Note to self: next time you return unannounced after ten years, make sure someone’s going to be home.
Erica stood before the new paneled wood door with the stained glass insert—stained glass!—and decried her own lack of foresight. She’d told her brother Clint she’d drive to Palmwood from Los Angeles after he’d warned her their father probably didn’t have much longer to live, but she hadn’t been very specific about her arrival time.
Now she stood on the front porch with no way to get inside a house she barely recognized. For God’s sake, there were roses growing by the steps, and the lawn was actually green. When she’d lived here, the front yard had been predominantly dirt. There certainly hadn’t been any flowers.
“Damn,” she breathed. The sun had just set, and a chill was creeping into the air. The cotton jacket she wore over her T-shirt wasn’t designed for high-desert evenings when the temperature could plummet thirty degrees.
Probably everyone was at the hospital. Probably she ought to get this over with and go there, too. She’d come this far, might as well go all the way. Emotional insurance. That’s what she’d told herself she was taking out by rescheduling her physical training clients for a week and driving back to a town and a person she’d never cared to see again. She was making sure it wouldn’t haunt her for the rest of her life that she hadn’t said goodbye to her father, though even he would have to admit he hadn’t earned this much devotion.
“Erica? Hello, are you Erica?” The voice came from the house next door. It was a deep, masculine voice.
Erica turned to see a tall man waving to her from the edge of a wide, railed porch. Light from his open door put him in silhouette so she couldn’t see his face.
“Are you Erica?” he asked again.
“Um…” The house that used to be next door was gone. A two-story, crafted-wood deal now sat in its place. She was pretty sure the man who’d just hailed her was nobody she’d ever met. He had broad shoulders and was wearing a button-down shirt and jeans.
“Liam’s over here with me,” the man told her, apparently assuming she was Erica, after all, since he mentioned the name of her youngest brother. “Why don’t you come on in?”
She really should have nailed Clint down on specifics. Why was her teenage brother in the house of this stranger? Surely Liam should have been with Clint. “Um…okay.” Erica turned and descended the steps of the renovated porch and walked her tooled cowboy boots across the two driveways toward the silhouetted man.
“I’m Brennan Swift,” he explained as she approached the bottom of his porch steps.
“Uh, Erica Carmichael, but I guess you figured as much.”
Erica could now see him better. He wore a warm smile on a face of regular, if not downright handsome, features. His dark hair looked a week or so behind on a haircut. When she got close enough, he held out his hand and shook hers. He had a firm grip.
“Please come in. I’ll tell Liam you’re here.”
The man did nothing to indicate a negative opinion of Erica: no wince, no squint, no subtle lowering of eyelids. Quite the contrary, he seemed perfectly amiable.
It didn’t matter. Her imagination supplied the fellow with all the judgments her father’s neighbor might make, should he know the bare facts. She was the daughter who’d left at age eighteen and never looked back. She was the one who never called, emailed, or visited her last remaining parent. True, she’d stayed in touch with her two younger brothers, but she’d certainly not done so with her father.
She felt her shoulders lift slightly as she followed Brennan Swift into the house.
The ceiling rose two stories, soaring over an open-plan living area. Erica got the impression of a lot of hand-crafted wood details elegantly executed. Had Clint done the work? Whoever had, some serious money had been involved. A stair wound around the side of the room and up to a railed walkway, presumably leading to some bedrooms.
The place gave the same impression as the man who’d led her in: unself-conscious confidence. She felt a familiar, and she knew completely unreasonable, resentment. While growing up with an alcoholic father, confidence had been hard to come by. Still was.
The neighbor now went over to the foot of the scrolled staircase. “Liam!” he shouted, looking upward. “Your sister’s here!”
“What?” came a muffled voice from above. It wasn’t a voice Erica recognized. Except for one visit to her apartment in Los Angeles from Clint and Liam about four years ago, she hadn’t seen either of her brothers, in the flesh, since leaving home. She was a little taken aback, truth be told, to hear the tones of a man rather than a boy.
“Your sister. Erica. She’s here!”
“Oh.” A pause. “Wow.”
Wow? Erica blinked a few times, surprised by the indication of enthusiasm. She tried to keep in touch, but it wasn’t as though she’d ever been a real sister to Liam. He’d only been five when she’d left.
“Erica.” A lanky youth appeared at the upstairs railing, his brown hair overgrown and scruffy. He had earbuds in but pulled them out. He was smiling. Dimly, he looked like the most recent photo Erica had seen of him from Clint’s Facebook page. “You came,” Liam breathed.
In that moment Erica felt like the most self-absorbed creature in the universe for having ever considered not coming. Her fifteen-year-old brother seemed to want her here.
“I’m so glad,” Liam said and rushed down the stairs. Once he reached her, he embraced her.
Astonished, she did her best to hug him back.
“Thank you,” Liam murmured. “Thank you for coming.”
The lingering guilt was beginning to grow like a cloud. She’d been the most absent sibling she could possibly get away with.
Meanwhile, she was aware of Brennan Swift, the neighbor, watching.
“Are you planning to stay in town?” Swift asked, once Liam had released Erica. “Liam’s been bedding here. You’re more than welcome to do so as well.”
Really? Erica’s brows dipped. They’d met, like, five seconds ago.
Brennan lowered his eyes. “Your father’s a good friend of mine.” He looked up again. “I consider his family my own.”
Erica’s frown only deepened. Her father had friends? Close ones? It was hard to imagine. “I’m sure that’s very, uh, nice of you, but I don’t know. I really hadn’t planned…” Anything. She’d left in such emotional disarray that she’d neglected to determine a number of critical details. In the back of her mind, she’d probably assumed she’d stay in her father’s house. She’d thought Liam would be there, too, with— “Where’s Clint?”
Brennan glanced toward Liam. A silent communication passed between the two of them.
“Clint is…having some issues,” Brennan carefully explained. “He didn’t think it would be a good idea for Liam to be around until he can, uh, resolve them.”
Issues. A powerful shaft of fear struck Erica. Not— Surely Clint would know better than to go that route. Hoarsely, she asked, “What’s the problem?”
“Uh…” Brennan was clearly hesitant to blab, but a look of horror came into his expression when he caught Erica’s eye. “Oh, no. Not drugs or alcohol— It’s marital issues. He’s having some problems with his wife.”
“Soon to be ex-wife,” Liam muttered. “We hope.”
“Oh.” At least it wasn’t alcohol. But Erica’d had no idea Clint’s marriage was in trouble. She’d actually never met Clint’s wife, Judy. They’d married in a big hurry two years ago, and Clint rarely mentioned her when he called or emailed. But if the two of them were having difficulties, then it made sense Liam would be staying with a neighbor instead of with his older brother in an unsettled household.
But what was Erica supposed to do?
The Brennan fellow again seemed to sense what she was thinking. He spoke slowly. “I suppose…you and Liam can move back into your father’s house.” He glanced toward Liam. “Now that your sister’s here, you can go back home, to your own room and everything.”
Liam brightened. “You’re right. Not that I can’t take care of myself perfectly well,” the teen assured Erica. “I make my own meals and do laundry and everything. But people would freak out if I were living without an adult.”
Hold the phone. What was going on here? They were moving her in, setting her up as some sort of parent. She’d only thought of staying a week at the very most. In fact, she had a client scheduled for next Wednesday.
But it was impossible to miss the relief in Liam’s eyes. He was no longer alone, depending on the kindness of strangers. Besides, what could she say? Oh, no, perfect stranger, supposed friend of my father, you take responsibility for my little brother, not me?
She met the neighbor’s gaze. Once again, her imagination had him judging her as if he were somehow in possession of the facts: she was the absent sister, left home and Liam—a very young child—with an uncertainly sober father, had since then barely laid eyes on the kid, who was now about to lose his only parent. And even at this moment she was hesitating about being the responsible adult in the house when clearly nobody else was currently available.
Irritation crept through her like an ant army. What about Alex? Shouldn’t the Brennan Swift of her imagination also condemn the oldest brother, Alex? He’d left home, too, never looking back. Worse than that, though, he’d never contacted anybody, ever, but had completely disappeared. Yep, after setting himself up as the one toward whom they all looked up, the hero, the chief. Heck, Erica didn’t even know if Alex was still alive.
But Alex was not here, and she was.
The irritation crawling through her might have originated around Brennan and inched over toward Alex, but it was quickly circling around herself. Man up, sister. You are here.
“Good idea,” Erica said, looking the officious Brennan Swift straight in the eye. “Liam, why don’t you go get your things? We’ll go home together.”
Brennan didn’t like to make snap judgments about people, but as he watched Erica turn toward his front door as though to lead Liam out—without actually giving the kid time to fetch his things—he didn’t think it was any longer a snap judgment to dislike the woman.
Her whole attitude was stiff and standoffish. She appeared to want to make a point that Brennan was an outsider and unneeded. True, Brennan was a stranger to her, but why was that? Because she’d deliberately absented herself from her father and the rest of her family for the last ten years. Otherwise, she’d know how close Brennan was to Richard Carmichael and to his two sons, Liam and Clint.
Brennan was so close that he’d promised Richard he’d see to Liam’s welfare. Brennan intended to do just that. Even if he’d suggested Erica take Liam home, that didn’t mean Brennan was bowing out of the situation, not until he could make sure this would work out to Liam’s advantage.
“All right, then, Liam. Let’s go get your things from upstairs,” Brennan declared.
Erica stopped her compact, athletic body and whirled, her mouth open.
Brennan turned away from her before she could think of some reason she needed to whisk Liam away without his clothes and his school supplies.
“Ah, I didn’t have time to clean up or anything,” Liam blurted, hurrying up the stairs first.
“Don’t worry about it,” Brennan gently told him, following up the wine-colored stair runner. “Nobody’s grading you on neatness this week.”
“Yeah, but—” After he reached the top of the stairs, Liam rushed down the hall toward the guest bedroom where he’d been staying for the past week. “There’s neatness and then there’s really-big-mess,” he called back on his way.
Chuckling, Brennan slowed down to give Liam time to do whatever he thought he had to before they saw the bedroom. He could hear Erica deciding to follow. Without looking, he could sense her wariness and resentment.
She was not what Brennan had imagined based on the small amount of information Richard had given him regarding his second-born, the daughter. She was small for the track star her father claimed she’d been, though she wasn’t tiny. She was slender and pretty, with a boyish cut to her light brown hair. Brennan had not imagined pretty.
Once in the spare bedroom, Brennan found Liam standing in the middle of the space and looking around at what was not, in fact, that big of a mess. As was the case so often recently, he appeared completely lost.
“Where’s that duffel bag we used before?” Brennan asked. “Oh, here.” He bent to snag the old canvas bag from under the bed. “I’ll throw your clothes in while you get your computer stuff together.”
Liam’s gaze went to the laptop and assorted electronic boxes of indeterminate employment that were sitting on the desk. “Okay.” Once given direction, he was able to get moving, closing the laptop and unplugging wires.
If Erica hadn’t shown up, Brennan would have let the kid simply keep everything where it was…forever. Over the four years he’d known the family, Brennan had come to consider Liam a younger brother of his own. Richard was like a second father.
“Is the stuff in the drawers yours, too?” Erica asked, moving toward the bureau.
“What? Oh, yeah.” Liam was under the desk, unplugging equipment from the wall socket.
“Here.” Erica lifted a pile of shirts and brought it to the duffel bag Brennan held.
Her nearness gave him a hit of her feminine presence and the wealth of physical energy lying just under her surface. She did have a certain animal appeal. A lot of it. Brennan leaned away from her in order to grab a sweater from the bed.
It probably wasn’t fair that her physical appeal increased his negative opinion of her.
Once Liam’s clothes had been thrown into the duffel bag, and between Liam and Erica, they’d collected all his electronics and his school backpack, the three of them tramped down the stairs, out the door, and across the two driveways over to the Carmichael residence.
A few lights were on in the house, set on a timer by Brennan to make it look like the place wasn’t deserted. But to Brennan it looked that way anyhow. This time Richard was not coming back.
“My keys,” Liam muttered, swinging his backpack onto the porch. “Where’d I put my keys?” He opened four zippers before he found them.
Despite the emotional chaos of his father’s illness, Liam had gotten straight A’s on his fall report card two months ago. The simple things in life, however, seemed to overwhelm him.
After a certain amount of fumbling, Liam got the key in the lock and opened the door. “There,” he breathed in obvious relief. Grabbing his backpack, he went in eagerly.
Brennan was set to follow Erica, who was holding the miscellaneous electronic boxes, but she abruptly stopped on the other side of the threshold. Brennan saw her look around her, her body language showing shock.
He didn’t think there was anything particularly shocking about the checkerboard wallpaper, the polished brass wall sconce, or the Indian rug over the parquet wood floor—but he had a sudden insight regarding the source of her astonishment. During the time Brennan had known Richard, the older man had taken pride in his house and yard, spending hours trimming the lawn, fixing the handcrafted fence, or putting up new light fixtures.
He’d probably not been much of a handyman during the years he’d spent drunker than a skunk, when Erica had lived here.
“Let’s put all this stuff in my room upstairs,” Liam told Erica. “Then you can choose whichever of the other rooms you want. They’re all clean—the maid was here a week ago.”
“Okay.” Erica was staring at the fancy chandelier that hung over the front stair.
A dollop of sympathy dropped into Brennan’s negative judgment. From what Richard had admitted to him, Brennan knew Erica’s childhood had not been easy. Far from it. She no doubt had good reason to own a prickly personality. She probably had some cause to behave with ill nature under the current circumstances.
Perhaps some of his irritation with her was actually directed toward himself, he realized. She made him look at his own past with eyes he’d rather not use.
With a slow shake of her head, Erica moved again, starting up the stairs.
In Liam’s bedroom, Brennan lowered the duffel bag onto the bed.
Liam was already reconnecting his computer equipment.
“What about your things?” Brennan asked Erica, who was now staring at the braided rug covering Liam’s bedroom floor.
“Hm?” She blinked and looked up.
“Can I help you unload your things from your car?”
“Oh, no. That’s okay, I can—” She abruptly stopped, perhaps catching the expression Brennan wore. Correctly, she read he would consider it ridiculous pride on her part to spurn such a benign offer. Straightening, she said, “Sure. The car’s parked right out front. I’ll go open it up.”
She was perceptive. Brennan was glad of that as he followed her back down the stairs. He wasn’t quite as pleased with the additional hit of male interest he felt as he watched her descend the stairs, her movements spare and controlled. Probably the balance of his irritation with her came from her attractiveness. He didn’t want to feel attracted.
At the curb sat a gently aged mini-SUV. She clicked the locks open and reached into the back for a smallish suitcase.
Their eyes met as she handed it to him. The size of the suitcase said she didn’t plan to stay long.
Her chin lifted in a defensive gesture.
The gesture made Brennan feel slightly guilty. Who was he to judge or dislike her? He could understand why she’d never come back home. He could even understand why she’d only packed for a short visit, just long enough to bid her father the briefest possible goodbye.
Clearing his throat, he took her suitcase. “I doubt there’s any food in the house. I’m happy to run you and Liam to the market.”
“Thank you, but I remember where the grocery store is. Anyway, I’ll probably simply get takeout tonight.”
The brush-off was clear. I don’t need you. But then, as he was turning away, he felt a touch on his arm.
A small shock went through him, as though he’d connected with a wool blanket on a dry day. Disguising the odd sensation, he turned back to give her a questioning look.
She quickly retracted her hand. In the light from the front porch, Brennan could see her prickly mask go transparent. Beneath it her fear and vulnerability showed through. She bit her lower lip. “I don’t know if you could tell me— But do you think we should go to the hospital right away? I have no idea…how bad things are.”
Something melted in his chest. Maybe this was the real woman, a person who admitted she had feelings and cared. “I think you have time. Liam and I were there earlier, before I brought him home for a break and to get some homework done. Matters seemed fairly stable. I think you can settle in and have dinner first.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks.” She released her hold on her lower lip and frowned. “So, you really are friends with my father?”
Her obvious disbelief swept away his moment of softness. She acted as though Richard could not possibly have friends. Surely she was aware that her father hadn’t touched a drink in twelve years. Surely she could guess he might be a decent human being when alcohol wasn’t drowning his brain. As a matter of fact, meeting Richard was what had decided Brennan to make a go of becoming branch manager at Livestrength Sports equipment, who’d encouraged him to buy the branch and create his own brand, Diehard, two years ago. Richard had helped Brennan restart his life and succeed.
“We’re good friends,” he now told Erica and heard the huskiness in his voice. Tilting his head, he added very deliberately, “He isn’t the same person you knew.”
Her nostrils flared. “You think I don’t know what he’s like when he’s sober?” She sounded bitter. “But I also know what it’s like when he falls off the wagon. And I don’t ever want to be around again when that happens.”
Twelve years of sobriety, treated like a fluke. All the upstanding, decent things Richard had done during that time— Brennan was unable to contain his irritation. “Don’t worry. You’re unlikely to see that happen.”
Clearly brought up short, she stared at him with widened eyes.
He felt as though he’d kicked her. Pointing out her father’s imminent death had been a low blow. It probably hadn’t even been warranted. Richard himself had never blamed either of his two oldest children for writing him off.
But Brennan couldn’t seem to avoid taking it personally when she castigated her father.
“Here, I’ll take the suitcase.” She easily wrested it from his grasp. Walking swiftly, she left him behind and stalked toward the house.
Feeling a mixture of anger and embarrassment, Brennan trailed her toward the house. The woman was entitled to her feelings; he hadn’t needed to try throwing guilt into the mix. Also, she had a superior claim for authority over Liam. For purely pragmatic purposes, he should have played his cards better.
She pushed open the unlocked door. Brennan was sure she intended to go inside and then close it in his face. That would not be ideal. He wasn’t yet sure Liam was okay with this new situation.
Just as Erica was about to enter the house, the telephone inside rang.
She turned, and her eyes hit Brennan’s.
They both heard Liam answer the phone. They both waited, silent, until the boy came to the front door with the kitchen handset to his ear.
Liam’s face was pale. “It’s the hospital. They think we should come now.”
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