Read The Sweetheart Rules Online

Authors: Shirley Jump

The Sweetheart Rules (6 page)

His hand lighted on her arm. “Don’t. Let’s talk.”

“About what, Mike? About how we dated for weeks, then had one great night in the sack? A night that didn’t mean anything?”

His blue eyes studied hers. “Are you saying you forgot all about that night?”

“I’m saying I’m over it. In the past. Done.” That was three protests. Maybe one too many.

“I shouldn’t have kissed you, then.”

She raised her chin. “No, you shouldn’t have. And I would prefer you didn’t try anything like that again.”

“Well, we can at least be… civil, can’t we?” A tease lit his eyes that said they both knew that civil wasn’t how anyone would describe that kiss a moment ago. “Considering we’ll end up running into each other a lot, since your sister is engaged to my best friend.”

Her gaze locked on his, on the slight crinkles in the corners of his eyes, the laugh lines on his face. They gave his youthful features definition, an edge. She liked that about him. Or she used to, anyway. Before she realized that Mike Stark was another in a long line of men she’d dated who would delay growing up until they were collecting Social Security.

Mistake.
She needed to put that on a sign and hang it around his neck. “Why bother?” she said. “We both know you’re not staying here one day longer than you have to.”

“I never promised you anything beyond that night, Diana.”

Her eyes stung, and her throat clogged, and she cursed herself for being a fool who had thought maybe he’d fallen so hard for her that he wouldn’t let her go. But he had, and without a word in all those months since, as if he had erased her from his memory the second he pulled his pants on again. “Exactly. And that’s why I think it’s best if we both move on and quit pretending that night meant anything more than it did.”

Then she got the hell out of there before her face could betray her words. The barking of the dogs echoed in her head long after she got in her car and pulled out of the driveway, a reminder that her responsibilities lay in her job and her son, and not in trying to fix a six-foot-two mistake.

Seven

Jackson Tuttle leaned a hip against the door of the decrepit house and tried to look cool. The puppy he’d found in the shelter and dubbed Mary, the only one his mother had let him keep, sat at his feet, tail swishing against the floor, her big brown eyes watching him. The dog went everywhere with him, something Jackson had discovered girls really liked. Plus, he liked the dog a lot. She looked more like her father, a golden retriever, than her mother, some kind of mutt, and was the most loyal thing in Jackson’s life. The only one he could depend on. He gave Mary a pat on the head, which she returned with a lick of his palm.

It’d taken a major miracle for Jackson to escape his mother’s suffocation today. He’d come home from camping at ten, and all she wanted to do was talk, talk, talk, and ask him shit like whether he had any mosquito bites. Then she’d gotten an emergency call, and as soon as she pulled out of the driveway, he was out the door, ignoring her order that he wait for her at home. He wasn’t a preschooler, for God’s sake. He could take care of himself, and he sure as hell didn’t need her telling him what to do.

The stress bubbled up inside of Jackson like lava in a volcano. Lately, he always felt like that, like a mountain that was about to blow. So he came here, where they didn’t ask him questions, didn’t give a shit who his mother was, and didn’t want anything from him. He shifted his position and tried to look older.

He was the youngest one here and sure as hell didn’t want anyone thinking he wasn’t old enough to hang. Two girls were taking turns making out with a guy on a torn sofa someone had hauled in on garbage day, while two more waited for Danny to pass them a freshly rolled joint. One of the girls kept waggling her fingers at Mary, but the dog stayed by Jackson’s side.

The room reeked of pot and cigarettes, stale beer and urine. Sunlight poked through holes in the roof, speckling the floor like bright yellow chicken pox. June’s humid heat thickened the air, but no one seemed to care.

“Hey, Prep.” Danny nodded toward Jackson. The words came out of Danny with a slow rolling sigh, like his voice was going over a hill. “What’s your mommy going to say if she finds out you’re skipping school?”

“I don’t give a shit. It’s just some stupid summer science program she signed me up for. I didn’t even want to go anyway.” Jackson hated Prince Academy. Hated his instructors. Hated all the rules and the uniform and the entitled rich kids who sneered at him. His mother had made him go, telling him it would be good for him. She used words like
opportunities
and
potential
, and thought that would mean something. Like Jackson gave a shit about his future right now. All he wanted was to get the hell out of this town and away from her. One of these days, his dad was going to come get him and they’d travel far, far away from this hellhole. “Who gives a shit what my mom says anyway?”

The words stung a little when he said them, but he shrugged it off. His mom was always on his case, always acting like she cared. He knew better. If she really cared, she wouldn’t have made his dad leave. She would have tried harder. If she really loved Jackson like she said, she wouldn’t have screwed everything up.

Danny chuckled. “That’s the attitude. Who gives a shit what anyone says. Right, Prep?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“I’ll stop when you decide to
partake
, Prep.” Danny held out the joint.

So far, Jackson had resisted the drugs. All those useless facts he’d learned in health class, along with his mother’s warnings, echoed in his head. He worried about falling into an abyss of city streets and dirty needles, of becoming one of those jonesing addicts he saw on TV.

The guys here were cool, though, and all mellow. No one looked ready for rehab. Pot couldn’t be
that
bad. And maybe a few hits would calm this anxiety, the tightness in his chest. Erase those walls around him, the ones built out of expectations and rules, that threatened to cut off his air supply every time he turned around.

Then Jackson looked across the room at Lacey Williams. She was sitting on the arm of a threadbare chair, her legs draped over the opposite arm, while Rally Weaver sat in the chair below her, one arm circling her waist like he owned her. Lacey was showing Rally something on her phone and laughing that sweet, light laugh of hers. Beside them, an old Pringles lid was littered with stubs of joints and cigarettes.

Rally leaned back, drew on a joint, and exhaled a long breath that curled smoke around Lacey’s head. Jackson hated Rally for touching Lacey, but envied the older teen for his cool factor. He made everything he did seem easy and chill. Yeah, Rally was a jerk, but he was a confident one. That was the kind of confidence Jackson wanted, the kind that drew girls—girls like Lacey—like flies.

“Someday, Prep, maybe you’ll hang with us for real,” Danny said and began to turn away.

“Wait. Give me some of that,” Jackson said. At his feet, Mary began to whine. He gave her an absentminded pat to say,
Soon, we’ll leave soon
. Mary sighed and slid to the floor, dropping her head onto her paws. She knew better.

“Here, have the rest. I got another one ready.” Danny turned the pinched end toward Jackson and gave him an approving smile. “’Bout time you joined the party instead of just observing, Prep.”

“Don’t call me that.” He hesitated a second, and felt like the entire room was watching him. Damn. What if he coughed or choked or got sick? Kelly had turned green and puked the first time she smoked.

Danny started to smirk, like he knew Jackson would chicken out again.

Jackson stopped thinking and just took the stub of the roach from Danny. He put it to his lips, closed his eyes and drew in, not too deep. The smoke hit his lungs with a jolt, and his throat protested. He swallowed back the cough, drew in again, and waited for the wave to hit, that sweet serenity he saw on everyone else’s face here. One hit; another; then it came in like a soft blanket, washing over the pain in his head and his gut, settling into his bones, coating the world in an easy happy haze.

Why had he waited so long for this? Shit. This stuff was
amazing
.

He forgot about school. Forgot about his mother. Forgot about everything but these friends who understood him like no one else did. He dropped onto the floor, pushing his back against the crumbling wall, and drew Mary against his chest and told himself that he was happy.

Eight

The man parked the borrowed Taurus on the side of the road and turned off the engine. In an instant, Florida’s sun began to raise the temperature inside the borrowed sedan, which had carried him from New York to Florida, with a few hiccups but no major breakdowns. He put his hand on the key fob, then paused. The parking lot was empty, the building quiet. The sign, however, said he was at the right place. A sign he’d been looking for, in one way or another, for the past six months.

DIANA TUTTLE, DVM.

She had her mother’s last name, but he’d expected that. What he hadn’t expected was the sign below that one:
OFFICE RELOCATED
.

Was he too late? Had she moved out of town? He unbuckled his seatbelt, then stepped out into a tsunami of thick, muggy heat. A slight ocean breeze whispered over his skin, more of a tease than anything, and certainly not enough to offset the summer temperature.

He adjusted the tie he’d borrowed. Pulled at the too-tight neck of someone else’s shirt. Tried to behave like he was comfortable here, when he hadn’t been comfortable for the last twenty hours. Maybe he should turn around. Go back to New York, to the crowded streets and tall gray buildings that surrounded him like a fortress from everything he didn’t want to face.

He took a half step toward the car, then stopped. Fourteen hundred miles.

He had come this far, and waited this long. It was time. He put a hand over his heart and sent up a silent prayer of thanks that the ticker was still ticking. There was only so much time left, and he wanted to spend it with his child.

A child who probably hated him, and rightly so.

That was what had kept him away for so long, what had made him procrastinate on a conversation that was three decades overdue.

Beneath the sign were three lines of smaller type, the new address of the veterinarian’s office. The address seemed familiar. It took a second for his brain to reach far back into the past, riffling through those drawers of memories, now cramped and dusty with age and mistakes. Gull Lane—

Bridget’s house.

He’d never been there, but he’d seen the return address several times over the years, on padded envelopes that contained a picture, a photocopy of a report card, and nothing more. No letters, no updates, just a
Here she is, if you ever get your shit together enough to meet her
.

He hadn’t. Not until now. Not until there’d been one more letter, this one short, sweet, and written in a tight, precise cursive that told him Diana had turned into an adult when he hadn’t been looking.

He reached out, traced his fingers over the carved letters of her name in the wooden sign. D
IANA
. A name he’d had no part in choosing, hadn’t even known for several of the last thirty years, but liked all the same. He pictured the princess who had once held that name. Was this Diana the same as her namesake? Regal? Beautiful? Compassionate?

Understanding?

He slipped a hand into the breast pocket of the too-big suit and pulled out the letter, creased and worn from multiple readings and its permanent home in his pockets.

You don’t know me, and may even be surprised to get this letter. But I wanted to meet you, and close some of the gaps in my past. Come to Rescue Bay, and we can talk. No pressure, just a conversation.

Diana.

No pressure. That’s what she’d said. But there was pressure for him, a lot of it, in giving the answers he had put off sharing for three long decades. Answers he wasn’t even sure he had for himself.

He put the letter back in his pocket, then went back to the car. To the right lay Gull Lane. To the left, the motel he’d passed on his way into town. He hesitated a long, long time, his heart in his throat, his nerves peppering sweat on his forehead. In the end, he turned left.

Cowardice won handily, with the easy confidence of one who had beaten him for years.

 • • • 

Diana turned off the hose and coiled it onto the holder. Then she let the twin terrier mix dogs who had come into the shelter a week ago back into their kennel. They scampered across the damp concrete, prancing in the puddles, happy to have a clean home. She watched them for a second, marveling at how little it took to make an animal happy. Hopefully someone would adopt these two exuberant, friendly dogs soon.

She could have let one of the volunteers clean the cages. After all, she’d put in a ten-hour day in the office already and had a mountain of laundry waiting for her at home. But when she went home, she started thinking, and that led her down paths she didn’t want to travel. Paths that involved Mike Stark.

Like the one where she didn’t stop him when he kissed her, and they ended up back in her bedroom. Yeah, that one. The wrong path—wrong, wrong,
wrong
.

Then there was the deathly silence from Sean. Ever since the Post-it note that had come attached to the court papers, not so much as a squeak out of her ex. Did she dare hope that he had abandoned his insane idea before it even got off the ground? She knew he still texted Jackson from time to time, but other than that, Sean was the invisible father he’d always been.

Above all those thoughts were the ones about Jackson. Ever since he’d come home from camping, he’d been distant. Churlish. He’d slept late the last two mornings, and when she’d reminded him to do his chores, he’d reacted with sarcasm and a slammed door. Monday he would start back up in the summer science program after a three-day mid-program break, and she hoped that slipping back into a routine would help him get back on track.

The door squeaked, announcing Jackson’s arrival. Diana glanced at her watch and bit back a sigh of frustration. “You’re late,” she said. He’d been late for his shift almost every single day.

Three days a week and Sunday mornings, Jackson volunteered a few hours at the shelter, a schedule he’d proposed himself. In the beginning, Jackson had been enthusiastic, eager to help with the dogs, usually bringing Mary with him. Then, in the last few weeks, Jackson’s attitude had changed and he’d shown up late or not at all, and done his chores with a halfhearted effort. Even his dog seemed to have picked up on the mood, and had lost a bit of her exuberant puppy energy. Today, Mary trotted in behind Jackson, then crossed to a corner and sat, waiting, watching her master.

He shrugged. “Whatever.”

“No, it’s not
whatever
. This is important. I count on you to be here.”

“Yeah, and count on me to work for free like a slave.” He propped his skateboard by the door and crossed to the hose.

She bit her tongue. She was too tired for this argument, for his attitude.
Let it go,
she told herself. “I already cleaned the kennels. Feed the dogs, please, and then change the kitty litter.”

“Kitty litter?” He wrinkled his nose. “That’s gross. I don’t want to do that.”

She shrugged. “Then don’t be late and you won’t get the crappy jobs.”

Normally, the line would make him laugh, or at least earn a smile. But not today. Jackson’s sullen expression tightened, and he stomped down the hall. He made a major production out of scooping the dog food into the bowls, and grumbled about the noise level when the dogs barked their excitement about supper time. Mary tagged along at his feet, her tail wagging, hopeful, friendly, but for the most part, Jackson ignored the dog. That was so unlike her son, who had always loved animals, and had spent weeks taking care of Mary and her siblings when he’d found them in the shelter months ago.

Concern filled her again. Had something happened in the last few weeks? A tiff with a friend? A disappointment with a girl? Was he worried about starting at Prince in the fall? That was one of the big reasons why she’d enrolled him in the summer program; not just so he’d start off at the same knowledge level as everyone else, but so he’d also already be comfortable with the school and know several students before making the official switch.

Diana put a hand on her son’s shoulder. “Hey, buddy, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” He shrugged off her touch and straightened. “God, Mom, will you just get off my back?”

She sighed. Every day with Jackson had been a battle ever since she’d enrolled him in Prince Academy. It was a terrific school, one that offered the exact programs he liked. Yes, he had to take a summer class to catch up with his classmates, but she’d thought he was looking forward to the new environment, the science-based curriculum. “If this is about that summer school class again—”

“I don’t want to go to that school. Or that stupid summer program. I hate that place. Dad would never make me go to a crappy place like that.”

Prince Academy had a hefty price tag and a stellar reputation that put it far out of crappy range, but she didn’t mention that. “Your father isn’t here right now, Jackson, and even if he was, he would agree—”

“How do you know what my father wants? You never talk to him. You just yell at him about stupid stuff like money.” Jackson spun toward the drum of cat litter and began scooping fresh litter into the pans.

Money that was called child support, a concept Sean only loosely grasped. She bit back the complaint about her ex, sticking to her vow of never disparaging Jackson’s father, and put on a bright smile. “Give Prince Academy a chance. You might just like that school, and you were so excited earlier when we toured it. Besides, you love science—”

He wheeled around. “I don’t. I hate science. And I hate that you made me go there.” He took in a breath, his face tight with anger. “In fact, I hate you.”

The three words, words Jackson had never said to her before, hung in the air like storm clouds, dark, threatening, obliterating the light. A fissure slid through her heart and carved a jagged scar.

“Jackson—”

“Don’t talk to me, Mom. Just don’t talk to me.” He dumped the litter and the scoop on the floor, then yanked up his skateboard and headed for the door, but before he reached the handle, the door swung inward, letting in a burst of sunshine, warm air, and Mike Stark.

Damn that man and his timing. All Diana wanted was to straighten things out with Jackson, to try to stop this ball that kept rolling down the mountain and gaining speed with each day. What had happened to the little boy who used to climb into her lap and beg for one more reading of
Curious George
? The one who had sung songs with her late at night? The one who had a smile that could lift the gray from the darkest of days?

“Hey, Jackson,” Mike said, friendly, casual, unaware of the tension simmering in the space. “How you doing?”

“Fine.” Jackson leaned his skateboard against the wall again, but kept his hand on the board, still ready to bolt. Mary waited at his feet, her tail making tentative, short wags. Jackson eyed Mike. “You living here or something?”

“Nope. Just visiting. Thought I’d bring my daughters over to see the dogs and cats.” Mike caught Diana’s gaze, and something in her chest caught, flipped, held. “Someone mentioned there was a new litter of kittens, and Ellie won’t stop asking about them. Like wake-me-up-at-three-in-the-morning-to-go-see-them kind of asking.”

Diana covered a laugh with her hand. The tension from her argument with Jackson eased. “Oh, Mike. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. At least it gave me a good bribe to get the girls to put their dishes in the sink. Although I think I’m going to need a pony to get them to make their beds.” He wore that smile she remembered so well, the one that could charm her in an instant, the same one that lit in his blue eyes, danced on his face.

“Can’t help you there. I don’t get too many ponies in a southern Florida vet practice.” She shrugged, as if that smile didn’t affect her, didn’t warm an echoing smile in her gut. “But kittens and puppies, those I have, pretty much all the time.”

Jackson stood there watching the two of them, not saying a word. He hadn’t left, though, and Diana took that as a good sign. Maybe she could grab a few minutes to talk to her son and find out what was really bothering him. His words still stung, but she was sure if they could just get some mom and son time, they could repair their relationship. Doubt whispered in the back of her head, saying that she kept avoiding the mountain between them by only tackling the hills. If she didn’t talk about the hard stuff sometime, things would get worse, not better.

The problem? Diana much preferred peace to chaos, and had spent most of her life veering toward peace and pretending the chaos didn’t exist.

“I hate to put you on the spot, but is now a good time?” Mike asked. “I have about twenty minutes before I have to get the girls home.” He thumbed toward the door. “They’re in the car, one an eager visitor, one a hostile prisoner. Jenny is staging a sit-in, a protest against my existence.”

Diana laughed. “I can relate to that. I’ve got one of those myself.”

Jackson scowled.

Mike gave him a good-natured jab. “Tell your mother it’s a teenager’s job to stage a protest against the world.”

Jackson’s scowl turned into a shy smile and he gave Mike a little nod. “Yeah.”

It was the first smile she had seen on Jackson’s face in a long time. For that, Diana was grateful, and hoped Mike would stay awhile. The man brought out a good side in her son, and that eased the tension in Diana’s chest. Mike might suck at relationships with women, and be the last man in the world to settle down, but he was a far sight better influence on Jackson than Sean had ever been.

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