She was already in his kitchen when he opened his door, a pretty dark-haired woman in tight jeans and a red sweater, standing in front of his refrigerator.
“You’ve got cold pizza and three different kinds of mustard in here,” she said without turning around. “What kind of a diet is that?”
Mark grinned. “Jarek got you on some kind of health food kick now?”
Jarek Denko, Eden’s chief of police, was Tess’s fiancé. They were getting married in three weeks.
Tess snorted. “Hardly. I brought hazelnut crescents.” She pulled a white bakery box from the fridge, dangling it by its string. “From Palermo’s. I thought I’d have to leave them for you.”
Mark raised his eyebrows. “Palermo’s, huh? That’s some kind of bribe. What do you want, Tess?”
“Aren’t you home early?”
Ah, hell. As if being his big sister wasn’t bad enough, Tess was also a reporter. She was both perceptive and damnably hard to shake. “Joe’s opening the bar today,” Mark said. “My shift doesn’t start till four.”
“Which hasn’t stopped you from being there at eleven every other day this week.”
He shrugged, not denying it.
“It didn’t go well, did it?” Tess’s golden gaze was concerned. “Your meeting with the new owner.”
Not well. Now, there was an understatement.
Mark cut the string on the bakery box. “She hasn’t fired me yet, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Of course she didn’t fire you,” Tess said. “She’d be a fool to fire you. You’re all that’s kept that place running.”
His sister’s quick loyalty was both touching and more than he could bear right now.
“I don’t know if I want the job.”
Tess frowned. “What else would you do?”
That was the problem, Mark acknowledged. Despite his stint in the marines, he didn’t like taking orders. He had enjoyed running the bar. Calling the shots. But Nicole Reed, with her silk blouses and dot-com fortune, had nixed his dream of making the place his own.
Since he came back to Eden a year ago, he was just drifting through civilian life. So far he’d avoided repeating his old mistakes. He wasn’t drinking, and he hadn’t been arrested. Not yet, anyway. He’d come close a couple of months ago. But he couldn’t blame his sister for looking at him like a loose boat cruising toward an accident.
He regarded her with affection. “Is that why you’re here? To stand over my shoulder like you did when I had that paper due in Mrs. Williams’s English class?”
“Of course not,” Tess said. But her cheeks turned dull red. “I came to tell you you’ve got a tux fitting tomorrow at ten-thirty.”
“You could have called.”
“And to bring you dessert.”
“You could have waited.”
“And to deliver your mail.”
She must have collected it from his mat when she let herself into his apartment.
He stuck out his palm. “Fine. Hand it over.”
She marched around him, scooped a sheaf of envelopes and circulars from the mess on the coffee table, and thrust it at him. “There. Special delivery.”
“Gee, thanks. But you shouldn’t have.” He started to thumb through the stack. “There’s nothing here that can’t—”
A heavy cream envelope with an embossed return address snagged his attention. Johnson, Neil and Younger. Since when did high-priced Gold Coast law firms troll for business in tiny Eden?
“What?” Tess said. “What is it?”
Mark slit the flap and unfolded the letter inside.
Dear Mr. Delucca, I am writing to you, blah blah, guardian ad litem— What the hell was that? —for Daniel Wainscott. More blah, inform you of the passing of Elizabeth Jane Wainscott—
His eye caught. His mind stumbled. Betsy? Betsy was dead?
—will suggested that you are Daniel’s father and requested that you become his guardian.
The news slammed his chest like a swinging boom. The air left his lungs. The room tilted.
“Mark? What’s the matter?”
He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think. He could only read while his world capsized around him.
Phrases leaped off the page. The words were jumbled and his vision blurred, but the meaning seemed horribly clear.
…no legally binding effect.
Daniel’s grandparents, Robert and Helen Wainscott, have expressed interest in adopting Daniel and appear ready to pursue all legal avenues to do so.
…advise you……choose to prove paternity……seek custody of Daniel…
“Mark!” Tess touched his arm.
The letter in his grip quivered like the edge of a sail. Mark folded it and tucked it back into the stack. But the words still burned and swirled in his brain.
…possibility that you are, indeed, Daniel’s father……act quickly to avoid losing your rights…
“It’s nothing,” he lied. “A mistake. Want a pastry?”
She was pretty when she smiled.
Mark paused in the dark entryway. Behind the bar, chubby Joe Scholz was trying to explain the idiosyncrasies of the Blue Moon’s cash register to Nicole Reed. Her blond head was bowed. Her pink lips curved in a secret smile. And with the suddenness of a squall, swift, blind, animal lust took Mark by the throat and shook him at the root.
He sucked in his breath and waited in the dark, his blood roaring, until his eyes adjusted fully to the dim room and his body recovered from the impact of that smile.
Nicole glanced toward the entrance and saw him. Just for a second, surprise and relief shone in those blue eyes. And then her slim shoulders squared, and her smile disappeared as if it had never been.
Mark took another breath. Good.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she said in her precise, private school voice.
He forced himself to move forward; summoned a shrug. “Then I guess you didn’t look at the work schedule.”
Her lips firmed. “I looked.”
“Then you should have known I was on at four.”
“I thought you hadn’t decided yet whether you would continue to work here.”
He liked the way she took the battle to him, instead of dithering around. But he couldn’t afford to like her too much. He couldn’t afford to say too much, either.
The problem was, he hadn’t decided what to do yet. Nobody in town would believe it—the Delucca men weren’t exactly known for sticking around—but Mark’s pride wouldn’t let him walk away without at least giving notice.
Not to mention that as long as there was the slightest chance there was a kid out there somewhere with the Wainscott name and Delucca genes, this could be a really bad time for Mark to find himself unemployed.
Mark’s jaw tightened. No, he wouldn’t mention that.
He wouldn’t even think about it.
He lifted up a section of the counter and slid behind the bar. “You need a bartender.”
Nicole slipped out of his way, watching him with her too-cool, too-perceptive blue eyes. In the cigarette-and-beer-tinged air, her scent lingered, expensive and out of place.