Author: Jaci Burton


“You need to go to her? I understand.” Mick stood.


“There’s another problem. Nathan. I was supposed to pick him up from the party at midnight.”


“I’ll get him. You go take care of Maggie.”


“Are you sure? I can go get Nathan now, then go to Maggie’s.”


“And Nathan would hate that. Write down the address, and I’ll pick up Nathan, bring him back here, and wait for you to come home.”


“God, Mick, I hate burdening you with my personal stuff.”


He put his hands on her shoulders and steadied her. “Things between us are personal, Tara. So write down the address and let me go get him, okay?”


She nodded, gave him the address and her spare garage door opener, then kissed him, thanked him, and ran out the door. As she climbed into her car, Mick stood at her open doorway, waving to her.


She waved back and a sudden pang of abject fear slammed into her.


How had he become such an important and integral person in her life?


And what was she going to do about that?


IT WASN’T HARD TO FIND THE BRIGHTLY LIT HOUSE where the party was. Mick looked for all the cars parked haphazardly in the driveway. And the noise level was jet engine loud. For this late at night, he was surprised the cops hadn’t been called. These people must have really understanding neighbors. He went up to the front door and rang the bell, then figured there wasn’t a chance in hell they’d hear it since the music was ear-splitting. He tried the knob, and the door opened. Great. He rolled his eyes and walked in.


Disaster, was his first thought. Discarded paper plates and plastic cups and napkins and food and drink and furniture had been shoved out of whack. It looked like a crime scene. Or a party. The first thing Mick smelled was the alcohol, which had a stronger odor than the pizza, surprising considering there were about twenty or so empty pizza boxes strewn all over the room.


He picked his way through a throng of beefy football players, several jailbait-age inappropriately dressed girls, all of whom sized him up—were they serious?


“Anyone seen Nathan?” he asked of one of the guys, who looked up at him with a half-lidded gaze that spelled either drunk or stoned.


“Nuh-uh.”


Mick moved on toward the kitchen. So far he hadn’t seen an adult in sight. Good thing Tara hadn’t come to pick up Nathan. She’d be near fainting by now.


He found Nathan out back hanging with a group of three guys and two girls. And he was just about as shit-faced as the rest of the partygoers.


Not good.


“Mick! My man! Wazz up?”


“Let’s go.”


“Dude, let’s stay and party.” Nathan threw his arm around Mick. “Do you know who this is? This is Mick Riley, San Francisco’s quarterback.”


“We know, dude. Dude, you are one lucky sonbitch.” One of the guys grinned. “How awesome is it that your mom is with him?”


“Like, wow, you’re Mick Riley.” One of the girls stumbled out of her lawn chair and fell toward him, trying her best to look provocative.


“Whose house is this, Nathan?” Mick asked.


“Tim O’Banyan.”


“And where are Tim’s parents?”


“Cabo,” everyone said in unison, laughing as they raised their plastic cups to Tim’s parents in a toast.


Oh, shit. “Come on. We’re leaving. Say good night.” Mick should probably call someone and put a stop to the debauchery, but his only concern was Nathan and getting him home. He couldn’t be responsible for the entire team and their girlfriends.


“’Kay. Night, peeps.”


Mick led Nathan to his car and got out of there, figuring it was only a matter of time before the local cops made their appearance.


“Have a good time?”


Nathan grinned, hiccupped, then laughed. “Yup.”


“Do a little drinking?”


“Nope. Did a lot of drinking.”


“I can tell. Think that’s a smart idea?”


“Yup. Very smart.”


No point in trying to talk sense to him tonight. Mick drove in silence, listening to Nathan hum, then sing, burp, laugh, and rattle on nonsensically.


Unfortunately, Nathan started weaving back and forth in the seat. And Mick noticed he was getting paler by the minute.


“Nathan, you okay?”


“Not really. I think I might need to puke. Like right now.”


“We’re a block from the house. Can you make it?”


Nathan burped. “No.”


Shit. Mick pulled over while rolling down the window. Nathan unbuckled his seat belt and heaved out the window—all over the side of Mick’s truck.


Just fucking awesome. Mick sat there and waited it out while Nathan continued to vomit up whatever he’d had to drink. When he was finally done, Mick handed Nathan one of the towels he kept in his gym bag, then drove to the house and helped Nathan out of the SUV, carefully avoiding the door panel while he did so.


Nathan wasn’t too steady on his feet, so Mick had to throw his shoulder under Nathan and help him walk.


“Come on, buddy, let’s get you upstairs.”


“That’s a long fucking way up,” Nathan said, tossing his head back and staring up the steps.


“Uh-huh. You can make it.” God, the kid reeked. “Shower time.”


“I just wanna go to bed.”


“Too bad.” Mick took him into the bathroom and turned on the water. “Can you handle this, or do I need to do it for you?”


Nathan blinked. Weaved. Dropped to his knees in front of the toilet and threw up again.


Mick kneeled down and kept the kid from drowning himself, then tossed him, fully clothed minus his tennis shoes, into the shower. It seemed to help him a little.


“I feel terrible,” Nathan said.


“I’m sure you do.”


Mick turned off the shower, helped Nathan undress and dry off, then went to his room and found him a pair of sleep pants to slide into and shoved him into his bed.


Nathan was out cold two seconds later. Mick shook his head and turned off the light, then went in and cleaned up the mess in the bathroom.


By the time Tara came home around two thirty, Mick had warred with himself over telling her or not telling her. Turned out she wasn’t in the door a second before she knew something had happened.


She frowned. “You have vomit on the side of your truck. Is Nathan sick?”


“Sort of.”


She got a worried look on her face. “I should go check on him.”


“He’s passed out upstairs. Come sit down with me, and I’ll tell you what happened.”


“Passed out?”


She took a seat on the couch next to him.


“There were no adults at the party tonight, Tara. It was a free-for-all. And your son was shit-faced drunk.”


Tara’s eyes widened. “Oh.” Then her eyes narrowed. “Oh. Son of a bitch.”


“Yeah.”


She leaned forward and clasped her hands together. “How bad?”


“Pretty bad. I tossed him in the shower and cleaned everything up. He should sleep it off now.”


She laid her hand on his. “I had no idea this was going to happen. I’m so sorry you had to deal with it. And your truck. Good Lord.”


“My truck is washable. And your kid is going to be sick as hell tomorrow.”


She inhaled and sighed, then stood and ran her fingers through her hair. “I can’t believe Tim would have a party like that without his parents being around. Where were they?”


“Cabo, according to reports.”


She wrapped her arms around herself. “Jesus. Wait till Coach finds out. And I’m sure he’ll find out. Were there girls there, too?”


“Quite a few. Underage. Hell, they were all underage.”


“Oh, Jesus. Thank God you got him out of there before the cops showed up. He is in so much trouble. And I was nowhere in sight.” She sat on a chair, looking lost and devastated.


“It’s a rite of passage, Tara. You couldn’t prevent this from happening.”


She shot an angry glare at him. “Rite of passage, my ass. Lots of kids make it through their teen years without getting stinking drunk. I need to pay more attention to where I let my son hang out. If I wasn’t—”


She stopped herself, but he knew what she’d been about to say. “You think if you weren’t with me, you’d be able to keep your thumb on Nathan’s every move? Come on, Tara.”


She lifted her chin. “I don’t know. Maybe. Between seeing you and the hours I work at my job and Nathan, it’s getting to be too much. I knew this was going to be a problem. I have to put Nathan first.”


She was angry and hurt and scared, and he had to give her time to think. The last thing he wanted was to come between her and her child or argue that it wasn’t his fault that her son had made a stupid decision. “I’ll get out of here so you can get some sleep.”


“Okay.”


She walked him to the door and held it open but caught his hand before he walked out. “Thank you for being there for him tonight.”


“Anytime.”


He walked to his car, feeling like somehow he’d been the one who’d done something wrong tonight.


But he hadn’t. Had he?


TWELVE


TARA KNEW SHE WAS BEING UNREASONABLE. AND, quite possibly, a total bitch.


But what had happened with Nathan—who was now grounded—scared the hell out of her. Drinking and hanging out at an unsupervised party at fourteen could have ended badly in ways she didn’t even want to begin to think about. Unfortunately, all she’d done for the past three days was think about all the possibilities. And she had heard from Nathan’s coach, who’d been apprised of the party, though he hadn’t said by whom. He intended to have a long talk with Tim about it, and there would be sanctions. She almost felt sorry for Tim because she was certain Tim’s parents were going to be livid when they found out the entire football team—plus girls—had been over at their house drinking.


And none of what had happened had been Mick’s fault. In fact, she was grateful he’d been the one to step in and pluck Nathan out of that situation. Had she been the one to walk into that house, she’d have likely flipped out and embarrassed her son. From what Nathan told her—as much as he could remember—Mick had been calm and had taken Nathan out of there without a scene. Tara would have most definitely caused a scene. She was certain shrieking would have been involved. And she’d have probably called the parents of every kid there, which would have mortified Nathan, who probably would have never spoken to her again. She was so glad Mick had been there and acted rationally on Nathan’s behalf.


But had she thanked him profusely? No. She’d basically blamed him for it. Not directly, of course, but indirectly she’d pointed the finger at Mick for all her failings as a mother.


God. She let her head rest against her arms and just shut it all out for a few minutes.


“Thinking of ending it all?”


Her head shot up, and she gaped at Maggie, who leaned in the doorway to her office. “Pondering it, especially if you’re bringing me some new catastrophe. I’m full up at the moment.”


“No crisis to report, but Jenna called while you were on the phone earlier, and she has final RSVPs for the anniversary party so I have your head count, plus she wanted to go over place settings and something about the caterer.”


Oh, hell. The anniversary party for Mick’s parents was coming up this weekend. And Nathan’s birthday was this weekend, too. She laid her head in her hands and closed her eyes, wishing she could be anywhere but here.


Maggie shut the door. “Want to tell me what’s wrong?”


“Everything.”


“I’ve got time. Shoot.”

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