Tara laid it all out for Maggie, skipping nothing. She told her about Nathan getting drunk and Mick picking him up, and Tara not being there because Tara was off counseling Maggie, even though Maggie would probably feel guilty about that. But she and Maggie were best friends, and Maggie would understand it had nothing to do with her.
“So this is all Mick’s fault.”
Tara leaned forward and folded her hands together. “Of course it isn’t his fault.”
“Seems to me you’re blaming him for everything from Nathan getting drunk to you feeling like you’re not quite perfect at the job of superwoman.”
That one hurt. “Screw you, Maggie.”
“No, thanks. I like men. Look, Tara, wasn’t it you who just a few short days ago told me I can’t save my brother? That I need to let him fall on his face and I’m only enabling him by bailing his ass out every time he fucks up?”
“Yes. I did tell you that, because it’s the truth.”
“Well, it hurt me when you told me that. But you were right. And now I’m going to hurt you by telling you that you’re trying to be everything to everybody, and in the end you have to realize you can’t. It’s okay to have an awesome career you love and be a mom at the same time. It’s okay to try to date at the same time you’re juggling said career and said kid, and it’s okay to not do any of it perfectly. You’re going to screw it all up now and then. You have to give yourself a break.”
“Easier said than done. What happened with Nathan scared me.”
“Because he got drunk? Please. Kids do that. They screw up. So did I at that age. So did you.”
“I know. God, don’t I know. I don’t want him to make the same mistakes I did.”
“But you can’t follow behind him every step he takes to try to prevent it from happening, either. You’ll smother him if you try. Let him fall a few times and see what happens.”
She inhaled and let it out on a shaky sigh. “I’ll try. No guarantees.”
“And in the meantime, go apologize to your hunky boyfriend for blaming him because your idiot son got drunk.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I think you’re right about that one. I hurt him.”
Maggie nodded. “Okay, so kiss the boo-boo and make it better.”
TARA ALMOST DIDN’T MAKE THE TRIP TO SAINT LOUIS for the party. She could have handled it all long distance, but this was business and her reputation was at stake, and besides, she’d promised Nathan a baseball game for his birthday. Despite him being punished for being drunk the weekend before, it was still his birthday, and she wouldn’t take this away from him.
So she’d made the trip with Mick, who was surprisingly still speaking to her, though things between them were strained and she hadn’t had a moment alone with him to talk to him about it. She’d had to work nonstop before they left Friday, and then of course Nathan was with them. And even Nathan was having a hard time making conversation with Mick, no doubt because he was highly embarrassed about the prior weekend, which he rightly should be. He’d apologized to Mick for the drunken episode, and thankfully Mick hadn’t brushed it aside or said it was no big deal. He’d accepted Nathan’s apology but said nothing further.
So they’d sat on the airplane together and talked about ... nothing. Fortunately, Mick had picked up the slack and talked to Nathan about his practice with the team the past couple days, working out with his trainer, meeting with his nutritionist, and the two of them had talked about a couple other guys on the team. He’d kept the conversation flowing, and Tara had opened her laptop and worked so she wouldn’t have to say much other than interject a few “Oh, that’s interestings” and “Reallys” and “That’s greats.” It had been uncomfortable, and she’d actually been glad when they arrived at Mick’s parents’ house.
“Tara, I’m so happy to see you again.” Kathleen had folded her into a hug.
“I’m happy to be here.” That much was true. She liked Mick’s mother, and wished she could talk to her about the tension between her and Mick, but that would be kind of difficult.
Kathleen had hugged Nathan, too, who didn’t seem to mind it at all. He’d even managed a huge smile when Jimmy rounded the corner from the other room and enveloped Nathan in a bear hug.
“Missed you, kid. No one to shoot hoops with.”
“No one to kick your butt, you mean?”
“Nathan,” Tara admonished.
“Hey, he just thinks he’s that good,” Jimmy said, slinging his arm around Nathan’s shoulders. “But, like Mick and Gavin and Jenna, they soon learn they’re outmatched by the master.”
“In your dreams, old man,” Mick said, hugging his father.
“Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we?”
The luggage soon forgotten in the entry, Jimmy, Nathan, and Mick had taken off for the back, where the bouncing of a basketball and shouts and insults could be heard.
“It’s always like this, I’m afraid,” Kathleen said from the kitchen as she fixed Tara a glass of iced tea. “Jimmy eggs them on, and none of the kids could ever resist the challenge.”
Tara laughed. “I’m sure it’s how your children became so good at competitive sports.”
Kathleen nodded. “The Rileys do have that competitive spirit, for sure. But Jimmy uses it to keep himself fit. Most nights he drags me out there for a game or two.”
Tara laid her hand over Kathleen’s. “That’s how you stay so fit.”
She laughed. “We don’t sit on our butts around here, that’s for sure. And neither do you, by the looks of you, girl.”
“I stay busy.”
“And speaking of staying busy, thank you for planning this party. Jimmy and I are so honored.”
“I’m the one who’s honored to be a part of it.”
“Nonsense. You’re practically family.”
Tara laughed and cupped her hands around the cool glass. “Hardly.”
Kathleen studied her. “So you’re saying you have no feelings for Mick?”
Oh, crap. How was she going to get around this one? “I have a lot of feelings for Mick. I just don’t exactly know what we have together yet.”
“Well, I can tell you he has never brought a woman home to meet the family, so whatever it is he feels for you, it’s pretty special.”
“Thank you. But I don’t think it’s anything permanent or long-lasting, Kathleen. I mean, we lead two very different lives.”
“And what does that have to do with how you feel about each other?”
“It can make it difficult to make a relationship work.”
“Why? Because he’s a football player and is on the road during the season? Do you think you’d be any different than any of the other players who have relationships with their girlfriends or wives?”
“No. That’s not what I meant.” She was handling this badly. “But I have Nathan, and he needs some stability in his life. I’ve worked very hard to create that for him.”
“So you’re saying Mick couldn’t give that to him?”
Oh, God. Where had this gone all wrong? “I don’t know what I’m saying. There’s nothing wrong with Mick. Nothing at all. He’s wonderful, Kathleen. Any woman would be lucky to have him.”
Kathleen leaned back in her chair. “But not you.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Kathleen breathed out a sigh. “And I’m being defensive about Mick, which made you defensive. I’m sorry.”
“I am, too.”
“We’re both mothers, so you understand what it’s like to protect your children.”
Tara nodded. “I do.”
“I don’t want anyone to hurt him. And I know you care about him.”
“I do care about him, Kathleen. But give us time to figure out what we are to each other. This is still new.”
Kathleen laughed. “I push, I know. I want him to be happy. I want him to have what Jimmy and I have together. And I like you. I like you and Nathan. I like the two of you with Mick, so I can’t help but want to push for a family.” She stood and put her glass in the sink. “It’s time for me to butt out and let you and Mick figure things out for yourselves.”
Tara lifted her gaze to Kathleen. “Thank you.”
Kathleen came around behind her and hugged her. “But you know, I’m ready for a daughter-in-law. And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have in my son’s life than you.”
She straightened and headed for the back door. “Now I think I’ll see if those boys have killed each other yet.”
After Kathleen left, Tara had to blink away the sting of tears. How long had she craved a mother in her life? God knows her own mother had never been the kind of parent Tara had needed. She’d longed for someone whose counsel she could seek, and she’d never had that, not even when she was a child. She’d learned to rely on her own instincts, and often she’d made the wrong choices.
Kathleen was warm and kindhearted but also a straight shooter who told it like it was. She was exactly the type of woman Tara wanted and needed in her life. She’d love to be her daughter-in-law. Or her daughter. Or her friend.
But not at the sacrifice of Nathan’s well-being. She wasn’t about to rush headlong into something that would endanger the family she had now, which was her and Nathan. She’d sacrificed so much for him. If she had to give up more, she’d do it. If she and Mick were meant to be together, it would happen.
As she saw it right now, though, there were a lot of insurmountable obstacles to that happening. Like the fact that they hadn’t even talked about how they felt about each other.
It was still too soon. She and Mick were walking on eggshells around each other right now, mostly due to her own idiocy and blindness.
So yeah, Tara could love Kathleen all she wanted, but that’s not who her primary relationship was with. Maybe it was time to figure out if there was any substance to her relationship with Mick beyond just the sex. She was beginning to wonder if that’s all they had. And if it was—yeah, it was pretty damn great sex, but it wasn’t enough for her. There was way too much at stake to invest her heart, and Nathan’s, in something that would end up burning itself out in the end.
TARA STOOD BACK AND ADMIRED HER WORK. ADMITTEDLY, she’d done a killer job. The venue was perfect and decorated in all white with summer greenery interspersed on and around the tables. Fresh flowers in crystal vases graced each table, and live trees and bushes had been brought in to give the illusion of an outside setting, so even though the anniversary party was indoors, Tara had replicated the meadow where Jimmy and Kathleen had said their vows forty years ago.
She wrapped her arm around her son. “Hey, yourself, birthday boy. How does it feel to be fifteen?”
He grinned. “Pretty good.”
She still felt a little guilty that she was working on his birthday. “I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to give you a party or anything. And you didn’t get to be with your friends on your birthday.”
“Are you kidding? I got to go to the game today, and Gavin got me a ball signed by every member of the team, plus Mick took me down right after the game to hang out with the guys in the locker room. And they won. Best birthday present ever.”
She leaned against him. “I’m glad. I was worried.”
He shoved into her. “You worry too much.”
“I’m going to find my friends. See you later?”
She nodded, realizing how easy he was to please, and how lucky she was to have a son like him. “Later.”
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