The bakery door opened, the bell dinged, and Dee whirled around to face her son. “Oh, Jack! Oh, sweetheart, I’m so happy.”
This clearly surprised the hell out of Jack. He stood there taking in his mom’s expression, obviously trying to figure out what had happened in the span of the five minutes he’d been outside that could have changed her mood so drastically.
And also her appearance, Leah realized. Because Dee was…glowing.
“You should have told me,” Dee said, practically vibrating. “Did you think I wouldn’t have been thrilled to hear that you and Leah are together?”
Jack’s gaze locked on Leah, brow raised.
Okay, so maybe he was going to find out.
You and Leah are together… Jack’s mom’s words bounced around in his head like a Ping-Pong ball as he stared at Leah for an explanation.
She had a hell of an explanation if her blush was any indication. “It just sort of came up,” she said, nibbling on her lower lip.
He recognized the tell. She nibbled on her lip whenever she stepped in the proverbial pile of shit. “It just sort of came up,” he repeated, nodding like this made perfect sense to him. But then he shook his head because it made absolutely no sense at all. He knew he was off his game big-time, crazy with worry over his mom, but this was not computing. “What exactly sort of came up?”
“Why, you and Leah, silly,” his mom said with a delighted laugh.
Jack hadn’t seen her so much as crack a smile in weeks.
And here she was, laughing. Had it been only a day ago that she’d been lying on her couch in her Sunday best, arm poised dramatically over her eyes, as she told him that she was just going to die quietly and try not to make a mess “so don’t mind me.”
“Me and Leah,” he said slowly, aware that he was starting to sound like a parrot. “What?”
“Honestly, Jack.” His mom was still smiling easily, like she had in the old days. The very old days, before his dad had died. “I’m the shaky one today,” she said. “Turn on your brain.” She was beaming with joy.
And Jack got his first real sense of doom. It started deep in his gut and ended up dead center between his eyes as a tension headache.
Back in the spring, when they’d first gotten his mom’s diagnosis, his summer goal had been simple—get his mom through it. The goal was now in sight, the light at the end of the tunnel visible. It was August and she was beating the cancer, though granted the treatment was now the one endangering her.
But he should have known nothing was ever as simple as it looked.
“It’s so wonderful,” his mom said, hands clasped together. “I was just telling Leah that I’d always secretly hoped, but you two seemed so set on ignoring all the chemistry between the two of you. Remember back when Leah graduated high school, sweetheart? You were home from college for the summer, just before she left town. Remember how much she loved you back then?”
Leah made a sound of embarrassment and started to turn away, but Dee smiled at her. “It’s true, honey, you know it is. You used to do his homework for him, remember? He was perfectly capable of doing it himself, except that he hated English and history. He needed to keep his GPA up for that scholarship and you…well, you remember.”
Yes, it was clear by the look on Leah’s face that she remembered exactly. Two grades behind him, she’d managed to save his ass and keep up with her own school load—and since her father had required straight A’s of her, not to mention the hours of filing and other administrative work she’d had to put in every day at his dental practice as well—this had been quite the feat.
“And then when Jack Senior died,” Dee said, “and he fell apart, you were there for him.”
Jack opened his mouth but closed it again. What was he going to do, remind his mother in public that she had been the one to fall apart? That it’d been all he and his cousin Ben could do to keep the house and their lives together? The doctors had eventually been able to treat her depression, but her bouts of anxiety had never abated.
“No one else could console him,” Dee said to Leah. “Not Ben. Not me. No one.” She paused. “Only you, Leah.”
Admittedly, Jack had grieved and grieved hard. He’d been a teenager who’d lost his father unexpectedly, and then he’d grown up in the shadow of his dad’s legend.
But there were worse things.
And yet his mom was right about one thing. Leah had been there, no matter what she faced in her own home life. She’d found time to make them meals, do his homework, cover his ass however it had needed covering.
She’d done that for him. She’d been his rock.
“I really thought the two of you would go for it back then,” Dee said, and Leah sucked in a breath.
Jack did his best not to react because he wasn’t willing to admit that he’d thought the same. That he’d thought it up until the day Leah had walked away.
“You’re right, Dee,” Leah said, her gaze on Jack. “The chemistry finally got us.”
“Did it?” Jack asked her softly.
“Yes.” There was a long, indefinable beat when something seemed to shimmer between them, and then suddenly Leah was a study of movement, hustling to put some space between them. “I was about to tell your mom that it’s not a big deal,” she said, very busy wiping down the other tables, way too busy to meet his gaze. “And that we’d like to keep things under wraps.”
“Under wraps?” Dee asked.
“Yes,” Leah said. “Because as you know, Lucky Harbor doesn’t keep its secrets very well. We’d rather no one knew yet.”
His mom looked so disappointed. “So this is…new?” she wanted to know. “This relationship between you?”
Leah did glance at Jack then, two spots of color on her cheeks as, unbelievably, she deferred the question to him. He crossed his arms and blessed her with his you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me expression.
“Um,” she said, blanching a little bit. “Sort of new, yeah. A little bit.”
Dee processed this. “I bet it happened at the music festival on the pier, right? I saw you two dancing that night. So romantic, so sweet.”
The festival had been a month ago. Jack remembered that he and Leah had shared one quick dance and then he’d been called into work. And if he’d enjoyed it a little too much, the way Leah’s skirt had twirled around her thighs, how she’d felt against him, he’d told himself he’d gotten caught up in the moment.
“Yes,” Leah said. “It happened at the music festival. We had late-night brownies at the café afterward, and that was that.”
“But Jack was called to work that night on a suspicious fire,” Dee said. “I remember because he called me from the station at midnight to make sure I got home okay.”
“Late, late-night brownies,” Leah corrected.
“Don’t you make your own brownies?” Dee asked.
“Once in a while I cheat,” Leah said, sounding a little strained.
No wonder. Lying was damn hard work.
Jack moved around the counter to face her. She was wearing jeans and a long halter top that had some flour on it.
He was six feet two, but they were still nearly nose to nose thanks to a pair of strappy, high-heeled sandals. How she worked in her seemingly endless supply of shoes he had no idea, but they were sexy as hell.
This was confusing too. When had she become sexy as hell? And why? They were friends. Nothing more. She’d made that evident a long time ago. “Why do you wear shoes like that to work?” he asked. “You’re going to break an ankle.”
“Aw,” Dee said, delighted.
He looked at her. “What?”
“You noticed her shoes! Jack, do you know what that means?”
That he’d gone over the deep edge? He put a hand to his head. Was the world spinning? He felt a little dizzy.
“Listen,” Leah said. “Forget my shoes. About the other thing. About…us.” She swallowed. “Your mom was worried about you.” Her eyes were desperately trying to communicate something to him.
Probably that she was crazy.
Which he already knew.
Jack turned to his mom. “Mom, we’ve talked about this. I don’t want you wasting your energy worrying about me. You need to be focusing on yourself right now.”
Oh, Christ. Suddenly this was all making sense, the chain of events that had led to Leah’s proclamation that they were a “thing.”
Not that it mattered, because this wasn’t going to happen. They were not going to lie to his mom.
“It haunts me at night, Jack,” Dee said.
Ah, damn. He loved his mom, more than anything. But if she gave the “I’ve had a good life and all I want is for you to meet a great girl so I can die happy” speech he was going to burst a blood vessel. “Mom—”
“It’s all my fault, Jack. Don’t you see? After your dad died—”
“No,” he said firmly. “Nothing about that was your fault.”
It really hadn’t been anyone’s fault, which of course had made it all the harder to accept. Jack knew he wouldn’t have made it through that time without Ben or Leah—something he’d never told her but should have.
Which meant that he couldn’t kill her for this latest stunt.
“I never showed you it was okay to move on from grief,” Dee said. “That’s why you never have any meaningful relationships with women.”
Jack opened his mouth to say he didn’t have the lifestyle for that right now anyway, just as the power blinked out and then back on. Then something sizzled, and this time, when the lights flickered and went out, they stayed out.
“Crap!” Leah said. “My soufflé.” And she vanished into the kitchen.
“You okay?” Jack asked his mom.