shocked children begin to thaw in the warmth of the older man’s spirited tale-telling, he realized he couldn’t ever remember the Colonel talking down to a kid, how he always treated them as the intelligent, capable beings he knew, and expected them, to be. Not surprisingly, the kids were eating it up. Same as Cole had.
           
Then the older man met Cole’s gaze, his smile almost wistful. “The three of you should come over. So we can catch up properly. Not in the middle of the Food Lion.”

“Oh. Um…I…”

“How about this afternoon? If you’re not busy, I mean. Jeanne’s roses are spectacular this year, with all this rain. She would’ve been so pleased. You remember, I’m sure, how much she loved those roses.”

Loved. Past tense.
           
Cole’s heart lurched in his chest. That explained the slightly not-there look in the older man’s eyes. Why he was shopping.
           
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
           
“No reason you should have. Eight years ago now.”
           
“But you still have the house?”
           
“For now. Since everyone’s out on their own…” Preston’s attention drifted back to the kids, now quietly arguing over grapes. Or something. “The boy looks exactly like you, doesn’t he?”
           
“Except about fifty pounds lighter.”
           
The older man turned back to him. “You’d already lost a lot of it, though, by your junior year.” He chuckled. “When you shot up six inches in as many months. Jeannie said you never saw it. Your metamorphosis.”
           
Cole felt his face warm. “I…no. I guess I didn’t.”
           
The Colonel hmmphed, clearly keeping whatever else he was thinking to himself as he looked back at the bickering duo. “It’s not like I don’t see the others fairly often, since they’re all still around. Well, except for Sabrina, she’s in New York. Pretty much only comes back for weddings. And new babies. And we’ve got plenty of those. Still. It’s not like it used to be, when the house was filled.” He paused. “Too damn big now,” he said softly. “Too quiet.”
           
The longing in the older man’s voice knifed straight through Cole, partly because he doubted the Preston even realized it was there. If it was one thing the guy wasn’t, it was manipulative. Anal and demanding, perhaps, he thought with a smile, but definitely not one to play the pity card. And since his own parents were away – and had never been the coddling grandparent types, anyway – and Erin’s parents were both dead,  what could it hurt to the let the old guy play honorary grandpa for an hour or so?
           
And frankly, Cole wouldn’t mind seeing the house again. If for no other reason than to perhaps expunge a memory or two.
           
“We’re having dinner with my sister tonight,” he said, “but I suppose we could come over for a little while this afternoon.”
           
Preston beamed. “That would be great. Around two or so?”
           
“We’ll be there.”
           
The other man clapped him on the shoulder before steering his cart down the aisle. Cole watched him for a second, then wandered over to the veggie section, ignoring his children’s grimaces as he bagged a bunch of broccoli and plunked it into the cart. “Head’s up – we’re going to go visit Colonel Noble for a little while this afternoon.”
           
“Why?” Wesley said, suspicious.
           
“Because he invited us. And it’ll be fun, getting to see the house again.”

Fun. Yeah. Let’s go with that.

“One of his kids…” To Cole’s surprise, his throat caught. He cleared it, then said, “Was my best friend, all through middle and high school.”
           
“What was his name?”
           
He tossed a three pack of multi-colored peppers to the cart. “Her name.” And some asparagus, tightly rubber-banded. “Sabrina.”
           
“Your best friend was a girl.
           
“Yep.”
           
Wesley shook his head as Brooke leaned on the front of the cart, impeding Cole’s progress. “How come you never mentioned her before?”
           
“I’m sure I did. I must have.”
           
“Nope. I would’ve remembered. So how come?”
           
Did he dare try Brussels sprouts on them? He did.
           
“Haven’t seen her in years. One of those things.”
           
And amazingly he sounded almost nonchalant. In the past, over and done, didn’t matter. Highly doubtful he’d ever see her again.
           
Except Brooke gave him one of her strange looks, her searing, green-eyed stare reminding him yet again that he was perpetually an inch away from screwing up. Especially now. But at least, for these few minutes, he’d managed to distract them from what must have been the constant refrain of their mother’s pulling the rug out from under them. That, completely of their own volition and without Cole’s knowledge, when his extraordinarily courageous children had given his ex the choice between them and a lifestyle that had already left them feeling like also-rans, she had not chosen them.
           
And this – they – did matter. Now mattered. In a way that nothing else ever had, or ever would. Because while his love life was apparently doomed to eternal suckage, these kids would know they came first. That he loved them, and was proud of them, and wanted nothing less than the best for them.
           
Even if that included tiny cabbage-like vegetables, so innocently snuggled together in their little green net, unaware of their own gross-out factor. Awesome. “Dinner. Tomorrow,” he said. Both kids groaned, and Cole smiled.
           
Maybe he had no idea what he was doing, but at least they’d know he cared.

#
           
Blowing out a breath, Sabrina Noble stuffed her wallet back inside her purse as the taxi chugged away behind her down the tree-lined street. Shadow and sunlight danced across the lawn like a thousand fairies, beckoning her up the wide, welcoming stairs fronting the serene Queen Anne.

Home.

As in, that place you go when your future gets shot out from under you. Although not for long, the For Sale sign reminded her. She frowned, still not entirely sure how she felt about that.

A rose-scented breeze – not a scent one often caught in Manhattan, if ever – tangled with her long hair, made her shiver slightly underneath her floaty top. Although not because she was cold.

Squaring her shoulders, Sabrina trudged up the brick walk, her largest rolling bag clackety-clacketing behind her, echoing the refrain in her head – that she had no intention of staying a minute longer than necessary. She lugged the bag up onto the porch, returning to the curb for the rest of her luggage before retrieving the spare key from the secret pocket on the underside of the striped cushion on the far rocker. The front door open, she breathed in that same faint scent of eucalyptus she’d always associate with her childhood. Her adoptive mother Jeanne, who’d installed that “secret” pocket. Amazing, that they’d never been robbed.

Although they had, actually, of the woman who’d loved more than any human being Sabrina had ever known.

The sting of tears startled her. Never mind she’d lived on her own since she graduated from college. But if Mom had been here, there would have been hugs and cookies and sympathy. And probably a good talking-to, about needing to buck up and move on. And then more hugs—

Her mouth smashed together, Sabrina hauled the bags inside and shut the door…only to frown when, from the back of the house, came a girl’s high-pitched giggle, followed by another kid’s – a boy? – affronted response. Then a masculine rumble, definitely not Pop’s, gently rebuking. For a second, irritation spiked, that Pop wasn’t alone. And wasn’t that stupid? That she was annoyed, not that he had company. Giving her head a sharp shake, she shoved down the case’s handle, let her purse slither off her shoulder to softly thunk onto the worn entryway carpet—
           
Like a summoned genie, the man she and her twin brother Matt had called their father since they were kindergartners appeared in the foyer. Underneath bristly white hair, ice blue eyes slammed into hers.

“Sabrina? What on earth—?”

“Surprise,” she said through a tight throat, and her father’s eyes narrowed. Between two decades in the military and a second “career” fostering more kids than Sabrina could count, nothing got past Pop. Especially a small mountain of luggage sprawled across his foyer rug.

His gaze veered back to hers, burgeoning with questions.

“Later,” she whispered. More laughter drifted out from the kitchen. “When we’re
alone—”
           
“Preston?” she heard, a split-second before the dude belonging to the deep voice materialized behind him. And if it hadn’t been for the steely gray eyes, that one stubborn, still untamed curl at his temple, she wouldn’t have recognized Cole Rayburn in a million years.

Behind her stinging eyes exploded a word she wouldn’t dare say in front of her father.

#

           
“You’ve changed.”
           
In more ways than you know, Cole thought, hyper aware of Bree’s gaze on his profile as he focused on the kids, playing catch in the back yard with her dad. Huge, dark brown eyes that used to make his stomach turn somersaults, a million years ago.
           
That still could, apparently.

He hadn’t been able to read the emotions that’d streaked across her face when the penny dropped, although he’d caught the What the hell? easily enough.

Same goes, he’d wanted to say.

And for a moment, he’d considered gathering up the kids, getting out. Except the Colonel had given him a deal-with-it look that put paid to that idea. One he’d probably been waiting a long time to give. Man had zero tolerance for unresolved issues. Especially involving his children. That the statute of limitations had long since run out on this one was beside the point.

Fiddling with a bottle of tea he didn’t really want, Cole blew out a breath. “When I realized these kids might need me to stick around past fifty, I decided it was time to get off my butt. Start eating like a human instead of some garbage-munching bacteria.”

“Or a teenage boy?”

“Same thing.”

Her chuckle was subdued. “And the glasses…?”

“Lasik. Got tired of breaking my glasses, can’t tolerate contacts.”

From the yard, they heard her father laugh, the kids respond in kind. Cole wasn’t sure who was blessing whom more. Right now, he didn’t care.

“How old are they?” Sabrina said softly.

“Wesley’s thirteen, Brooke twelve.”
           
“Wow. You were…young.”
           
Amazing, how normal their conversation sounded, considering the way they’d left things. “Not that young,” Cole murmured, sitting forward, his hands clamped around the bottle.
           
He sensed more than saw her take a sip of her own tea. “You with kids. Gonna take a minute to wrap my head around that. So where’ve you been all this time?”
           
“Philadelphia, mostly.” Cole finally tilted his own bottle to his lips.

“And you’re here now because…?”

“Here, as in Maple River? Or your dad’s house?”

“Either. Both.” At his silence, she added, “You’re the last person I expected to see right now. So color me curious.”  
           
At that, he turned, starting slightly at the flashback – her sitting cross-legged on the cushioned, wicker chair, her wavy hair cupping her shoulders. Even the skinny pants and loose top weren’t much different from what she used to wear. But for the first time since she’d arrived, Cole got his head out of his butt long enough to see the pain etched in her expression. Masked, to be sure, but definitely there. And far more real than that pity-me schtick she used to pull in high school.
           
Real or not, however, no way was he going to get sucked in. Not this time. Or ever again, those big brown eyes be damned. Not to mention all that luggage in the vestibule. Full plate and all that. So whatever was going on with Bree, he didn’t need, or want, to know.

However, since he was on her turf, he supposed an explanation was in order.

His gaze shifted back to the kids, a smile tugging at his mouth when Wes – far more coordinated than Wes had been at that age – caught the ball. “The kids’ mother and I have been divorced since they were babies,” he said quietly. “Up to last week we had shared custody.”

“Last week…?” Her breath hitched. “What happened?”

“The kids asked Erin to choose between them and her…personal life.”

Several beats preceded, “And she didn’t choose them?”

The horror in her voice made him smile. As did the softly uttered, but very crude, word that followed when he shook his head.

“I can’t imagine…” She blew out a harsh breath. “Sorry, I don’t even know the woman – or your kids, for that matter – it’s not my place to judge. But still.”

“Yeah.” When Bree didn’t respond, he said, “The thing is, Erin and I…it was a mistake. Plain and simple. And if she hadn’t gotten pregnant…”

“The first time or the second?”

Cole smirked. “We told ourselves it was working by then. We were wrong.”  He paused. “It took her a while longer to finally admit motherhood cramped her style.”

At Sabrina’s silence, he turned again to find her watching the kids with an intensity that sent a jolt of awareness through him. Finally she released a breath, then said, “So you brought them back here.”

Setting the bottle on a nearby table, Cole stood and walked over to the porch railing, his hands slammed into his jeans’ pockets. “For the summer, anyway. My folks needed someone to house sit. And my sister and her family are here. It’ll be good for them, having a break until we figure out what comes next.”
           
“And you ran into Pop in the Food Lion. Amazing.”

“I think that’s called fate.”

He heard her snort. “So their mother…she simply washed her hands of them?”

“They talk. Text.” He looked at her. “It’s only been a week. And she’s still their mom.”

Her downturned mouth – there was a familiar expression – made it clear what she thought of his assessment before she nodded toward the yard, where her dad was giving Wes pointers on how to throw the ball. “Looks like maybe they’re helping each other.”

“So I didn’t imagine it. That he’s lonely?”

Her cheeks puffed when she blew out a breath. “The others are around, of course. They get together a lot, he’s hardly neglected. But it’s not the same, from when the house was always filled.”

Cole took another swallow of his tea. “Can’t quite believe he’s selling it.”

“Not sure how hard, though. It’s been on the market for months. And it’s not overpriced, but…”

“He doesn’t really want to leave.”

The kids’ laughter floated over to them from the far end of the yard. Her smile seemed half-hearted. Nothing like the sassy grin he remembered. “Can you blame him?”

Cole thought of all the kids who’d found sanctuary here, temporary or otherwise. Himself included. How Jeanne Noble’s generosity, the Colonel’s strength, still permeated the space. It was a good house, filled with good vibes. Mostly, anyway.

“No, I can’t.” He squinted. “So you don’t mind? That we’re here?”

“Why should I?”
           
For oh, so many reasons, he thought, then looked away again, annoyed that he was still having trouble looking directly at the girl he’d once loved so hard it’d scared the snot out of him. Sure, those feelings were gone, but the memory of them wasn’t. And his fists clenched underneath his folded arms as the compassion in her eyes threatened to reopen not only newer, not-yet-completely scabbed over wounds, but much older ones he’d thought long-since healed.

Then she got up to join him at the railing, and he shut his own eyes against the onslaught – of memories, of her scent, of disappointment and uncertainty and longing. Man, was he messed up, or what—?

“Dad tell you about Matt and Kelly?”

The amusement in her voice brought Cole’s gaze to the side of her face again. “Kelly? McNeil?”

“Yep.”
 
Back in school, Cole and Sabrina and Kelly had been – in hindsight – a very strange, but very loyal triumvirate. Until Kelly moved away their senior year, and everything…changed.

“Matt and Kelly, what?”

“Married, if you can believe it. New baby, even. Well, three months old, now. Although she already had two kids from her previous marriage.”

Cole’s head spun. Sure, everyone knew Kelly’d had a crush on Bree’s twin brother, but she’d been too shy to say anything. And Matt…well. Matt was Matt. Focused, one might say. Which was another word for oblivious.

“I don’t…wow.”

Bree laughed. “Long story. Happy ending. Or beginning, I suppose. They don’t live far. In case you run into them in the supermarket or whatever. But fair warning – they’re ridiculously happy. It can grate, after a while.”

This said with such love – and obvious pain – Cole felt his gut twist.

“I can imagine.”

A moment passed before she nodded toward the kids. “Tell me about them.”

He got another whiff of her perfume, something far more sultry than the sweet, flowery scent she used to wear. The image of all that luggage piled in the foyer flashed through his brain, the tears shining in her eyes—

“Wes is scary smart,” he said. “Especially in math. There was some talk about letting him skip a year, but I said no. Other kids already think he’s a freak as it is.” 
           
“He gets picked on?”
           
A world of understanding packed into four words. “Enough.” He hesitated, then said, “Nothing like I did, though. Thank God.”
           
She flashed him a quick smile, then asked, “And Brooke?”
           
As usual, his heart softened when he looked at his daughter, tall and blond and still blessedly shapeless – although for how long was anybody’s guess. No longer a child, nowhere near being a woman…and Cole had no clue what to do with her. Except love her.

“Into dance, art, music. Science. Every bit as smart as Wes. And not even remotely interested in capitalizing on that.”
           
“Because she’s seen what’s happened to her brother and doesn’t want to go there.”
           
“Maybe. Whatever. Drives me nuts.”

“Give her time, she’ll get over it.”
           
Feeling his lips twitch, Cole looked over. “You sure?”
           
“I did,” she said, then laughed. “About being myself, I mean. Mostly, anyway. But those hormone swarms are a bitch.”
           
“Yeah. I remember,” he said, and she laughed again, then gave him something close to a side-eye. “They’ll be fine, Rayburn.”

“Why would you say—”

“Because you’re their dad.” Not looking at him, she stuffed her fingers in her front pockets, the lightweight top scrunching over her wrists. “You were a good friend,” she said softly. “A good person. Even if we messed things up—”

She cut herself off when her father appeared at the porch steps, leaning heavily on the bottom post and breathing hard.

“Pop? You okay—?”

“Of course I’m okay,” the Colonel said, swatting a hand at his daughter before hauling in another lungful of air. “You guys all keep reminding me I need more exercise, so I got it.” Then, to Cole: “You and the kids are welcome to stay for dinner. Easy enough to fire up the grill—”
           
“Thanks,” Cole said. “But we’re going to my sister’s—”     
           
“Right, right – I forgot.”

At the mention of Diana, Cole saw something flash in Bree’s eyes. The vestiges of fear, most likely. His sister, ten years his senior and Cole’s self-appointed surrogate parent whenever his well-meaning but easily distracted academic parents dropped the ball – which was frequently – could definitely be scary.

“How is Diana?”

“Good. Bored, though, now that her two oldest are in college. Keeps making noises about going back to work. But anyway,” he said as the kids tromped up the porch steps, looking a little flushed but otherwise none the worse for wear. “We should get going.”

“C’n we get something to drink first?” Wes panted out.

“It’s five blocks, you can’t wait?”

The kid pantomimed clutching his throat, like he’d been on a fifty-mile hike in the desert, and Bree smothered a laugh. Clearly eating it up, Wes grinned, then did his poor puppy dog face. “Man, I would kill for some Gatorade right now.”

“There’s tea and juice in the fridge,” the Colonel said. “Help yourself. Although in my day,” he said, shepherding them back inside, “we made do with drinking from the hose…”

Bree chuckled again as Cole’s phone buzzed – a text from his sister, wondering where they were. “You really shouldn’t encourage him,” he said, pocketing the phone.

“Pop?”

“No. Wes. Kid’s a master manipulator.”

“Yeah, I seem to remember somebody else like that.” She shoved her hair behind her ear. Flashed a smile. “This was nice, catching up.”

“Sure.”

Her eyes shadowed for a moment. “So…I’ll be seeing you guys again?”

“Maybe.” Because if he said no, then he’d have to explain why. And frankly, he wasn’t sure he could. “How long are you staying?”

Although her smile stayed put, the shadow darkened. “Not sure—”

“Dad!” Brooke burst back onto the porch, holding out her phone. “Aunt Di says if we don’t get over there right now—”

“You guys go on, tell her we’re on our way.”

But when he turned back around, Bree had wandered out into the yard to sit on one of the swings on the old playset, looking like the world’s most lost little girl as she stared off into space.

And Cole stood there far longer than he should have, watching her.

Full plate, he reminded himself, then turned to leave, telling himself the image would fade.
           
Eventually.



Copyright 2015, Karen Templeton-Berger. Reprinted with permission from Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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