Courting Chloe (Hudson Valley Heroes Book 1) (15 page)

BOOK: Courting Chloe (Hudson Valley Heroes Book 1)
10.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

While the athletic facilities varied, there was only one option at the park when it came to food—a ‘50s-style diner tucked away near the entrance. The place was vintage to the point of being almost run-down. A strong infusion of cash was clearly needed to bring it back up to speed. But judging from the weathered For Sale sign hanging from one corner of the building, the owners were looking to get out, rather than put more money in. The food was limited to just burgers and fries, a few sodas and ice creams. But after a long morning, they were all too hungry to care. They grabbed their lunch and took it to a shady picnic table. Ian cued Prince to wait under the table while they ate, filled his water dish, and they dug in.

Music from the car wash blared through cordless speakers. They enjoyed their lunch to the accompaniment of Adele, Springsteen, Beyoncé, and then Chloe caught a familiar opening riff. She leaned toward Preston. “Hey. Do you recognize this song? You heard it at my house when we were making meatballs.”

Preston screwed up his face in thought. “Is this a Prince song?”

“Yup. Purple Rain. One of his biggest hits.”

“I like it. Is he making any new songs?”

She shook her head. “No. He died pretty recently.”

Preston nodded in thought and dragged his French fry through a puddle of ketchup. “Do you think he and mommy are friends in heaven?”

Chloe froze. Her gaze shot to Ian, whose expression gave nothing away. He looked deliberately blank, yet he radiated a cautious tension—like someone who’d suddenly been tasked with diffusing a prickly bomb. He cleared his throat. “I’m not sure about that, buddy. But it’d be nice if they were.”

“I think they are friends,” Preston asserted.

“Why’s that?”

“’Cause of the purple thing.”

“What purple thing?”

“Don’t you remember, Uncle Ian? Mommy’s purple rule.”

Ian’s brows knit together. “I’m sorry, buddy, but I don’t—”

“It was from kindergarten,” Preston said. He sipped his soda through his straw, swung his ankles beneath the bench. “I was scared to go at first, but mommy said that whenever I saw something purple, I would know she was thinking of me. She said that was her way of giving me a hug, even though but she couldn’t be right there with me. She said it would help me be brave.”

I would have liked Barbara
, Chloe thought.
I would have liked her very much
.

She glanced at Ian. He nodded, and in a voice that sounded slightly strangled said, “Uh-huh. That sounds like something she would do.”

“Were there many purple things in your classroom?” she asked.

Preston nodded and took another bite of his hamburger. “Sure, lots. Purple crayons, purple stickers, purple alphabet letters, and a purple bean bag chair where you could sit when it was quiet time.” He smiled up at her. “Prince was wearing a purple collar when I met him. That’s how I knew he would be a good dog and wouldn’t bite me. And you were wearing a purple sweater the night we got here.”

She blinked in surprise. Had she been wearing purple? That wasn’t normally a color she wore, but maybe.

“What else do you remember about her?” Ian asked.

“I remember she was as tall as you, Uncle Ian. And she had blue eyes, just like me!”

Chloe watched as the eagerness on Ian’s face, the earnest desire to hear things about his sister that he’d never known before, clouded over. He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Your mom’s eyes were hazel, just like mine. And she was shorter than Chloe.”

Preston frowned as he considered that. After a beat, he gave a loose shrug. “Oh. Okay.” His attention wandered toward the playground equipment. “I’m finished. Can I go play now?”

“Sure. Just stay where I can see you.”

Ian pushed his half-eaten lunch away. His gaze followed Preston as he raced toward the playground equipment. Rather than climbing the slide or jumping on a swing, he and Prince stood cautiously to one side, watching the other children play.

“How’s he doing?” she asked, interrupting the heavy silence that had settled between them.

“You mean his seizures?”

“Yeah.”

“Still one or two a day, usually lasting about fifteen minutes.”

So no change. About what she figured. Sometimes she was with them when the seizures occurred, but not always. Her other duties at camp took her away for hours at a time. “And Prince? He’s still good at Alerting when the seizures occur?”

“He hasn’t missed once—at least, not that I know of.”

Okay. Very good. But Chloe still felt a slight stab of disappointment. The best of all possible outcomes was if Prince Alerted
before
a seizure happened. She and Ian had discussed that at length. In that event, medication could be given to prevent the seizure altogether. Unfortunately that wasn’t something that could be trained. Some dogs picked up on hormonal cues that indicated a seizure was imminent; other dogs couldn’t discern those changes. The science was inexact.

“It never occurred to me that he would forget her,” Ian said. “I mean, I know he’s young, but…”

“He hasn’t forgotten her at all—”

“He thought Barb was tall and had blue eyes.”

Chloe bit back a sigh. Young children tended to remember ritual over facts. Visits to the zoo every Sunday, nightly lullabies before bed, the color purple being a symbol of a mother’s love. That was how their minds worked, that’s all. He shouldn’t read too much into it. She leaned forward. “He remembers that his mother loved him very deeply. That’s what matters.”

Ian swung his unyielding gaze away from her. His expression was stubbornly set. “If he doesn’t remember her, I mean
really
remember her, he’ll lose her forever.”

Chloe nodded and ventured carefully, “Well then, photos would be good. Stories about her would be good. You can help keep her alive in his memory. But Ian, healing isn’t betrayal. You know that, right?”

He worked his jaw, saying nothing.

Chloe sighed and bit back the rest of her words. She wouldn’t lecture. He’d have to work through the rest of it himself. She’d yet to meet a client who didn’t experience the shock and horror of realizing they were capable of laughter after the death of a loved one. The ensuing guilt and remorse. No sense pushing. ‘Overcome Grief and Get On With Life’ wasn’t something that could be put on a To-Do list, to be checked off between mulch the garden and pick up the dry cleaning.

They sat in silence, watching Preston. Three children crowded around Prince, their curiosity obvious. They weren’t petting him, but they were asking questions. As Preston didn’t look uncomfortable with the situation she didn’t interfere, choosing to keep an eye on him instead. After few minutes, Preston came racing back to them, smiling broadly.

“Those kids want to play with me!” he announced.

“Of course they do!” Chloe said. “What are you going to play?”

“I don’t know! I forgot to ask! But they said that Prince and I can both play with them!” He bounded back to the playground, almost deliriously happy. If there was ever a child who loved the company of other children, Preston was it.

She looked at Ian. “You’ve been home-schooling him since the accident?”

“Of course. I tried to send him back to school, but it didn’t work.”

“Because of the seizures? Ian, there are schools that are specifically equipped to handle kids with health issues. The local elementary has one of the most inclusive programs in the state. He’s dying to be around kids his own age. You can see that, right?”

“I’m not going to put him through that again.”

“I don’t understand. Did something happen at school?”

“Of course something happened. He had seizures.”

“And the school nurse—”

“Wasn’t always in the room when they happened.”

She frowned. “Okay. But—”

“And when the seizures were over, he peed his pants in the middle of the classroom and everyone laughed at him. Then he wasn’t just the kid with the seizures. He was the kid who always peed his pants. He was mortified, humiliated. He begged me not to send him back.”

“I see.”

Chloe quietly absorbed that. She was a pediatric nurse. She understood children could be cruel. But not all children and certainly not all the time. She looked at the playground. Preston and Prince were happily engaged with their new friends, playing what looked to be a rousing game of freeze tag. “Everyone laughed at him?”

“Not everyone. Mostly one asshole kid in particular.”

“Ah. One of the two-percenters.”

She’d meant the comment to be lightly humorous, to connect back to the warmth they’d shared earlier. But Ian wouldn’t be cajoled. He sat brooding, his gaze fixed on Preston. She tried again.

“Ian, just because something happened in the past, doesn’t mean he’s not ready to move forward. Maybe the lingering effects of the episode are more traumatic for you than for Preston. Kids get over things, they really do.”

He made a noncommittal grunt.

Undeterred, she pushed on. “Look, I know several teachers at the local elementary school. The culture there is very different from what you experienced back home. Empathy is a huge component of the teaching. They wouldn’t allow one child to be laughed at by another, particularly because of a physical condition. If you’d just let—”

“Leave it, Chloe. I know what I’m doing.”

The tone—so supremely confident, so arrogant,
so Jeff
—stung. In the space of a single heartbeat, Chloe went from calm and reasonable to flushed and angry. “Obviously you don’t know what you’re doing,” she bit out, “or Preston wouldn’t be acting up the way he has been lately. You can’t be his entire world, Ian. He needs to be around kids his own age. He needs daily structure. He needs—”

“He needs someone to watch out for him. Someone to keep Barb alive in his memory. Someone to make sure he doesn’t ever get hurt again.”

“Really. So what’s your plan, Ian? Live in a glass bubble? Stay by Preston’s side every second of every day? For how long? Until he’s ten? Twenty?”

“For as long as I goddamned well think it’s necessary, how’s that?”

“It’s goddamned selfish,” she fired back. “Yes, Preston has medical issues, but so do many other children—all of whom lead perfectly normal lives. He’s
lonely
. Can’t you see that?”


Lonely?
What the hell are you talking about? I’m with him every second of every day.”

“That’s exactly the problem.
You’re
with him every second of every day. It’s been eighteen months since the accident and you’ve been his entire world. The purpose of a canine assistant is to give Preston some independence. Room to grow. Space to be a happy, well-adjusted kid. Look at him right now. Isn’t that what you want for him?”

Their gazes swung back to Preston and Prince, both of whom were happily racing around the playground. More content than she’d ever seen him, if fact. Despite the evidence to support her argument, Ian’s expression remained mutinous. Chloe sent up a prayer for patience. Time. Ian just needed time. He was a hard-headed, stubborn man. But eventually he would come around to seeing it her way. After all, it was perfectly obvious that she was right.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

 

Wrong. Chloe was completely wrong, and infuriatingly obstinate about it, too. God save him from beautiful, big-hearted, stubborn women.

While their argument hadn’t continued—they’d left their disagreement at the park—the lasting effects of it hung between them, casting a pall over their relationship. Chloe still joined him in his bed at night. Thank God. The physical intimacy they shared, that mystical spark that ignited whenever they were together, was more exhilarating than anything Ian had ever experienced.

But there was an emotional discord that hadn’t been there before. Ian felt that keenly and with intense regret. But it wasn’t something he could fix. Chloe simply had to come to terms with his situation. Preston wasn’t like other kids. He needed to be protected, sheltered. It was his job to make sure his nephew was safe at all times. School simply wasn’t an option for them. They’d tried that and it hadn’t worked. End of story.

“Hey, what’s up?”

Ian started. He hadn’t heard Matt approach. The boy rolled to a stop beside him and placed Beastie in a Down beside his chair. He jutted his chin toward the open laptop that rested beside Ian.

“Bad news?”

“What? Oh, no.” Ian shook off his brooding thoughts. While Chloe and Preston worked with Prince, he’d positioned himself outside the training ring, sorting through emails he’d been ignoring for too long. “Everything’s fine.”

“Huh. You looked pretty serious.”

“I just opened an email from my broker. A few months ago I made an offer on a property in Brooklyn and got outbid. Turns out the financing fell through on the deal and the owner came back to us. The building’s mine if I want it.”

“Oh, yeah? What kind of property is it?”

“A bar, actually.”

“A bar?” Matt arched his brows, impressed. “Sweet.” He shot him an assessing look. “So that’s what you do, huh? You own bars?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple.”

“Wow. Awesome way to make a living.” Matt nodded, obviously picturing a cooler, older version of himself pouring drinks behind a bar. He rocked back and forth in his chair as he indulged in the daydream, then threw Ian a sheepish grin. “Hey, don’t worry about me showing up with my fake ID. I threw that thing away.”

“Very wise.”

“Yeah, whatever.” He cracked his knuckles and tossed back his head. “I decided I didn’t need it after all.”

Ian surveyed him curiously. “Is that right? How’d things go with Janelle?”

A heated blush crept up Matt’s cheeks. He gazed at his lap, staring at the fingerless black leather gloves he wore as he struggled to hide a smile. “She asked me to take her to Homecoming.”

Ian arched his brows appreciatively. “Hey. Big news. You gonna go?”

“Obviously I’m gonna go. You saw Janelle, right? She’s gorgeous.”

“Good for you. That’s great.” Ian had seen Matt and Beastie accompanied by a pretty blond girl earlier in the week, but this was his first opportunity to talk with him one-on-one. He sized him up. Matt seemed more relaxed, more at ease with himself than he’d ever been. “Good week, huh?”

“Awesome week. Not just the thing with Janelle, either.” He shot Ian a jaunty smile. “After Janelle left, I got into a blowout fight with my parents.
Huge
argument. My dad actually called me an asshole.”

Ian would have sympathized, but the satisfied grin on Matt’s face told him he wasn’t looking for condolences. “Wait a minute. Why do you look like that’s a good thing?”

“Good? Are you freakin’ kidding me? It was amazing. They didn’t like my attitude and they called me on it.
Finally
. It’s like, every since the accident, they’ve been treating me like I’m made of glass. Like I’m going to shatter at any minute. But they’re finally real again.”

Ian shook his head. “You lost me.”

“Okay, here’s the thing. We started talking about me going back to school, getting my diploma with the rest of my class—which’ll be a shitload of work, by the way, what with everything I missed last year being in the hospital and all—but let’s say I’m willing to do that, I get my diploma, then I go to the college of my choice, which doesn’t happen to be the college of my parents’ choice.
That’s
what the fight was about.”

“All right. I think I’m starting to get it.”

“See, I’ve always wanted to design video games. I know I’d be good at it. But my mom says that’s a bad career choice. My dad works for the forestry department, and she’s a landscape engineer. She used to always say, ‘
Why would you want to waste the rest of your life just sitting in a chair?’”

Ian sucked in a breath. “You didn’t—”

“Yup. I totally threw that in her face when we were fighting. So naturally, my mom started to cry, and that’s when my dad called me an asshole.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah, well.” Matt shrugged, studied his gloves again. “It got pretty ugly after that. We all started screaming at each other. I told them that I needed some friggin’ space, that this was my life, and they told me I was an ungrateful shithead and that they just loved me and wanted to protect me. Everything came out—all the stuff we’ve been holding back just poured out, like some putrid, ugly gas. But it was weird, you know, ‘cause once it was out, the air was clear again. My dad made one of his stupid jokes and we all started laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. My parents were actually rolling around on the floor.” He smiled, shook his head. “Confused the shit out of Beastie, that’s for sure. He didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” He reached down and rubbed Beastie’s broad chest. The dog leaned into him, clearly loving the stroking. “But it’s all good now, you know?”

Yeah. Ian did know. “I’m glad,” he said.

Matt’s phone pinged as a text came in. Matt scanned it and chuckled, and then held it up for Ian to see. “Janelle brought two sets of ties, in case I said yes.”

Ian looked at the image. Matt’s cheek was pressed against Beastie’s jowl. They both wore bow ties around their necks and nearly identical grins on their faces.

“Better watch it. He looks more handsome than you do in that getup.”

“Yeah, no shit. Great, just what I need: competition.” He scrolled to the next photo, which showed a pretty girl with laughing green eyes and a thick pony tail. “That’s Janelle, by the way.” His gruff tone couldn’t hide the pride in his voice.

Ian nodded. “Pretty girl.”

“Pretty? She’s friggin’ gorgeous. Smart, too. Might even be class valedictorian this year…unless Beastie and I get there and distract her. Isn’t that right, boy?”

“Nice to hear you’re already setting academic goals for yourself.”

Matt smiled and tucked his phone back in his pocket. He looked away from Ian, his gaze taking in the kennels, the training ring, the agility equipment they’d used in that morning’s lesson. “Hey. I decided it doesn’t totally suck here after all.”

“Is that right?”

                “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, actually.”

              “Sounds dangerous.”

              “No, I’m serious.” Matt’s playful expression sobered. “Let’s say I go away to college, ask out some girl, and she says no. In the first place, she’d have to be an idiot to turn down me and Beastie Boy here. But let’s assume this smoking hot babe with a killer ass and tits like—”

“I think I get the picture,” Ian interrupted, cutting short the adolescent fantasy. “Go on.”

“Right. Okay. Where was I? Oh. So anyway, maybe this totally hot babe turns out to have an IQ so low she doesn’t have enough wattage to toast a marshmallow and she says, ‘No. I don’t want to go out with you.’ Maybe it’s because I’m in a wheelchair. Maybe it’s because of Beastie’s breath. Or maybe she just thinks I’m an asshole. Whatever. Here’s the important part: You just get on with it. You keep rolling. That’s what this place is really about. That’s what
life
is about. You get knocked down, you get up. Well, not in my case, but you get the gist. No matter what happens, you just
get on
with shit.”

Ian was quiet for a moment, stunned by both the depth and astuteness of Matt’s comments. Out of the mouths of babes—or teenage punks in wheelchairs. Either way, he recognized wisdom when he heard it. As he mulled over Matt’s words, the argument he’d had with Chloe flickered through his mind. A mild sense of discomfort filled him. A lurking truth he didn’t want to acknowledge filtered through his thoughts and bubbled to the surface, but he pushed it away. Later. He’d think about it later.

Joe’s deep, football coach voice bellowed across the grounds. “Matt! I’m waiting! You think I have all day? Roll your ass on over here!”

Matt laughed, popped his front wheels and spun around, doing a wheelie with his chair. “Joe gets it. He doesn’t cut me any slack.” He thought for a beat, and then gave a philosophical shrug. “But he’s also teaching me how to drive a van without foot pedals, so I guess we’re about even. At least my parents won’t be driving me to Homecoming or following me around on dates.” He gave a dramatic shudder, then pushed off. “See ya!”

Having finished their work, Chloe, Preston, and Prince left the training ring. Matt gave Preston a friendly high-five as they passed, but they both kept moving, their respective dogs trotting obediently at their sides.

“Guess what?” Preston sang out. “No more work today! Chloe says we can go back to the playground!”

Chloe smiled and leaned down to gently whisper in Preston’s ear, “I said you can
ask
your uncle if you can go back to the playground. He may have other plans for the afternoon.”

“Nope. I’m all yours.”

Ian shut his laptop, grateful for the interruption. Strange. A year ago—hell, even a month ago—he would have been on the phone with his broker, hammering out the terms of the deal, pushing for the best possible price on the Brooklyn property. He would have had contractors on the line, plumbers and electricians ready to inspect the building. He’d have set up interviews for a manager, bartenders, line crew, and wait staff, then he’d call his beverage distributor to set up a new account. In other words, he’d be busy. But now—well, now it could all wait.

He stood and said, “I’m ready whenever you guys are.”

“Oh.” Chloe shook her head. “Sorry, but you’re on your own today. I’ve been putting off my paperwork for too long, and I’ve got a mountain of it to tackle. Sara needs to include my report in an application for a funding grant. The deadline’s tomorrow, and I haven’t even started to work on it.”

“Paperwork? On a day like today?”

She’d retreated slightly as she spoke. He wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her closer. Not as close as he would have liked—they were in public view, after all, and Preston stood right beside him—but close enough to see the flecks of gold in her rich brown eyes. Close enough to see the blush of coral in her cheeks. Close enough to drink in the soft, feminine scent of her hair. He’d seen her shampoo bottle in her bathroom—something with lavender in it. He couldn’t imagine ever smelling lavender again and not thinking of her.

He bent down and gently nipped the lobe of her ear. “You sure I can’t change your mind?”

She gave a shiver in response and tilted back her head, sending him an admonishing smile. “I’m sure you could, but I won’t let you. I have a job to do, remember?”

“I thought we were your job.”

He’d meant it as a teasing jibe, nothing more. But he watched as her smile faded. The warmth left her eyes.

“True,” she said, slipping out of his embrace. “Right now, you are my job. But this is your last week, and my job will continue even after you leave. We don’t accept clients based on their ability to pay, and not everyone can afford to be as generous as you were, Ian. Grants are our main revenue stream. Soon I’ll have another young client who needs a canine assistant, and the training process will start all over again.”

It was a pretty little speech, nicely delivered, and he hated every word of it. All the more so because he knew exactly what it was. The ‘It’s been lovely, but it’s time to move on speech.’  The ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out,’ speech. He’d certainly delivered variations of the same, letting former lovers know as gently as possible that the party was over. But he hadn’t ever realized how much it sucked being on the receiving end of it.

“I see,” he said.

Their gazes met, and then slid away.

Chloe nodded, cleared her throat. “Thank you for understanding.” Her words were clipped, strangely formal. Holy shit—was she calling it off? How had he not seen this coming?

He gave a tight nod. “Of course.”

Christ, he sounded every bit as formal in return. This wasn’t how they talked to each other. Worse, he sounded as if he were agreeing with ending their relationship. He dragged a hand through his hair. What the hell were they doing? If he could just… what? He wasn’t sure.

“You’ll be fine,” she said. “You’ll see. Once you get home, everything will fall right into place.”

“You mean, Preston’ll be fine.”

“No,” she corrected. She placed a hand on his chest and tilted back her head to meet his eyes. “I meant y
ou
. You’ll be fine, Ian Dowling. I just know it.”

BOOK: Courting Chloe (Hudson Valley Heroes Book 1)
10.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Captive Bride by Bonnie Dee
Medium Rare: (Intermix) by Meg Benjamin
The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Playing the 'Son' Card by Wilson James
The King's Man by Pauline Gedge
The Sumerton Women by D. L. Bogdan