THE REAL MR. RIGHT
Book 1 in the Jersey Boys series
February 2014

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Also available as an audio book from Audible.com and Amazon


Fearful for her children’s safety after her alcoholic ex’s latest threats, Kelly McNeil flees with her two young children back to the one place she always thought of as “safe”…only to find herself in danger of a very different kind, in the form of Matt Noble, her old high school crush. Because how will she ever learn to stand on her own two feet as long as the handsome Jersey cop is always there to catch her?

 

REVIEWS

4.5 stars
"Templeton's narrative is ripe with whimsical Jerseyisms, right on innuendos and some laugh-out-loud humor. With an unforgettable couple, jaw-dropping lovemaking and two of the cutest kids ever, Templeton's old-friends-to-lovers romance rocks."
Romantic Times

 

EXCERPT

Chapter One

The Prodigal ValentineHer arm muscles screaming from the weight of the sacked-out toddler slumped against her chest, Kelly McNeil blinked up at the multi-gabled Queen Anne, so still and serene in the dark…and prayed she wasn’t making the biggest mistake of her life.

Okay, the second biggest mistake—

“Who’d you say these people were again?”

Behind her, the minivan’s engine ticked itself to sleep, the sound overloud in the deep winter silence, and Kelly smiled briefly for her young son.

“This is where my best friend lived,” she said, her heart knocking as they started up the softly lit brick walk bisecting the snow-shrouded front yard. “We’ll be safe here.”

Between the twin disks of his Harry Potter glasses, Cooper’s nose scrunched. “You sure?”

“Yes,” Kelly said, because she had to believe that or die. As it was, she felt as though she’d never be completely free of the fear knotting her stomach…a fear that had finally trampled her last shred of common sense. Because this was so not her, this was insane, uprooting two kids in the middle of the night and taking them someplace she hadn’t even seen for nearly twenty years. She knew the Colonel still lived there, Sabrina had said so in her last Christmas letter, but his number was unlisted and Sabrina had apparently changed her cell phone number—

Swallowing hard, Kelly boosted Aislin higher on her shoulder and trudged up the steps to the porch, where brass coach lamps still stood sentry on either side of the glossy black door, illuminating the weathered gray floorboards, the dark green porch swing that had been privy to many a summer night’s adolescent gripefest…

Blowing out a breath, Kelly pressed the doorbell. A dog barked. A big one, by the sound of it. Coop sidled closer. 

“Dad—”

“Doesn’t know where we are, sweetie.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“How come?”

Because by the time she and Rick met, her third year of college, her father was dead and her mother had moved to Philly, and Maple River, New Jersey had quietly slipped into her past. Oh, Sabrina had been one of Kelly’s bridesmaids, and had visited after Coop’s birth, but there’d been no reason for Kelly to return here. “It never came up,” she said quietly, and Coop nodded.

Except he then glanced over his shoulder, worried, and Kelly tugged him closer, fury hard-edging the fear. A moment later, through the frosted panels framing the door, a light flashed on. Sabrina wasn’t there, of course – girlfriend had traded the Garden State ‘burbs for Manhattan years before. And Bree’s mom Jeanne had died some years before. Which left the Colonel. Who’d always scared Kelly a little, truth be told. Man hadn’t risen through the ranks of the Air Force as quickly as he had by being a softy, that was for sure.

But for all Preston Noble’s penchant for order and discipline, he’d also adored his five kids, four of whom were adopted. And Kelly had come to associate “next door” with love and laughter and the security that comes from being in a large family where everyone had each other’s back. Sure, Sabrina’s dad might glower and bluster for a moment, especially at the late hour, but Kelly had no doubt he’d allow her and her children the same refuge he’d not only given to an untold number of foster kids over the years, but more rescue animals than she could count. 

At least until she figured out what came next.

The door swung open; Kelly sucked in a breath…only to nearly choke when she realized the dark-haired, beard-hazed man hanging on to the excited bear of a dog wasn’t the Colonel. The man frowned, confusion rampant in deep brown eyes even more intense than she remembered.

“Alf! Sit!” he commanded, glowering first at the dog, then her after the beast obeyed. “Can I help you?”

Clearly, he had no idea who she was. But even after eighteen years, Kelly would have recognized Sabrina’s twin brother Matt anywhere.

Hell.

* * *

Behind owl-like glasses, embarrassment flared in the woman’s oddly familiar green eyes as she cradled the baby’s head to her shoulder. The chipmunk-cheeked boy beside her inched closer, the move belying the minute thrust to his chin. Wrong house, would be Matt’s guess.

Until she said, “Matt? It’s…Kelly. Kelly Harrison. McNeil, I mean. Sabrina’s old friend?” and he felt like he’d been suckerpunched.

Holy crap. When was the last time he’d even thought about Kelly McNeil—?

She cleared her throat. “Is…is your dad here?”

“Uh, no.” Unable to contain herself at the sight of the boy, Alf surged to her feet again; Matt tightened his hold on her collar until butt once again touched floor. “Actually, he’s out of town.”

“Oh. Well. Um...sorry for bothering you—” Kelly touched the boy’s shoulder. “Come on, Coop—”

“No, it’s okay,” Matt said, confused as hell but not about to send a woman and two kids back out in subfreezing weather. “Please…come in.” He opened the door wider, kneeing aside the whimpering Newfoundland. When Kelly hesitated, Matt sighed. “Really. And don’t mind Alf, she’s harmless. Although you might want to watch out for slobber.”

That got a pair of tiny smiles, before, with a murmured “Thanks,” Kelly ushered the boy inside. Matt shouldered shut the heavy door as the draft sideswiped the thermostat, kicking it on. The kid – Coop – immediately hunkered in front of the brass floor register, the concerned dog standing guard, while Kelly lowered herself and the sleeping toddler to the painted bench in the foyer. Unbuttoning the top button to her own coat, she released a long breath. “That feels so good. The heat I mean. The heater’s wonky in my car, and it took longer to get here than I’d expected.”

“From?”

“Haleysburg,” she said, naming a town about a half-hour’s drive away. Her face reddened. “I don’t want to put you out—”

“You’re not.”

“If you’re sure,” she whispered, her eyes drifting closed, and he realized this clearly exhausted woman was not the same stuck-up girl who wouldn’t give his sorry-assed self the time of day all those years ago. Still, an explanation might be nice, right about now.

The Prodigal Valentine“Your kids, I take it?”

Kelly jerked, her eyes popping open. “Yes, sorry. I’m…” Yawning, she yanked off her white knit hat, freeing a billion red curls. Barely past her shoulders now. Not as bright. “This is Aislin. And that’s Cooper. Coop?” The boy pushed upright, grabbing the dog’s ruff to steady himself. “This is Matt Noble. My best friend’s brother.”

Coop seemed to gather himself before sticking out his hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, like he was sixty, for godssake, and Matt felt a smile elbow through his not-exactly-chipper mood.

“Pleased to meet you, too, Cooper.” Not much of Kelly in the boy that he could see. Except for the curls, maybe, although they were brown. The set to his chin, however – that was Kelly all the way.

“Can I go in there?” he said, looking toward the living room, still crammed with Matt’s mother’s sometimes bizarre Americana collection.

“Sure. Knock yourself out.”

As boy and dog wandered off, Kelly fingered back the baby’s snowsuit hood to stroke her damp, strawberry blond curls off her face. “I apologize for showing up out of the blue like this, but Sabrina must’ve changed her number and I’d forgotten the one here…” Her chin wobbled, steadied again. “And I was…desperate.”

Matt’s eyes narrowed. “You in some kind of trouble?” he asked, giving voice to the question that’d been poking him between the eyes from the moment he laid eyes on her. Because you can take the cop off the force, but taking the force out of the cop – not so easy.

Kelly’s mouth turned down at the corners. “Not sure that’s the right word. My ex—”

The toddler suddenly jolted awake, huge blue eyes assessing Matt for a moment before swerving to her mother.

“Mama—?”

“It’s okay, baby,” Kelly whispered, smiling for her little girl, a smile like Matt remembered her giving to anybody but him, back in the day, and something pinged in the pit of his stomach. The kind of pinging lonely, divorced schlubs would do well to ignore.

“Your ex, what?”

Except then Cooper and Alf reappeared, and Kelly shook her head, color once more flooding her cheeks. And finally it clicked, what would make a woman drag two kids out in the middle of the night, to someplace she hadn’t been in years. True, there weren’t any obvious signs, no black eyes or visible bruises, but—

“You guys want something to eat?” he asked, tamping down a repulsion that had never faded, even after nearly thirty years, and Kelly’s grateful smile cracked his heart. Because the past had nothing to do with now.

And now she obviously needed his help.

Whether he was totally on board with that idea or not.

* * *

Kelly sat at the glittery white quartz island, Aislin pitched forward on Kelly’s lap to smush pudgy little fingers into the sparklies, thinking that, on the one hand, the heat purring through the register, the smell of browned butter as Matt made grilled cheese sandwiches – under the dog’s unwavering supervision – were soothingly familiar. Enough that Kelly felt her perpetually tight shoulder muscles unknot. A little.

Because what was also familiar – and not soothing in the least – was her whackadoo reaction to this dude she hadn’t seen since she was sixteen. An eon, practically, during which she’d fallen in love, married, become a mom twice over. As in, moved on?

And yet…

True, she was worn out, and emotionally trashed, and time had definitely blessed Matteo Noble, who hadn’t exactly been shabby before. On him, that whole dark, moody, broody thing worked. It was how it was all working on her that was seriously messing with her already fritzed brain.

So, no. Not going there.

Instead she ruffled Coop’s hair as he sat next to her, staring up at the assorted copper cookware hanging off a rack, and corralled her wayward thoughts as she gave the renovated kitchen a once-over. Gone were the knotty pine cupboards, the beat-up, trampoline-sized maple table where the island now stood, the brick-patterned linoleum. Now it was all very HGTV, stainless steel and glass tile backsplash and pale wood floor. Very nice, very generic. Very not Matt’s mom, an energetic little blonde who’d always been far too busy feeding people to worry about her kitchen’s décor.  

As if reading her mind, Matt said, “We talked Dad into a remodel a few months. Since he’s making noises about wanting to sell the house, anyway, and ‘eighties nostalgia wasn’t gonna cut it.”

Remembering that their mother had died several years before, Kelly gently asked, “How’s he doing?”

Matt flipped the sandwiches on the griddle. Shrugged. “He functions. Putters. Reads. Sometimes hangs out at Tyler’s and Abby’s salvage shop – Sabrina tell you about that?”

“Briefly, yes. How’s that going?”

“Good. Restoration’s a hot market these days. So’s repurposing. It’s amazing, the stuff they pull out of old buildings. Not to mention who buys it. This one guy, he completely refaced the outside of his house with bricks from a demolished factory in Trenton. Nuts, right?”

What was nuts, was how they were shooting the breeze as though it hadn’t been a million years since they’d seen each other. As though things hadn’t been painfully awkward between them, especially at the end.

And that was the smaller of the two elephants in the room. The far larger, stinkier one was the big old why? behind her bringing the kids here.

Especially since she knew Matt was a cop. A detective, if memory served. So this reprieve – because of the kids, the hour – would undoubtedly be short-lived. At some point there would be questions. Questions Matt had every right to ask. Not that his dad wouldn’t have expected explanations, too, but she’d always felt she could trust the Colonel to protect her, the same way he’d protected his own children. Not to mention all those foster kids he and Jeanne had taken in over the years.

The Prodigal ValentineBut Matt…this was uncharted territory. Yes, he was feeding them and being chatty, he’d been raised right, but could she count on him to take her side? To even believe her—?

“You got awfully quiet,” Matt said, scattering her thoughts.

“It’s been a long…day.”

His forehead wrinkled for a moment before he said, with a wink for Aislin, “Almost done.”

Her eyes stinging, Kelly pulled her baby closer, burying her cheek in her silky curls. Thank God this one seemed unaffected by the events of the past two years. The same, however, couldn’t be said for Cooper, leaning heavily on the counter as he watched Matt, smushed face propped in hand. Yawning, he shoved up his glasses to rub his eyes, and Kelly’s heart turned over. Poor guy was probably dead on his feet. 

“They can bunk in Tyler’s old room, when they’re done,” Matt said. “There’s twin beds—”

“Oh. I brought sleeping bags—”

“No need.” Matt’s gaze touched hers, then slid to Coop as he cut the finished sandwiches in quarters, clunked the plates onto the counter. “Whaddya want to drink, sport? Juice? Milk?” He grinned. “Chocolate milk?”

“Mom?” he said, hopeful-eyed, and she smiled.

“For tonight? Sure.”

Coop sat up straighter and nodded. “Yes, please. Thank you.”

She bit her lip, though, when Matt retrieved a carton of one percent milk, a container of “skinny” chocolate syrup from the stainless steel French door fridge. He threw her a glance. “Dad’s stuff. Doctor’s orders.”

“Oh! Is he okay?”

“Yeah, he’s fine…” He rummaged in a cupboard for something. “Probably healthier than I am. Doc wants him to stay healthy, though. Ah – I knew I’d seen one of these…”

Moments later, he’d rinsed out and poured milk into someone’s old sippy cut, which he then handed to Aislin, who plugged it into her mouth and started chugging as though she hadn’t had anything to drink in weeks. Matt chuckled, twin creases gouging those bearded cheeks, then turned that grin to Kelly, reminding her exactly how messed up her life was.

How messed up she was. Ergh.

“Linnie! What do you say?”

There was an actual popping sound when spout left mouth. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sweetheart,” Matt said, then faced Kelly again. “What about you?”

“I’ll have what they’re having,” she said, watching Matt’s strong hands as he poured her milk, noting how those hands were attached to equally strong arms, which in turn were attached to a good, solid chest, and for a brief moment, because she was crazy stressed, most likely, she imagined herself wrapped up in those arms, against that strong chest. And this wasn’t even about sex – seriously, the very thought made her tired – but…caring. Being cared about—

“You want something else?” he asked, and her eyes jerked to his.

“What?”

“Your sandwich. You haven’t touched it.”

“Oh…sorry. No, this is fine, I’m just…” About to cry. Great. “I’m almost too tired to eat.”

“I can see that,” he said, being kind again, dammit. “By the way, you can take Sabrina’s
room—”

“Mom? I’m done. C’n we go play with the dog?”

Matt chuckled. “Mutt thought you’d never ask. Here—”  He handed Cooper the plastic plate with the mangled remains of Aislin’s sandwich. “Go on into the family room, back there,” he said, pointing. “Make her sit first, though. She knows the drill.”

Kids and dog gone, Kelly finally took a bite of her sandwich. “This is really good.”

“You must be really hungry.”

She almost smiled. “You use butter?”

“Mom would reach down from Heaven and smack me if I didn’t.” 

Kelly bit off another corner, washed it down with the best chocolate milk, ever. “Your mom used to make grilled cheese sandwiches for Bree and me almost every day after school. You learned well.”

Matt hesitated, then carted the griddle over to the sink. His back to her, he said, “Only thing my folks ever wanted, was for any kid who set foot in this house to feel safe.” He turned. “Making grilled cheese sandwiches wasn’t the only thing I learned well. So what’s going on, Kelly?”

And there it was. She set down her milk glass, skimming her index finger over the damp rim before lifting her eyes to his. “Let me get the kids to bed first?”

He crossed his arms, doing the narrow-eyed thing again, and a shiver traipsed up her spine. Finally he walked back to the island and leaned heavily on the counter’s edge, close enough for her to see the beginnings of crow’s feet fanning from nearly black eyes.

“It’s obvious you need help,” he said, too softly for the kids to hear. “Which for old time’s sake I’m more than willing to give you…but only if you swear to tell me everything. And I mean everything. So. Deal?”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

One side of his mouth kicked up. “You got any other options?”

She sighed. “Not really, no.”

Still gripping the counter’s edge, Matt straightened again, his gaze drifting to the kids in the family room before resettling on hers. “I may not share the Colonel’s DNA, but I’m still his son. If you can count on him, you can count on me.”

And God help her, she believed him. Because, as he so accurately pointed out, what choice did she have?

* * *

The Prodigal ValentineA half hour later, Matt lay sprawled in his dad’s recliner, half watching some late night TV show, when Kelly appeared in the room’s entryway. He glanced over, and his breath hitched in his chest.

She looked downright shrunken, hunched into herself as she distractedly rubbed one forearm with her other hand. Even as a teenager she’d been on the skinny side, but now, even with the baggy sweatshirt, she was all points and angles. Damn, her cheekbones had never been that sharp.

Or her eyes that flat.

“I was beginning to think you’d chickened out,” he said. “Or passed out.”

A weary smile touched her lips. Granted, Kelly hadn’t been your typical, in-your-face Jersey girl – in fact, her being so quiet was what had first attracted him. But this went way beyond being reserved. Or stuck up, which Matt now realized was absurd. No, the word that came to mind now was…deflated. Like the minute she didn’t have to put up a front for her kids, she’d surrendered to whatever hell she was going through.

“I’d’ve never been able to sleep,” she said, “knowing you were out here…wondering.”

Matt clicked off the TV and levered the chair back upright. “You got that right—”

“Please don’t feel obligated because you happened to be here instead of your dad.”

“And I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. I’m a cop, I took an oath to protect and serve, okay? Don’t recall it saying I got to pick and choose who I protected.”

“So…this isn’t personal?”

“Not sure how it could be, since we haven’t seen each other in, what? Nearly twenty years?”

“Got it.” Then her brows pushed together. “Why are you here, anyway?”

He almost laughed. “Because why would I still be living with my father?”

“I didn’t say—”

“But you thought. And are you gonna stand there the rest of the night or what?”

“I might.”

For a split second, annoyance prickled. Until Matt realized that tiny, defiant act was her trying to keep some control over a situation in which she probably felt pretty damn powerless. So he leaned back in the chair, plucked his soda can from the holder on the chair’s arm.

“My own house is all torn up at the moment,” he said, taking a swig. “Okay, for longer than that, I’m doing most of the work myself so the remodel’s not exactly going like gangbusters. No heat, no indoor plumbing…you get the picture. So I’m camping out here.”

She folded her arms over her stomach. “Sabrina mentioned your divorce. I’m sorry.”

Even after nearly a year, the sting still took him by surprise. “Thanks,” he said, appreciating her solicitude but having no intention of talking about his pulverized marriage. With her or anybody— 

“So you’re here alone?” she said.

“No, Abby’s here, too.” Matt jabbed a finger toward the ceiling. “Upstairs. She was up this morning at five, hit the hay before it was even nine. Another reason why I’m here, since Pop didn’t much cotton to the idea of her being here alone.”

“My goodness, how old is she now? Twenty?”

“Twenty-two. And pissed as all get out that I’m here, cramping her style.”

“Oh, and like the Colonel doesn’t?”

Well, look at that. Was that an actual twinkle in those pretty green eyes? Matt chuckled. “Yeah, but I’m her brother. Which is far worse. Especially since Pop spoils her rotten.”

“Don’t give me that,” Kelly said, still smiling. Sorta. “I remember how you guys were when she was little. You all spoiled her rotten.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” he said, and Kelly laughed softly, then glanced toward the ceiling. “I can’t believe we didn’t wake her up. She must sleep like the dead.”

“She does. Always has. Last summer? Kid slept through a thunderstorm that sounded it was gonna take out half the town.” Alf shoved herself to her feet and padded over to Matt for some loving. He messed with the dog’s ears for a moment or two, then frowned back at Kelly. “So. This story…?”

She cupped the back of her neck, her forehead creased. “You realize I can only give you my side?”

“Better than no side.”

“And if I sound completely delusional?”

“Guess that’s a risk you’ll have to take.” He took another swallow of the nearly flat soda. “But I somehow doubt your ex is buried in the woods somewhere.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Kelly said drily, then finally sat on the very edge of the sofa, jerking a limp red curl behind her ear. Her mouth pressed flat for a moment before she said, very softly, “I’m scared.”

Point to him. “For you? The kids—?”

“Both.”

“Your ex hurt you?” When her eyes shot to his, he said, “You started to say something. Earlier.”

“Right.” She blew a short, humorless laugh through her nose. “Depends on how you define hurt.”

Matt released a slow, controlled breath. “You have custody?”

Nodding, she rubbed her hands against her jeans. “Except Rick is not happy about that. At all. Sure, he has visitation, but more and more he keeps showing up unannounced, to see the kids. At first I let it go, thinking at least it showed he cared. That he’s trying.” Her mouth thinned again. “But even before tonight, it was unsettling. For the kids, I mean. Well, me, too…”

The Prodigal ValentineShe mashed her lips together. “The frustration, the hurt, the anger – I understand that. Rick has every right to be disappointed. To be bitter. Hey, I’m pretty bitter and disappointed, too. I did love him,” she said, her eyes filling. “With all my heart. But the day came when I realized that love alone wasn’t enough to fix our broken marriage.”

If it was one thing Matt had learned in his work, it was that one rarely got a straight shot at the truth, that more likely than not there’d be a few side trips along the way. But without those side trips, you were likely to miss something crucial. “Broken, how?”

Kelly leaned back, grabbing a throw off the sofa’s arm to wrap up in. “We met in college. Dated for…gosh. Four or five years before we got engaged. Didn’t get married for another year after that. Certainly long enough that I felt pretty sure Rick was, well, normal. He was…he made me feel secure. Safe. Like…” She sighed. “Like my dad used to. Over and over, Rick assured me that I could lean on him, that’s what he was there for.

“And he was a good provider. A good dad. We were happy. For a while, anyway. He is – or at least was – a gifted salesman. And I was good with being a stay-at-home mom. I even liked my in-laws,” she said with a flicker of a smile. “Except, when…when Aislin was about six months old, Rick lost his job. And another one didn’t exactly land in his lap. I’d been doing a few small catering jobs here and there – mostly friends of his parents, that sort of thing – so I figured that was a good a time as any to expand. I had a little money, from my dad’s life insurance policy, so I invested it in my business.” Alf switched allegiances, chuffing over to rest her chin on Kelly’s knee. She smiled, plowing her fingers through the dog’s thick fur. “It blossomed, more than I could’ve dreamed. But Rick…”

Her hand fisted. “Instead of supporting my work – which was keeping us from losing the house – he resented my success. I don’t doubt,” she quickly added, “that his pride had taken a huge hit, that he was hurting because he couldn’t keep his promise, to provide for us. Having watched my father go through the same thing when he got sick, I understood that. But…”

Kelly folded her legs underneath her to prop her elbows on her knees, leaning her head in her hands. “I didn’t want a divorce. Not for a long time. Especially after Rick’s father died and I didn’t want to cause him any more pain. And in any case, I kept thinking…” Dropping her hands, she sighed. “That this was one of those ‘or worse’ times and that somehow, we’d work through it. He was my husband, Matt,” she said at Matt’s pissed sigh, briefly meeting his gaze. “The man I’d promised to love no matter what…”

For a moment, she seemed to disappear inside herself, then said, very softly, “And it wasn’t as if we hadn’t weathered rough patches before. Except then,” she said on another sigh, “Rick started drinking more than usual. And his behavior became more…irrational. He’d either fly off the handle over nothing – especially to Coop, who he’d pick on mercilessly – or sink into this bottomless depression that was almost worse than the anger. And when Coop’s grades started to slip, when he started overeating…” 

A sad smile preceded, “I finally told Rick it was over, I was done trying to hold our marriage together single-handed. But until I actually handed him the divorce papers I’m sure he thought I was bluffing.” 

“How long ago was this?”

“Almost three years.” Her eyes filled. “And despite everything, it broke my heart. Even though, yes, I’ve finally accepted that whatever’s going on in Rick’s head has nothing to do with me. But on some level…” Another sigh. “It still kills me that I couldn’t figure out how to fix things.”

Yeah. He knew how that went, didn’t he? Knew, too, the folly of that particular mindset, thinking if one person wants things to work badly enough, it can happen. “And sometimes, the only way to fix something is to walk away.”
Silence shuddered between them for several beats before, on a long breath, she sagged back into the couch. “Yeah. I know.” Her eyes lowered to the dog’s ginormous head, still on her lap. “Except the divorce didn’t end the…problems.”

“The drinking, you mean?”

“That, and the emotional outbursts. If anything, they got worse.” Kelly lifted her eyes again, and the fear Matt saw there knifed him in the gut. “In fact, Rick’s only supposed to be with the kids when his mother’s around. Since he lives with her now.”

“Are you okay with that?”

“Very. I’d trust Lynn with my life. And my kids’. She’s devastated by what’s happened. And as frustrated at not being able to get through to Rick as I was. Am. So this seemed a reasonable compromise. Except, as I said, he keeps coming over. And about a week ago, I noticed this…blankness in his eyes. And that…”

Her lower lip briefly quivered. “I’ve tried talking to Family Services, to get a restraining order, but they don’t issue those on hunches. On feelings. On things that…” Pressing her lips together, she gave her head a quick shake. “On what might happen. And since he’s never actually harmed the children…”

Something in her voice… Matt’s eyes narrowed. “So what changed things yesterday?”

A moment or two passed before she said, “Rick called, long after the kids were asleep, wanting to talk to Coop. I said no, and he went ballistic. More than usual, I mean. Then he insinuated…” She swallowed. “He said if he c-couldn’t have the kids whenever he wanted, then neither of us could.”

Matt froze. “And you took that to mean…?”

“Something I can’t even think about. And what really scared me was that he wasn’t drunk. Not that I could tell, anyway.”

For several seconds, Matt stared at her profile as she kept her gaze fixed on the coffee table between them. He’d’ve never figured  the Kelly he’d once known for a liar – Sabrina wouldn’t’ve kept her as a friend if she had been. But he didn’t know this Kelly, did he? “You think he was serious?”

She lifted tear-filled eyes to Matt’s again. If she was pulling one over on him, she was doing a bang-up job. “I sure wasn’t going to stick around and find out, was I?  Court orders be damned.” She sighed. “So. Here we are. Still want to help me?”

Matt sat forward, like that would relieve the agita. In theory he understood the impossibility of mitigating every potential nightmare. No police force in the country had those kinds of resources. Also, in theory, as an officer of the law he was bound to uphold that law. And for God’s sake not be a party to someone’s breaking that law.

Except he’d also seen firsthand how often inaction led to unimaginable horror. And even more unimaginable grief. Maybe he couldn’t say for sure she was telling the truth, but his gut told him she was. At least, mostly. Because his gut was also telling him she was holding something back. Something he’d pry out of her later, for sure.

But not tonight.

After a long moment Matt got to his feet, looking past Kelly into the kitchen. “You sure nobody can connect you to this place? Your ex? His mother?”

“Positive.”

“But they can contact you?”

“They have my cell number, yes. And no, it can’t be traced. I checked.”

He almost smiled. “I couldn’t – and won’t – even try to advise you on what to do. In fact—” He finally met her gaze. “This conversation? Never happened. Got it?”

A frown momentarily dug into her brow, then eased. “Yes.”

“Then you can stay here, at least for the moment. Until you – we – figure something out. I’m sure Dad would agree. And in any case, he won’t be back for a week. By that time…well. Anything can happen, right?”

Kelly stood, shoving her hair away from her face. “And Abby?”

He’d forgotten about his sister. Crap.

“Tell her whatever you think seems best. People come through here all the time, she probably won’t think anything one way or the other.”

“But you’re still putting  your butt on the line.”

The Prodigal Valentine“True. But so are you.”

“Why?” she said softly, and he knew what she was asking.

“Frankly? I have no idea.”

Kelly blinked a couple of times, then crossed the floor to put her hands on his shoulders, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered, then padded out of the room, leaving Matt pretty sure he wasn’t going to sleep worth crap that night.



Copyright 2014, Karen Templeton Berger; cover art copyright 2014 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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