Authors: Shirley Jump
“So that’s what you look like.” Diana smiled down at the scrawny dog on her table. Two vet techs, a long bath, and a half hour with a pair of shears, and finally the stray resembled a dog instead of a matted ball of dirt. Diana pegged it for a sheltie mix, with its long multicolored hair and short legs. Given the dog’s thin body and rough condition, she’d probably been on her own for a few weeks.
“She’s cute,” Olivia said, leaning forward and scratching the dog under the chin. The pup leaned into Olivia’s touch, tail thumping a happy song. At Olivia’s feet, her bichon, Miss Sadie, wagged her tail in concert.
Every once in a while, Diana marveled at how quickly things had changed. Six months ago, Diana hadn’t even known she had an older sister. Diana had still been reeling from the sudden death of her mother, and then Olivia drove into Rescue Bay and turned everything Diana thought she knew about her life upside down.
Even though they’d just found out they were siblings, the two of them had formed a quick, tight bond. Last week, Diana had relocated her offices to the front half of the Rescue Bay Dog Rescue. The sisters had pooled their resources to renovate part of the building, then renamed it as the Rescue Bay Animal Shelter to accommodate more than just canines in need. The building had been left to Olivia by their late mother, with the request that the sisters run it together. At first, Diana had been hurt and angry by her mother’s bequest, but now, six months later, she saw the wisdom of Bridget’s plan and enjoyed seeing her only sibling every day.
“What a friendly dog,” Olivia said. “I bet someone’s missing her.”
“I scanned her chip this morning,” Diana said. “The number was out of service but I’m going to try a couple other ways to track down the owner. In the meantime, do you want to keep her in the shelter? She’s physically healthy. She just needed a bath and a few dozen meals.” Diana gave the dog a tender ear rub.
“Sure. Chance will watch over her. He takes it as his personal mission to keep an eye on all the animals in the shelter.” Olivia’s fondness for the wounded dog she’d found a few months ago showed in her voice and the tenderness in her eyes. The golden had been in such bad shape, Diana hadn’t been sure he’d survive, much less thrive. He’d made a full return to health and now served as a mascot of sorts for the animal shelter and the vet’s office.
Most days, Chance went on a run with Luke, the wounded pilot who had fallen in love with Olivia and vice versa. Olivia’s happiness bloomed in her eyes and her face, resonated in the chipper tones of her voice. Diana was glad her sister had found someone who loved her the way she deserved to be loved.
Still, Diana battled a constant twinge of envy, which was crazy. She had no time or room in her life for a relationship with a man and enough complications with the ones in her past. Sean’s custody suit loomed over her, a constant worry. Jackson’s defiance and distance lately only added to Diana’s worries.
Then there was Mike Stark.
Well, she wasn’t going to think about him. At all.
Except she had. A lot.
The couple of weeks they’d dated back in January had been amazing. Filled with a heady, crazy rush that had swept her into a whirlwind, one she had thought ran deeper than it did. She’d made that same mistake once before, back in high school, when the captain of the football team swept her off her feet. She hadn’t realized Sean wasn’t after much more than a hot night in the backseat of his father’s Chevy sedan until after the little white stick had come back with two pink stripes.
Mike Stark was cut from the same cloth as Diana’s ex. Charming, handsome, and utterly undependable. A one-night stand, not a rest-of-her-life love. That hadn’t stopped her from falling too hard, too fast, from getting swept up into the same overwhelming infatuation that had her fantasizing about a future with a man who had no sticking power. Her brain shouted warnings that had yet to be heeded by her traitorous heart and reckless hormones.
Diana refocused on the dog before her, and Olivia talked for several minutes about the stray, but Diana’s mind kept detouring to Mike. Why was he back in Rescue Bay? How long was he going to stay? And most important, why did she even care? She was over him—over and out.
The diamond ring on Olivia’s left hand caught the light from time to time, sending dancing sparkles across the stainless steel table, the white walls, the bright tile floor, as if the ring were teasing her, telling her to take a chance on love, like Olivia had.
Yeah, right. Not in this lifetime.
Not that Diana resented Olivia or begrudged her sister the happiness radiating from her like sunshine. It was something deeper than that, something that boiled in Diana’s gut in those quiet moments between dark and dawn, when she lay awake in her bedroom and wished for a do-over.
Maybe it was all the upheaval with Jackson. The looming custody battle with Sean. Or the name and address that she’d found in the box her mother had left her, a link to the father she had never known. A letter Diana had sent, an answer that had never come.
Exhaustion settled heavy on Diana’s shoulders. It was only ten in the morning and already she wanted to go back to bed, pull up the covers and stay there for a week.
“Earth to Diana.”
Olivia’s voice jerked Diana back to the present. “Sorry. Daydreaming.”
“About one of the guys you met online, I hope.” Olivia grinned. Beside her, Miss Sadie’s tail swished against the tile.
Diana laughed. “I wouldn’t call any of them guys. Maybe close cousins to reptiles.”
“There are good men out there. Look at it this way. You’re weeding out the losers from the field so you can see the winners in the tall grass.”
“You make dating sound more like a lion stalking a herd of antelope.”
“Hey, whatever it takes. Even Cinderella had to wait for Mr. Right to come along.” Olivia grinned again, then gathered the sheltie mix into her arms. “We still on for dinner at Luke’s tonight?”
“I don’t know. I’m kinda tired. And Jackson is coming home tomorrow morning.” Diana debated opening up to Olivia about the worries on her mind, then decided against it. Maybe because she was still getting used to this whole idea of having a sister. Or maybe because Diana had learned long ago that the only person to rely on was herself.
“How’s Jackson’s camping trip been?”
“Good, I hope. You wouldn’t know by my son,” she said with a laugh. “He only texted me once. If it wasn’t for Eric’s mother keeping me in the loop, I’d be afraid he got eaten by a bear.”
Olivia snapped the leash onto the stray dog’s collar and lowered her to the floor. Miss Sadie sidled up to her new friend and began the doggie dance of sniffing and greeting. “Jackson’s growing up. That’s all. He’ll be back, and before long, you’ll be complaining about him driving you crazy with his music up too loud and his dirty dishes on the table. You’ll wonder why you worried in the first place.”
“You’re right. It’ll be good to have him home.” Good because when her son was around, it reminded Diana of her priorities. But a part of her wanted Jackson to stay safely at the lake, far away from Sean’s disruptive appearances. Sean would swoop in for a day, maybe two, make a lot of promises, then leave before he had to deal with the consequences of breaking them. And now he wanted to be a full-time parent?
I want him back.
Sean had never had him in the first place. What had changed now?
“So, are you coming tonight? Or do you have a date?” Olivia grinned.
“God, no. I’m done with the online thing.”
Olivia parked a fist on her hip. “Don’t tell me you’re giving up on finding Mr. Right?”
Diana forced a smile to her face and busied her hands with picking up the stray’s chart and making a few notes. “I’m just taking a… breather.”
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with Mike being back in town?” Olivia cocked a brow and studied her sister.
Heat stole into Diana’s cheeks. “Is it that obvious?”
“Painfully so.” She laid a hand on Diana’s. “You know, there’s no better way to make a man regret dumping you than to show him that you’ve moved on.”
“I don’t care if Mike regrets dumping me,” Diana said. Then she shrugged and put the chart to the side. “Okay, I do. Deep down inside, I want him curled up in the fetal position, sobbing in a corner, devastated that he let me go.”
“Well, we can make that happen.” Olivia grinned. “I can’t guarantee the fetal position or uncontrolled sobbing, but if you come to the barbecue tonight looking amazing, Mike will definitely be filled with regret.”
Diana considered Olivia’s offer. Maybe if she went she could finally make it clear to herself that she no longer felt anything for him, and get an in-person reminder of how uncommitted and undependable he was. Except she’d seen him with his daughters, and though he had been an overwhelmed and indulgent parent, that moment added something new to the equation of Mike Stark.
Something she sympathized with. It brought out the side of her that wanted to help, to make it easier for him. When instead she should be cursing his name and wishing a packload of brats on his shoulders because of the way he’d ended things between them. Damn it, she still liked him, was still attracted to him. She needed some chocolate or some therapy or just some stinkin’ common sense. Mike wasn’t a keeper. He was the kind of man a smart woman threw back into the dating pool. Not the kind of man a woman like her tried to convert into Mr. Mom.
Olivia picked up the dog leashes and reached for the door, then turned back. “It’s okay to take time for yourself, Di. The world won’t fall apart. I promise.”
Diana thought of her troubled son. The custody threat from Sean. The uncertainty that loomed over her days like storm clouds. Then she thought of the bottle in the cabinet, of how close she had come to unscrewing the top. And in the process, unscrewing a lot more than just some Bacardi. She bit her lip and gave her sister a shaky smile. “Sometimes I feel like it already has.”
Ten dollars sat in the repurposed pickle jar on the kitchen counter. Ten thin, pale, green George Washingtons giving Mike smug told-you-so smiles.
“Daddy, that is a bad word. You can’t say bad words.” Ellie stood in the center of the kitchen barefoot, her long brown hair still a tangled disaster, two little fists perched on her skinny bathing suit–clad hips.
“Yeah, dude, she’s right,” Jenny said. She was leaning against the doorjamb, munching on a Pop-Tart, heedless of the crumb pile amassing at her feet. “So pay up. Again.”
Mike could swear he heard the Washingtons laugh as he stuffed number eleven into the glass container. “Will you quit calling me dude? I’m your dad, not your dude.”
Jenny looked down at the floor and toed a circle of frosted pastry bits. Her hair swung around her face, obscuring her expression like a thick dark curtain. “Whatever.”
He bristled at her tone, but opted to save that lecture for later. The girls had been through enough lately. They hadn’t asked about their mother, but Mike noticed their attention perk whenever his phone rang. Jasmine hadn’t called, and hadn’t returned his calls, and that silence seemed to have left a permanent thundercloud over the girls’ heads. Undoubtedly, they were less than happy to be stuck with their clean-freak, schedule-fanatic dad.
It had taken some doing, but he had finally reached a tentative peace treaty with the oldest, and was still working on negotiations with the youngest. After a day of battles over cereal choices, beach rules, and chore divisions, Mike’s head was ready to explode with the stress of being off schedule and in the midst of disorganized chaos. Only a few days into his stay here, and already Luke’s house was decorated in Early Hoarder.
It drove Mike over the edge. But trying to clean up after the girls was about as useful as trying to hold back the tide. And trying to get the girls to help?
He had a better shot at negotiating peace in the Middle East.
On top of that, they were thirty-one minutes and forty-five seconds late. For a man whose entire life was run by a strict schedule, every second that ticked by on the clock twisted another coil in his neck. Hence the three new Washingtons in the jar since two this afternoon. He’d tried everything he could think of to get the girls to cooperate, including bribes.
Maybe he needed to try a different approach. One thing that serving in the Coast Guard had taught him—failure didn’t exist. There was no quitting, no walking away when lives were at stake. There was
find another way.
He glanced at his girls, neither of whom were in any big hurry to go to what Jenny had deemed “a gross geezer gorgefest with smelly old people.” All afternoon, Jenny and Ellie had found a thousand other things to do instead of changing out of their damp, sandy bathing suits. They had lost the flip-flops they’d kicked off an hour earlier and had dumped a trail of beach toys from the front door to the back. It had taken way too much time to get the mess cleaned up, with Mike alternating between threats and bribes to get the girls to pitch in, neither of which worked. He’d ended up doing most of the work himself, finding an odd solace in setting the space to rights again, clearing the decks, so to speak, of dust and grime and the detritus of three people. But now they were late.
Thirty-two minutes and fifteen seconds late.
He inhaled. A long, deep, cleansing breath. Exhaled it. Checked his watch again. Thirty-two minutes, twenty-five seconds.
Jenny tossed the rest of her Pop-Tart in the general direction of the trash barrel, then dropped into a chair at the kitchen table and opened up her sketchbook. Ellie started riffling through her box of toys. The TV droned on in the background with some inane children’s show featuring a nasal-voiced sponge wearing a pair of briefs. What the hell happened to Bugs Bunny? Mickey Mouse?
Jenny ignored him. Ellie paused, then went back to her search.
Thirty-two minutes, fifty-five seconds. Luke was waiting on them.
Yeah, that was the reason Mike had changed his shirt twice, put on cologne, and spent extra time shaving. Because he gave a shit what
thought. Not because he was masochistically hopeful that maybe Luke had invited Diana.
He didn’t know why he cared. Diana had homemade apple pie written all over her. A small-town veterinarian, for God’s sake. Mike usually went for the exact opposite—meaning a woman in a string bikini who didn’t want any strings. He’d tried that settle-down thing once before and failed. Big time.
Thirty-three minutes, ten seconds. Hell, he didn’t even have time to think right now. Mike crossed into the living room, picked up the remote, and turned off the TV, then raised his voice, adding a stern edge to his words. “Jenny, Ellie, get changed, get your hair brushed. Now. Departure in two minutes. That’s an order.”
On the base, when he used that tone, men snapped to attention, scrambled to get their tasks done. The Coast Guard had bred that air of authority into Mike, a necessary strength when the team was dancing with Death and relying on a bunch of new recruits who had yet to outgrow being arrogant, fumbling fools.
Apparently the Coast Guard had never met the Stark girls, because neither of them were moved into action by his authoritative voice.
“Why do we have to go?” Jenny asked. “Why can’t we stay here?”
“Because you are not old enough to stay home alone. Now get dressed.” Thirty-three minutes, forty seconds. “We’re out the door in one minute and twenty-nine seconds.”
“Why not? Jasmine always let us.”
“For one, her name is
, and for another, I doubt she’d leave an eight-year-old and a four-year-old home alone.”
“She told us to call her Jasmine.” Jenny shrugged, like it didn’t matter, then she blew her bangs out of her face and went on, fists on hips, daring him to disagree. “And she does too leave us home alone. A lot. I know how to take care of myself. And of Ellie. So we don’t have to go with you.”
To hear such adult statements coming out of a girl so small, a girl he remembered being born, brewed a mixture of anger and heartbreak in Mike’s gut. Anger at his ex for being such an irresponsible parent, then heartbreak that Jenny had skipped from eight to eighteen when he wasn’t looking. Jasmine had never been much for being reliable or warm and fuzzy, but he’d always figured she’d been a decent mother. For the thousandth time, he wanted to kick himself for living too far away to be more than a greeting-card parent.
“So just go, dude,” Jenny said, returning to her paper, her hair swinging in front of her features again, her voice small and soft and resolute. “Just go.”
The time clicked by on the kitchen clock. Humid summer air hung heavy in the room. On the TV, the annoying sponge show ended and a commercial for a water park came on. Jenny just stood there, waiting for him to leave.
“I’m not leaving without you two,” Mike said. “Where I go, you guys go.”
“Whatever.” Jenny scoffed. “You say that today, and then tomorrow, you’ll—” She shook her head.
“Tomorrow I’ll what?”
“Leave,” she said, quietly, almost under her breath. “Like you always do.”
A scythe scissored his heart into two pieces. He had no argument against the truth, and didn’t have a solution for the future. Yeah, he was going back, but this time, he vowed to return more often and to keep better tabs on Jasmine.
“Just go, dude.” Jenny waved toward the door. “We don’t need a babysitter.”
That scythe made a second slice of his heart. Was that how they saw him? As a babysitter, instead of a dad?
What else would you call a guy who showed up a couple times a year for a few days?
God, he sucked. This wasn’t how he’d planned it to be when the girls were born. He’d made a stab at the family-man thing, trying over and over again to work it out with Jasmine, to stay in one place longer than a few days, but every time he’d failed. The problem?
Mike hadn’t the slightest freaking clue how to be a father. How to be anything other than a hard-charging, detail-oriented military man.
He had thirty days to make the transition from babysitter to dad. At the very least, maybe it would be enough time for his daughters to begin seeing him as something other than the night warden.
He cleared his throat and wished he had one of those newsstand magazines right now to tell him what to say. Instead, he just stood there like an idiot, as if some parenting genie would appear and guide the moment. “Jenny, I…”
Jenny’s lower jaw wobbled and her nose wrinkled. “Will you just go to your stupid barbecue already?” He knew that tone, the one that said,
Leave, because I don’t want to count on you being here
. It rocketed Mike back twenty-five-plus years, to a moment on a sidewalk in a sunny neighborhood in Sarasota. Mike’s father, climbing into his bright white Buick sedan, giving Mike a short, staccato wave, then driving away. Mike had stood there on that sidewalk, holding in his tears until the Buick’s boxy tail disappeared around the corner.
The Buick had never returned. And neither had his father. A few weeks later, Mike had been dragged into a whole different kind of hell, one no child should endure. No way was he going to let anything like that happen to his kids. Which meant he had to find a way to reach his daughters. To be a dad.
Mike bent down and waited until his oldest daughter looked at him. Jenny had his eyes—the same ocean blue he saw in the mirror every day—but hers were filled with wary mistrust. She was such an echo of him, and she didn’t even know it. “I’m not going without you and Ellie. We stick together, kiddo.”
She scoffed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you and El are stuck with me, like it or not. And I’m stuck with you. Where I go, you go. I promise.”
Her lip wobbled some more. “Promise?”
He nodded, even as he wondered how he could keep a promise like that. Eventually, he’d be back in Alaska, and the girls—
Well, he’d find a way to make sure they were okay.
He chucked his daughter under the chin. “So go get ready and let’s go to the geezer gorgefest.”
Jenny stared him down a moment longer, defiant, strong. Then the ice in her eyes thawed a bit, and she got out of the chair and headed over to El. “Come on, Elephant. Let’s find your shoes.”