Authors: Barbara Freethy
"Is that the book?" Burke asked, coming around the bed.
She nodded and showed him the cover, which featured Dani and herself in one of her favorite pictures. They were about six years old, and they were lying on their stomachs, their heads barely peeking out from under the couch where they loved to hide. They hadn’t been identical twins, but they had looked very much alike.
Burke smiled at the picture. "You were both cute."
"I can't believe I almost lost this. If Hector had cleaned out the apartment before I could reach him—"
"He didn't," Burke said quickly.
"But it was close."
"I'm sure you've had close calls before. Just focus on what did happen and not what didn't happen."
"What else do you have to pack?"
"Just some kitchen things," she said, keeping the scrapbook in her arms as they went into the living room.
"What about the furniture?"
"It all belonged to Carter. I rented the place furnished. I don't know why he left it all behind. He must have known that he wasn't coming back here."
"Who knows who he ripped off before you? It might have been someone else's furniture."
She moved into the kitchen and set down the scrapbook long enough to grab her case of knives and dump her favorite pots and pans and a couple of treasured cookbooks into yet another plastic bag.
"That's it," she said a moment later, taking one last look around the apartment that had only been home for a few weeks.
"Four bags, not bad," Burke said.
For some reason his words made her feel emotional. Her whole life could be put into four garbage bags. How sad was that?
Burke's gaze narrowed on her face. He quickly crossed the room and after a moment's hesitation, he put his arms around her.
She was shocked at his action.
"It's going to be okay, Maddie," he said, patting her back somewhat awkwardly. "You're going to get past this."
She closed her eyes for a second, savoring the feel of his solid body against hers. She'd been independent for so very long…
It felt good to lean on someone, but she couldn't let the hug go on too long. If she did, she might never want to leave the circle of Burke's arms. And he just felt sorry for her. She didn't want pity to be the reason he was holding her, although what other reason could there be?
She stepped out of his embrace and gave him what she hoped was a confident smile or at least an attempt at one. "Thanks. I'm going to be okay. It was just seeing everything in garbage bags…" She shook her head. "Let's get out of here."
They divided up the bags and then walked back out to Burke's car.
The bags filled up the trunk with the last one going into the back seat. She got into the front seat with Dani's scrapbook on her lap. The book had always given her strength and courage, two things she really needed right now.
A few minutes later, she realized that Burke hadn't asked her where she wanted to go. Which was probably good, since she didn't know where she wanted to go, but it was also bad, because he was heading back to his apartment, and she'd already imposed on him too long.
But where else could she go? Alicia lived with another girl in an apartment no bigger than a shoebox, and her parents wouldn’t be back until Tuesday. Which left a motel.
"I need to go to the bank," she said. "If I can get my check cleared, I can go to a motel and get out of your hair."
"I'm happy to take you to the bank, Maddie, but I think you should stay with me for a few days. I'll be moving into the firehouse for forty-eight hours starting tomorrow morning. That will give you a few more days to figure out your next move."
"That's really generous, but I can't just stay at your apartment."
"Why not?" He gave her a challenging look. "Why spend money you obviously don't have on a motel room when I'm not even going to be in my apartment for two days? You only have to put up with me today, then I'll be gone." He gave her a smile. "Think you could do that?"
"I could probably manage that." She was very tempted to take him up on his offer. "Why are you being so nice to me?"
"I'm a nice person. You just never saw that side of me before."
She was beginning to think there were a lot of sides to Burke that she hadn't seen before.
"What you said before about me judging you—you judged me, too, Maddie," Burke added a moment later. "Back in high school."
"You know you did. Maybe we both want a second chance to be seen for who we really are."
She couldn't imagine why he would care what she thought, but she was a little touched that he did. "Okay, I'll stay at your place, but I do want to go to the bank if you don't mind. It shouldn't take too long."
"No problem. Which one?"
"The Wells Fargo at Broadway and Fillmore."
As they drove across town, another idea began to form in her mind. Burke was being so generous, she wanted to do something for him in return. "What are you doing the rest of the day?" she asked.
"I don't have any specific plans. Why?"
"My parents gave me a gift certificate for my birthday, and I haven't had a chance to use it yet."
He stopped the car at a light and glanced over at her with a wary look in his eyes. "What's it for?"
"It's a certificate for an adventure, for two people. Want to go with me?"
"You're going to have to give me more details."
"It will be more fun if you're surprised." Actually, she thought he'd be more likely to go if she didn't tell him exactly what they were going to do. "It's one of the few things on Dani's bucket list that I haven't had a chance to do yet."
He hesitated, then gave a nod. "Why not? I'll go."
"Great. It's the perfect day for it. And if I can get my money to be released, I'll even buy you lunch."
* * *
Burke waited in the car while Maddie entered the bank, wanting to give her a little privacy for what would probably involve more pleading on Maddie's part. He hated to see her in such dire financial straits. But he also could see that she was trying very hard to make the best of a bad situation. He wished he could get his hands on her ex-fiancé, though. He'd like to give him a little pain for everything he was putting Maddie through.
He really hoped that Maddie was far enough from her ex's reach to be safe. While he didn't doubt that Paul had been playing up the danger to get help from Maddie, he knew it wasn't that big of a leap for someone to try to get Paul's former fiancée to pay off his debts.
His phone rang, and his sister Nicole's number flashed across the screen. "Nic, what's up?"
"I heard you got into a fight at Leanne's memorial last night."
"It wasn't much of a fight. It was over with one punch, and unfortunately I was on the receiving end of that."
"Emma said you didn't try to hit back."
"I'd like to say that was because I was exercising self-control, but I didn't have a chance to hit back. I got tangled up with a waitress and a tray of champagne glasses."
"I heard that, too. I can't believe you literally ran into Maddie Heller. How is she? Emma gave me her number, but I haven't had a chance to call her yet."
"You should call her." He thought Maddie could probably use another friend these days. "I'm sure she'd like to hear from you."
"We were good friends in high school, but that was a long time ago. We lost touch after that. We went to different colleges. I got married, had Brandon, and from what I know Maddie went off and had adventures all over the world."
"Well, she's back in town now." He didn't tell his sister that Maddie had spent the night at his apartment. The last thing he wanted was to get his sisters into his business. He saw Maddie coming out of the bank and added, "I have to get going, Nicole."
"Before you go," Nicole interrupted, "I'm trying to get a head count for tonight, and you haven't responded. You are not going to try to tell me that you're not coming to Mom's birthday party, are you? We specifically picked this day because no one was working."
He inwardly groaned. He'd forgotten about his mom's birthday. "I'll stop by," he quickly promised.
"Good. You know you can bring a date if you want."
"I'll see you later." He hung up before Nicole could start suggesting possible dates for him to bring. She and Emma had been trying to set him up the past year, and while he appreciated their intent, he could find his own woman—when he wanted to, when he was ready.
As Maddie slid into the seat next to him and flashed him a triumphant smile, he had a feeling he'd passed
about twelve hours ago.
* * *
He might be ready for a woman, but he wasn't at all ready for what Maddie had in mind. He'd never been a fearful person. While he wasn't as impulsive as Maddie, he took risks. He ran into burning buildings. He dove into dangerous waters. He scaled tall buildings, but there was something about the massive black horse with the proud stance and the suspicious eyes that made him more than a little uncomfortable.
"What's wrong?" Maddie asked, coming up next to him.
"We're going riding?"
He looked around the stables, seeing two long barns filled with horses, but no designated riding area. "I don't see a ring."
"Well, that wouldn't be much fun would it? Just going around and around in circles? We're going to ride on the beach, watch the waves breaking over the rocks. It will be great."
"Yeah, sure—great." He tried not to let her see how much he didn't want to get on that horse.
Her narrowed, thoughtful gaze told him he wasn't succeeding.
"You're not afraid of horses, are you?" she asked.
"I wouldn't say I've ever had an opinion, one way or the other."
"So you've never been riding before?"
"When I was seven I rode a pony at the pumpkin festival. It went around in a small circle."
"Well, this is going to be a little different," she said with a laugh. "You're going to love it. Dani and I shared a horse when we were little. Her name was Lulu. She was the sweetest thing. She lived in the barn at my grandparents' property in Portola Valley, where my parents live now. We loved riding her, but we never got to leave the property. We always thought it would be fun to ride on the beach, feel the wind in our hair, taste the salt on our lips and feel as free as a bird. Unfortunately, Dani got sick and never made it to the beach. But it was on her bucket list. Today, I get to make that dream come true."
He was beginning to realize just how strong of an influence Dani had had on Maddie's life. "I'm surprised you haven't done it before now."
"Me, too. I've done pretty much everything else." She paused. "You know, I don't usually talk about Dani this much. I think it's because I'm in a stressful place. That's when the memories come back. Anyway, if you don't want to ride with me, you don't have to. I can do it another time."
"No, I'm good to go." He could see the need in her eyes to escape from reality for a little while, and he wanted to make that happen for her.
Relief moved through her eyes. "Great. We'll get you a good horse, I promise."
"Not that one." He tipped his head to the black stallion who was eyeing him like the enemy. "He doesn't like me."
She smiled. "I think you and he would make a great pair. He actually reminds me of you—tall, impatient, annoyed that he has to be here at all."
He grinned. "You think you have me pegged."
"Am I wrong?"
He couldn't say that she was, so he simply shrugged.
Maddie nodded, a knowing gleam in her eyes. "We'll get you a mare. You were always good with the ladies. You had a lot of girlfriends in high school."
"Every guy had a lot of girlfriends in high school. Relationships lasted three days," he said, as they walked toward the stable office to redeem Maddie's gift certificate.
"That might be true if your last name was Callaway. Some guys were not lucky enough to make out with Rebecca Mooney at lunch every day."
He laughed as Maddie's words took him back in time. Rebecca Mooney had been a busty blonde cheerleader who had certainly helped his reputation, not to mention what she'd done for his hormones. "I haven't thought about Rebecca in years."
"Too many girls to remember?"
"It was a long time ago. I'm sure you had your share of make-out sessions back then."
"Nope. I was not in the popular group."
"You had a lot of friends."
"Who were also not popular, except for your sister Nicole. She used to say that she was only popular because of you, Aiden and Drew. The girls wanted to hang out with her, hoping she'd invite them over to your parents' house so they could accidentally run into you or your brothers."
"There were a lot of people around our house. It was rare to sit down to dinner without a few extra bodies squeezing in at the already crowded table. But my parents were always happy to make room for one more."
"I know. I used to be a little jealous of your big family. You always seemed like you were having so much fun."
"It was fun, most of the time. It was certainly better when my dad and Lynda got together. After my mom died, the air in the house was dark and heavy for a few years."
She frowned. "I totally forgot that you lost your mom when you were—how old?"
"I was seven when she got sick, eight when she died, almost ten when my dad and Lynda got together."
"So you probably remember your mom better than any of your siblings."
"Aiden and I have the most memories. Drew has a few. Sean doesn't remember anything about her."
"Did you like Lynda right away? Or were you angry that your dad had fallen for someone else?"
"I did like her, but I felt torn. I wanted to be loyal to my mother. It didn't seem right that my dad was laughing and smiling again. On the other hand, it was a lot worse when he was sad, so I warmed up to the idea of them being a couple. And Lynda was great. She took things slow, let us adapt."
"You got two sisters, too."
"Emma and Nicole definitely added some excitement to the crew. We were four wild boys before they showed up. Then the twins were born. It was all good. I'm glad my dad found a way to move on."