Read The Sweetheart Rules Online

Authors: Shirley Jump

The Sweetheart Rules (2 page)

“If I come ova there, can I have a kitty?”

Diana glanced at Mike, then back at Ellie. “Well, your mommy or daddy has to say yes first.”

“Neva mind. I don’t wanna see any stupid kitties.” Ellie’s face fell, and the thumb went back in her mouth.

Mike glanced at Jenny, but his eldest daughter had turned away. What was that about?

“It was nice to meet you, Ellie,” Diana said. “I—”

“I don’t wanna talk to you anymore.” Ellie spun toward her sister, and clutched the teddy bear tighter.

Mike cringed. “Sorry,” he said to Diana. “She’s… temperamental.”

A wry grin crossed Diana’s face and she straightened. “I have a fifteen-year-old, remember? He makes temperamental a sport.” She let out a little laugh, and for a second, the tension between them eased.

Mike remembered Diana’s son. Good kid, overall. “How is Jackson?”

“Fine. Thanks for asking.”

Just like that, the ice wall returned. Mike should be glad. He should get the hell out of here and put Diana out of his mind. He should do a lot of things, but didn’t do any of them. Because he couldn’t stop staring at Diana’s legs and wondering why she was so dressed up. “You, uh, headed to work?”

Lame, lame, lame. No, beyond lame. For God’s sake, it was Sunday. She wouldn’t be working on a Sunday, and especially not in a dress and heels. But there didn’t seem to be a good way to say,
Hey, I know I have no right to know, but you going out on a date?

“Daddy? I’s hungry,” Ellie said.

“I better let you get back to your shopping,” Diana said. A polite but firm
Stay out of my business
.

Why the hell did her dismissal bother him so much? He had more than enough on his plate right now. An ex-wife who had run out of town, leaving him with kids who were more like strangers. A career that was hanging by a thread. And then there was his mother, who had left several messages, wanting to see him.

Talking to his mother encompassed a whole lot of topics Mike didn’t even want to think about, never mind deal with. Not now. Maybe not ever.

On top of that, the last thing he needed to add to that mix was a stubborn veterinarian who made his head spin and wanted things from him that he had no business giving. Diana Tuttle was a settle-down, make-a-family, live-in-traditional-lines woman. Mike was… not. At all. Mike was a soldier, end of story.

“Daddy! I want ice cream! Now!” Ellie stomped her feet and made her mad face. “I’s hungry and you
promised
!”

Case in point.

“We have to finish shopping first, El, then we can get—”

“Now!” The word exploded in one over-the-top Mount Vesuvius demand. Thirty days, he told himself, thirty days, and then Jasmine would be back and he’d be free to return to Alaska.

Yeah, that’s what he should be looking forward to. The problem was, he didn’t want his kids to go back to living with Jasmine. Mike might rank up there close to number one crappiest dad on the planet, but when he’d picked up the girls, he’d finally seen what he’d been blind to for so long. The dancer he’d married in Vegas was a distant, hands-off mother who had blown his monthly child support checks on parties and shoes, while his daughters went around in too-tight, too-short hand-me-downs and ate store-brand cereal three meals a day. That had pissed him off, and when he’d gone through the house to help the girls pack, it had taken every ounce of his strength to stop himself from exploding at Jasmine.

Because truth be told, it was his damned fault they lived this way, and if he’d been the kind of man and father he should have been from day one, then none of this would have happened. Yet another chalk mark in the failure column.

“Ice cream!” Ellie screamed. Several people turned around in the aisle, giving Mike the glare of disapproval.

Diana backed up a half step. “I’ll let you go. Have a good vacation with your daughters.”

He swore he heard a bit of sarcasm in the last few words. He told himself he should let her leave, but a part of Mike wondered about that dress. And wondered if she’d thought about him in the last six months. Plus, she seemed to have a way with Ellie, a calming presence, that he could sure as hell use right now. At least until he figured out what the heck he was doing. “Do you want to get some ice cream with us?”

What was he doing? He had a schedule to keep, a plan for the day. Eighteen minutes until he planned on being done shopping, then thirteen minutes to get home, stow the groceries and then eat lunch at 1300. Lunch done and cleaned up by 1345, and chores until 1500.

Chucking that schedule to the side made the muscles in his neck tighten like steel cables. Yet a part of him wanted to while away the rest of the day with Diana Tuttle in the quaint Rescue Bay ice-cream shop and find out if she was a chocolate or vanilla kind of girl.

His money was on chocolate. Definitely chocolate.

“Ice cream! Ice cream!” Ellie jumped up and down, the teddy bear flopping his head in agreement.

“Just what she needs—
sugar
,” Jenny muttered.

Diana began to back away. “Uh, it seems you have—”

“Come on, it’s ice cream,” Mike said. “Everyone deserves ice cream at the end of the day.” He nodded toward the basket in her hands. “Unless you have somewhere you need to go.”

Could he be more pathetic or obvious? Somewhere she needed to go?

“Please?” Ellie said. “Please go with us? I like you and Teddy likes you and Daddy is grumpy.”

Diana laughed, and seemed to consider for a moment. In the end, she was won over by Ellie’s pixie face. “Well, who can resist an invitation like that?”

Ellie jumped up and down again, then ran back and forth in the aisle, nearly colliding with other shoppers, singing, “We’re getting ice cream, we’re getting ice cream.”

“Ellie, quit,” Mike said.

Ellie kept going. Jenny studied a hangnail.

“Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.” Ellie spun in a circle, almost crashing into an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “Teddy loves ice cream, Jenny loves ice cream, Ellie loves ice cream.”

“Ellie, quit it!” Mike said again, louder this time.

Ellie kept going, like a top on steroids. Her song rose in volume, her dancing feet sped up. She dashed to Mike, then over to Diana. “Ice cream, ice cream!”

Diana bent down and put a light touch on Ellie’s arm. “If you want ice cream, you have to be good for a little while, and help your daddy finish the shopping.”

“I don’t wanna be good. I wanna sing my ice-cream song!”

Diana gave her a patient smile. “I’m sure everyone wants to hear your ice-cream song”—an exaggeration, Mike was sure—“
after
the shopping is done. Because if we stop to listen now, it’s going to be a long time till anyone gets ice cream.” Diana picked up the teddy bear’s floppy paw. “And that might make Teddy sad.”

Ellie stopped spinning and whirring and singing, and stood still and obedient. “Okay.”

Mike stared at his Tasmanian devil child, who had morphed into an angel. She slipped into place beside Jenny, standing on her tiptoes to place the teddy bear in the child seat, and turned back to Mike. “Daddy, we need to do shopping. Jenny says we need peanut butter.”

Mike turned to Diana. His gaze connected with her deep green eyes and something dark and hot stirred in his gut. He remembered her looking at him with those eyes as the sun set and the last rays of the day lit her naked body like a halo. She’d slid down his body, taken him into her mouth—

Mike cleared his throat. “Thanks.”

Diana shrugged. “No problem.”

“Are we shopping or what?” Jenny said, with a gust of frustration.

“One sec, Jen.” He turned back to Diana. “I only need a few more things. Do you want to meet over at the Rescue Bay Ice Cream Shop in, say, fifteen minutes?”

“And then what?” she asked.

“Then nothing,” Mike said. “It’s just ice cream, not a date. No expectations.”

Her face tightened and he wanted to kick himself. God, he was an idiot.
No expectations.

It was what he’d written in that stupid note back in January.
We both said no expectations and no regrets. You’re amazing and I hope you have a wonderful life. Mike

Diana glanced at Ellie and Jenny, then back at Mike. The smile on her face seemed forged out of granite. “You know, I’m going to take a rain check after all. Ellie, I’m sorry.”

“Diana—”

She met his gaze, and the warmth he had seen there six months ago had been replaced by an icy cold. “No expectations, remember?”

Then she was gone. Ellie started to cry. Jenny marched off with the cart. And a part of Mike wondered if it was too late to make his flight to St. Kitt.

 • • • 

Diana put the chicken in the fridge, the diet meals in the freezer, and the bread into the bread box. She washed the single cup and spoon in the sink, then dried them and put them away. Okay, so not exactly the hot and sexy weekend night she’d been hoping for, but that’s what she got for canceling her date at the last minute.

Damn Mike Stark. The man blew back into town and gave her that charming grin, as if nothing had happened. As if she hadn’t been a complete and total fool and whispered she loved him—

And he’d run out of her house so fast, he’d broken the land speed record.

Then running into him in Walmart had left her all discombobulated, and she’d ended up canceling the plans she’d had with man number ten in her online matchups. Not that she’d been looking forward to the date anyway. Dinner at a local sushi place with an accountant who had a passion for
Battlestar Galactica
and superhero comics had simply seemed a better way to spend her evening than with a TV dinner and an old movie. Each guy she’d met through the dating site and gone out with had been duller than the one before. There’d been the bookkeeper who had ten cats, the trumpet player with a collection of beer bottles, and then accountant guy, who had embarked on a long diatribe about why Superman was better than Batman.

Yawn, yawn. Why had she ever let Olivia talk her into trying the site? Clearly, she’d stayed out of the dating scene for too long, and her loser-radar needed a little fine-tuning.

Diana glanced at the phone on the counter. She itched to call Charlene’s cell and check on Jackson. She reached for the phone, then drew her hand back. No, she wouldn’t. Diana was trying to practice the art of zenful parenting. Meaning not checking on her troubled teenager every five minutes. He was fine, just fine. Camping with his friend’s family. Home in two days.

Then her gaze shifted to the envelope on her table and her heart squeezed. A single white envelope, with only a few pieces of paper. She’d never thought her future—and Jackson’s—could come down to a pile of cheap white bond and some handwritten words.

I want him back.

That’s all the yellow Post-it said. Four words, no signature, attached to the papers filed with the court. She’d left the Post-it on the table, waiting for someone to say it was a joke, a hoax, that Sean had changed his mind yet again.

Back? He’d never had his son in the first place. But as Diana thought about the state of her life, and the newly flush state of Sean’s, she knew there was a very real chance a judge could see it otherwise.

Damn. Her life was a mess. No, it was a freaking implosion. Diana’s hand went to the teakettle, then she shifted and reached into the cabinet over the stove. One lone amber bottle tucked in the corner, the dust thick and caked on the curved surface.

The craving started low in her gut, then traveled up her throat, pooling want in her mouth. When she closed her eyes, she could taste the rum, its sweet, honeyed flavor sliding down her throat, down—

Damn. It had been fourteen years, and still there were days when the need for a drink hit her like a Mack truck.

Her fingers danced over the gold screw top. One twist, that’s all it would take.

One.

Twist.

Just one.

Go ahead, open it
, whispered that voice in her head that she thought she had silenced the day she decided to be a good mother to her newborn son. The day she had turned her life around, and never looked back. The day she had put that bottle into the cabinet and left it there, half challenge, half reminder.

Her fingers tightened on the cap, thumb curving around the metal band, the top nestling into the valley of her palm, waiting for a little pressure and one, just one, twist.

“No.”

The word echoed in her kitchen. She said it again, and again, until the refusal settled into her bones, and her hand released its grip on the bottle cap. “No,” she said again, softer this time, and put the rum back into the cabinet.

Another battle won. In a war that never ended.

Two

Harold Twohig.

Just the mere mention of the man’s name raised Greta Winslow’s blood pressure twenty points. She took one twirl around the dance floor with the man at the Valentine’s Day party six months ago, and he started acting as if they were engaged or something. The man was like a tick on a bloodhound. Only bigger. Balder. And uglier.

“And how is the sweetest petunia in the garden today?” Harold said as he strode up to Greta’s table in the cozy dining hall of the Golden Years Retirement Home. His white hair stood straight up today, a stark contrast to his bright red golf shirt. He could have been Where’s Waldo’s disinherited second cousin.

“Go away,” she grumbled. “You’re giving me indigestion.”

Harold just grinned and winked, then headed across the room to the lumbering herd of golfers he usually ate with. Bunch of silly old men in mismatched plaid with floppy white hats who had nothing better to do than hit a little ball around on the grass and call it a sport. When Harold sat down, the other men all gave her a wave, Harold’s arm taking the prize for most exuberant.

Greta let out a long-suffering sigh, then picked up her spoon and scooped up some cardboard masquerading as oatmeal. Pauline and Esther rounded out Greta’s group, the usual morning trio at their favorite table—the one closest to the kitchen doors. She missed Buck Carter, the retired fisherman who had made breakfast an interesting and bawdy event. Ever since Buck went to the Great Fishing Hole in the Sky, breakfast had been a subdued affair, which was exactly what Greta didn’t want first thing in the morning. The rest of the dining hall went on with their breakfast in a soft, dull murmur of conversations and belches. Everyone but Harold Twohig, who did his little epileptic wave-dance again. Greta turned away. “That man is a pox on society.”

“I think it’s cute how he keeps pursuing you,” Esther said. She sat across from Greta, prim and proper in a starched pink dress, sipping a mug of tea and nibbling on an English muffin. In public, Esther ate with the dainty restraint of a debutante, but Greta knew Esther kept a stash of crackers and candy bars under her bathroom sink for in-private gorging. Behind closed doors, the woman could put back more in ten minutes than a shark in the shallow end of a crowded pool.

“It is not cute,” Greta said. “It is humiliating. The man can’t take a hint.”

Pauline scoffed. “Those aren’t hints, Greta. They’re head blows.”

Greta shrugged. She preferred to call them suggestive taps, as in
Take the suggestion and quit trying to lean in and kiss me.
The bruising on Harold’s skull wasn’t her fault. Clearly, Harold had a weak circulatory system. “Whatever it takes. The man is a leech.”

“I don’t know,” Esther said, giving Harold a two-finger wave. “I think the lady doth protest too much.”

“Will you quit quoting Shakespeare at the breakfast table, Esther? It is too damned early in the morning for big words.” Greta reached for the sugar packets, opened two of them, and dumped them on top of her oatmeal. Across the room, one of the nurses playing warden shook her head in disapproval.

Greta opened a third one. Just to be contrary. Damn that Harold Twohig anyway.

Pauline and Esther exchanged a glance, then a giggle. Pauline, with her Clairol chestnut hair and bright pink lipstick, looked like a teenager for a second, with gray-haired Esther as her conspiratorial senior citizen friend.

“What?” Greta said. “Don’t tell me you two are scheming. Nothing good comes of that, you know.”

“Says the master plotter.” Pauline dipped a toast point into her egg yolk and took a bite. Esther, the egg hater, paled a little. Pauline ignored her, then sat up straighter and puffed out her ample chest, restrained today by a nautical striped shirt and light blue sweater, as if she was heading out for a three-hour cruise instead of just down the path to a crappy, soggy breakfast. “Besides, we’re not conspiring. We have news.”

“Wonderful news.
Amazing
news.” Esther clapped her hands together.

“Harold Twohig has leprosy and he’s being shipped off to a colony in the West Indies?”

Esther made her sucking-on-a-lemon face. “That is not even funny.”

Pauline leaned forward and lowered her voice. “We are being… syndicated.”

“Syndicated? Pauline, if this is one of your schemes involving the Mafia and questionable bank withdrawals—”

“For one, that wasn’t the Mafia, it was some poor guy in South Africa who lost all his possessions in a hurricane. For another—”

“They don’t get hurricanes in South Africa, Pauline,” Greta cut in. Lord, give her patience. Sometimes these women made a box of rocks look like Rhodes scholars. “That should have been your first clue.”

“For another,” Pauline reinforced, ignoring Greta’s reminder of her five-thousand-dollar mistake, “I’m not talking about that kind of syndication. I mean the multiple-newspaper kind of syndication. As in Common Sense Carla is taking over the state of Florida. The Palm Harbor weekly paper is picking us up!”

Greta didn’t tell Pauline that adding one small town paper wasn’t exactly taking over the entire state of Florida. The woman looked too happy for even Greta to want to bring her down.

“We’re going statewide!” Esther burst out so loud she drew the attention of Harold’s table, who sent up a rousing cheer.

Greta waved a hand at Esther’s face. “For God’s sake, Esther, keep it down. You can’t yell in a retirement home. It’s like throwing a grenade into a fish pond. Who knows how many arrhythmias you’ll cause?”

“Sorry,” Esther said, pouting now. “I was just
so
excited.”

“I’m excited, too, Esther,” Pauline said. “But this means we need to up the stakes for the letters we pick going forward. We want scandal and intrigue. None of this ‘my bald shirtless neighbor won’t quit asking me out’ stuff.” She gave Greta a pointed look.

“What?” Greta dropped her gaze to her oatmeal, concentrating on making a sugar mountain. “I didn’t write any of those letters. It’s just a strange coincidence that someone else has the exact same problem I have.”

Pauline snorted. “I’ve got a perfect letter for our debut in the world of syndication.” She reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a sheet of typewritten paper.

“Do you think Barbara Walters will call to book us on
The View
?” Esther asked. “If so, I better get my hair done.”

“It’s a little soon for that,” Pauline said, then reached for the granny glasses hanging on the chain around her neck and perched them on her nose. “Let’s get this letter answered first, and down the road, who knows who’ll come calling?”

On any other day, Greta would have had some snappy comeback to that, but her senses were all discombobulated by Harold’s presence. Didn’t the man have somewhere to go? A proctologist appointment?

And all on the one morning when she’d decided to skip the bourbon in her coffee, too, because she had to see Doc Harper for a checkup and didn’t want to give him one more thing to write on that damnable computer of his. Soon as she was done being poked and prodded and lectured in the doc’s office, she was indulging in her daily jigger of Maker’s Mark. If Harold kept up his stalking ways, she’d have to double her consumption. Or move to Antarctica.

She wanted to glare at him, but Lord knew Harold would only be encouraged by so much as a flicker in his direction. For a man who used to be an engineer, he had unlimited cluelessness when it came to her level of interest in him. Zero, zip, zilch. For some reason, Harold kept coming back for more, that masochistic moron.

“‘Dear Common Sense Carla,’” Pauline began to read, “‘I am a lifelong resident of Rescue Bay, but have been unlucky in love. I am raising a child on my own, but would really like to find true love. A man who sticks around and forms a family. Does such a man even exist? I’m beginning to doubt. Please restore my faith in happy endings. Sincerely, Jaded Jane,’” Pauline finished.

“How is that going to get us famous?” Esther said. “It’s just another looking-for-love letter.”

“Yes, but it’s one with a
single mother
. Haven’t you been watching television lately?”

Esther gasped. “Goodness, no. Nothing on there but filth and curse words.”

“Don’t forget the naked people. In my day, you had to steal a
National Geographic
from the library to see a naked person. Not that I ever did that, of course.” Greta signaled for a second cup of coffee. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Harold give her another wave. “Nowadays, breasts and butts pop up like weeds on every channel.”

Pauline tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and went on, undeterred. “Well, there’s a bunch of shows now about teenage moms. They’re a big deal. And if we capitalize on that,
we’ll
be the next big deal. We gotta stay with the trends, girls. Stay hip.”

Greta snorted. “The last time anyone put the word
hip
and you together, they were studying for their orthopedic exam.”

Pauline pursed her lips and ignored Greta. “I say we tackle this one. And considering how well things turned out for Luke and Olivia, maybe we can bring another happy ending to Rescue Bay.” That made Greta smile. Her grandson had found happiness with the sassy physical therapist. In a few months, they’d be married and maybe giving her a great-grandchild or two. It had eased Greta’s heart to see the two of them together, as happy as robins in spring. Maybe focusing on another person’s problems, and conspiring to fix them, would get rid of this constant churning in her gut. And if she was busy working on the letter, and fostering a happy ending there, then maybe she would stop being aware of Harold Twohig and his bulging eyes following her every move. “Sounds like a plan,” Greta said. “But we can’t create a happy ending until we figure out who wrote the letter. That way we make sure it ends well.”

“I agree, but there’s a problem.” Pauline drummed her fingers on the table, thinking. “This time, I don’t know who wrote it. Maybe I can ask around town.”

Greta riffled through her memory banks. Single mom. Lifelong resident of Rescue Bay. Burned by love. About to give up—

“Olivia’s sister!” Greta nearly smacked herself for not thinking of it sooner. “The dog doc. Remember how Olivia told us she was so frustrated by the lack of available men that she signed up for one of those computer dating things?”

Pauline’s nose wrinkled. “Isn’t her son a teenager? I wanted a real single mom.”

“She
is
a real single mom.
Real
.
Single
. For a
long
time.” Greta sat back in her chair, cupping her mug of coffee between her hands. What a perfect idea. And if Diana was happy, that would make Olivia even happier, which would bring another dose of happiness to Luke’s life. A win all around. “That’s the one. That’s who we’ll focus on. And I know just the man to ask about available Mr. Rights in Rescue Bay.”

Esther said. “Harold Twohig?”

Greta let out a sigh and shook her head. Maybe moving to Antarctica wasn’t such a bad idea. “Lord, no. I’m not asking that man so much as directions to the buffet table. Every time I even glance in the same latitude, he takes it as a sign that we’re meant to be.”

“Maybe you are,” Esther said, then put up a hand to cut off Greta’s protests. “All I’m saying is that you never know where true love will find you. My dear Gerald, God rest his soul, met me when he was in the ladies’ lingerie department at Woolworth’s. Poor man was so embarrassed to be found sorting through the extra-large panties, he kept on stammering that he was there to find a birthday gift for his mother. As if that woman ever wore anything larger than a size six. I helped Gerald find a suitable robe and slippers, and the rest is history.”

Greta didn’t ask what Gerald was doing looking at lingerie large enough to fit a grown man. Esther had always had a bit of a blind spot when it came to her late husband’s failings, and Greta had long ago given up on trying to change her mind. Instead, Greta resolved to never, ever get wrapped up in something as distracting as love. She was an old woman now anyway. She didn’t have time for a man. But Diana Tuttle… now that young lady needed a big, strong, handsome companion. The problem was finding just the right someone.

And that was the kind of problem Greta Winslow loved to tackle. Not to mention it would liven things up around here. Without Buck and his exaggerated fish tales and off-color jokes about hooks and sinkers, Golden Years had fallen into a depressing funk. Besides spiking the breakfast coffee with bourbon—not that Greta knew anything about a prank like that, of course—this could be just the ticket to breathing some excitement into the air. And if not, well, there were always Mr. Jim Beam and Mr. Maker’s Mark to help her out.

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