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Authors: Cathy Gillen Thacker

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Before anything else could be said, Jack and Dutch walked in. Jack seemed to know immediately he’d been the topic of conversation. Jack looked from Caroline to Patrice and back again. “What’s going on?” he asked casually.

“I want you and Caroline to get married!” Maddie declared.

For a moment, everyone was shocked to the point of speechlessness. “I think what she means is she thinks we each should be married,” Caroline said, deliberately
misinterpreting the little girl’s remarks. Her face heating self-consciously, Caroline told Maddie gently, “And before I can be a bride, I have to find someone I could be compatible with, someone who would provide the kind of companionship I’m looking for.”

“Maybe my daddy can help you find all that!”

Jack choked in mid-breath. “Maddie!”

Maddie turned back to her daddy. “That way everyone would be happy.”

Jack’s face was set in stone. “I don’t have to be married to be happy, Maddie.”

“But I don’t have a mommy, and if Gram leaves to go on her honeymoon and her trips with Dutch…who’s going to brush my hair and help me put my barrettes in?”

Caroline could see the talk Jack and Patrice had obviously given Maddie on the subject had not gone well. “We’ll hire a nanny to help us out temporarily, whenever Gram is gone,” Jack said.

Maddie’s lower lip slid out. “I don’t want a nanny.”

Jack promptly reassured, “Then we’ll ask a friend.”

Maddie’s face lit up. “Like Caroline?” she asked eagerly.

Talk about one-track minds, Caroline thought, all the more embarrassed as the adults in the room stifled bemused laughter.

“We’ll find someone you like,” Jack promised.

Maddie crossed her arms in front of her and glared. “I think I’d rather have Caroline.”

 

“S
ORRY ABOUT THAT
,” Jack said after his mother and Dutch had taken Maddie into the backyard.

Caroline looked at Jack sympathetically. There were times, she knew, when being a single parent could be tough.
“I gather Maddie didn’t take the news of her grandmother’s impending travels well?”

Jack went to the fridge and got out two bottles of chilled spring water. “Mom and I talked to her last night. Maddie said she understood what we were telling her but she really didn’t like it.” He exhaled. “I guess she’s worried—about all those things important to little girls, like getting her hair brushed and the placement of her barrettes.”

Their hands brushed briefly as he handed her the drink. Aware that every time she got near Jack her heartbeat sped up and her senses got sharper, Caroline shrugged and said, “Both are simple things to learn, even for a guy.”

“You don’t think I need a woman to do that for me?”

Deciding she had looked into Jack’s eyes far too long, Caroline turned her glance away. “Obviously, you’ll need a regular sitter to watch Maddie after school or during those times when you have to work and she’s not otherwise occupied, when your mom is off exploring the world with Dutch.”

Promising herself she was not going to fall prey to the attraction simmering between them, she looked into the rugged contours of his handsome face. Calling on her own experience as the child of a single mom, she advised, “But I think it’s better for Maddie if the two of you figure out how to be a team and cope on your own.” They’d be all the stronger for it. “Besides, it’s possible your mother and Dutch won’t stay away all that long.”

Jack’s mouth flattened into a grim line. “She seems determined.”

To make a point with you, Caroline thought. That you need a fuller, happier life, too.

The patio door opened and closed. Dutch and Patrice walked into the kitchen. “Maddie okay?” Jack asked.

They nodded. “Her friend from next door came over to play,” Patrice said.

Jack looked at his mother. “I wish you would delay any extensive traveling until Maddie has more time to get used to the idea.”

Dutch gave Patrice a look that seemed to tell his fiancée to proceed with caution.

Caroline lauded the older gentleman’s sensitivity to the situation.

Patrice frowned, then turned back to Jack and continued gently but firmly. “Darling, I know you don’t want to think about it, but none of us are getting any younger, and Dutch and I want to enjoy whatever time we have left to the absolute fullest.”

Jack was right, Caroline noted. His mother was determined not just to marry, but to expand her horizons again in a positive, healthy way.

“I’m not trying to deny you a full life,” Jack countered. His brows furrowed in consternation. “But why does it have to be such a big change, so quickly? Why can’t you just take a honeymoon and then plan a couple of short trips, maybe to South Padre Island where Dutch owns all those properties?”

Jack had a point, too, Caroline thought. There was something to be said for not taking on too much change at once. Just getting married was a pretty big step. To change one’s entire lifestyle, too, and be separated from one’s family, could bring on a lot of stress.

Patrice waived off the suggestion with an airy hand. “Dutch is in the process of selling those.”

“Why would you want to do that?” Jack asked in surprise.

With a beleaguered frown, Dutch admitted, “South Padre Island is not the quiet oasis it was when I first began
to invest there years ago. These days, the area is overrun with college students looking to party.”

“Is that the only reason?” Jack asked.

Clearly irked by the nosy query, Patrice gave Jack a reprimanding glance.

Dutch, however, seemed to welcome the chance to be more straightforward with his future stepson. “There were other considerations as well, prompting me to make this move.”

“The hurricane that hit that particular area of the Gulf two years ago,” Jack guessed.

Dutch nodded. “The losses were catastrophic, even with insurance.”

Patrice frowned. “Don’t get me started on insurance companies. I thought it was difficult getting them to pay out when your father was ill, Jack, but it’s nothing compared to now.” She shook her head, incensed. “These days, the jackals will deny you coverage at the drop of a hat. They only want to insure the people who demonstrate no risk of causing them to pay out on anything.” Patrice threw up her hands and continued to vent her frustration emotionally. “It doesn’t matter if you want to live at the beach, or you’re sick, or you have one too many fender benders. The companies will deny you coverage. Or if they do deign to cover you, they will charge you such an outrageous amount it’s ridiculous!”

Caroline knew that was true. Rates for older people increased phenomenally, for health, auto and life, at a time when most saw their incomes diminishing. She knew the business reasons why companies did this. Morally, though, it seemed wrong to take advantage of the older population that way. No wonder Patrice was upset.

Dutch reached over and took Patrice’s hand in his, simultaneously soothing and silencing his fiancée. Once
again, something passed between the two seniors. Perhaps a life experience, Caroline thought, that they did not wish to share. Maybe just the hardship of getting older.

“In any case,” Dutch went on, “I prefer to sell and get out of the home rental business now so it’s not something I have to worry about later.”

Jack nodded. “As a businessman, I can understand that. Just as I’m sure you can understand why I want to see you and my mother sign a prenuptial agreement.”

“We agree,” Patrice said to Jack’s obvious relief.

“We don’t want any mingling of our individual assets,” Dutch said.

Patrice nodded. “So we’ve already hired lawyers, one for each of us.”

“Naturally, if it’ll make you feel better, I’d like you to review all documents prior to signing,” Dutch offered sincerely.

“I will,” Jack said. “Thank you.”

Once again, Caroline felt as if she were witnessing a family drama she’d rather not.

Patrice looked at Caroline. “I meant to tell you. The bakery called to schedule the cake tasting and I set it up for this evening.”

“Wonderful!” Caroline smiled, happy to be back on track once again. “We can’t get these details wrapped up too soon.”

“It’s at six-thirty and we’d like you to go,” Patrice continued.

Caroline smiled. “That’s my job.”

“And Jack, too,” Patrice added, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Not to Jack, however. “Whoa!”

Patrice exercised her maternal imperative. “Darling, you have to. Dutch and I can’t handle all that rich food at
once. Without a proper tasting of all the choices, how else will we know that we’ve selected the right confections for our special day?”

Caroline pushed aside the sensual image of tasting cake with Jack. This job was beginning to feel far too familiar for comfort. It was up to her to make sure that the boundaries were still in place. “If it would be more comfortable for you, we can go to the bakery at different times and compare notes later,” she told Jack.

“Sounds like a lot of extra work for all concerned to me,” Patrice commented.

To Jack, too. He exhaled, the reluctant warrior doing what he had to do, once again. “Of course I’ll go with Caroline,” he said.

He just did not look happy about it.

Chapter Five

“You can stop scowling now,” Caroline said as she and Jack got out of their cars and met on the sidewalk in front of the row of stores on Sundance Square.

The frown lines on either side of Jack’s lips deepened. He looked like most grooms overwhelmed by wedding details. Only problem was, he wasn’t the groom. Just the person getting stuck with all the decisions, by default.

Jack shoved his hands in his pockets and strolled down the street of the historic shopping district in downtown Fort Worth. “She’s just doing this to get my goat,” he muttered.

Caroline had the impression there might be a little payback, too. She fell into step beside him and they headed toward the bakery. “Well, it seems to be working,” she drawled, slanting her head at Jack. Jack was taking part in the planning of his mother’s wedding, whether he wanted to or not. And that had to make Patrice happy.

Jack’s lips tightened in frustration. “She’s just annoyed because I brought up the need for a prenuptial agreement.”

“You ought to feel happy about that since they’ve already agreed to get one and let you see it.”

Jack looked even more disgruntled. “Not necessarily.”

Caroline furrowed her brow in irritation. Would Jack never give it a rest? “What do you mean?” she asked.

Jack stopped and leaned against the plate glass window in front of a golf equipment store with Spring Sale banners plastered across the front. He folded his arms across the hard muscles of his chest. “I had a prenup with Vanessa, too. It was her idea.” He paused and looked deep into Caroline’s eyes. “It didn’t guarantee us a happy marriage.”

“Nothing can do that,” Caroline returned gently. When people got married, they had to hold on to their dreams and jump in with both feet and hope everything turned out all right. Making a lifetime commitment to someone carried with it an enormous risk. A lot of couples took the danger in stride. Others got nervous about failing and called the whole thing off at the last minute. Caroline did not think Dutch and Patrice were part of the latter group. Which meant nothing Jack could do or say would change their minds. Obviously, his inability to protect his mother from potential harm was very frustrating for him. Caroline couldn’t fault Jack for that. She didn’t want to see anyone she cared about hurt, either.

“So you think Dutch is out to swindle your mother out of her fortune?”

“He’s selling all his beachfront property. Property,” Jack emphasized, “that he’s held on to for thirty-some years, regardless of how many hurricanes and tropical storms rolled through the area.”

Caroline admitted that might be worrisome had Dutch not been in the process of retiring from his life’s work. “Dutch intimated it’s become too much to manage at this point in his life.”

Jack remained suspicious. “You can hire people to do that for you. Dutch knows that.” Jack paused and gave Caroline a steady assessing look that had her pulse jumping.
“No, there’s more to it than what Dutch and my mom are saying. I’m not sure how much she knows of what is going on, but one way or another, I am going to find out why Dutch is so intent on rushing my mother into marriage.” Jack resumed walking.

Caroline raced to catch up and fell in beside him. “They’ve told you. They’re not getting any younger and they want to enjoy whatever time they have left—however many years that turns out to be—together.”

“There’s more to the story than that.” Undeterred, Jack stopped in front of the bakery and held the door for her.

Acutely aware of him, Caroline swept inside.

Jericho, the master baker, was waiting for them. He was dressed in his usual white chef’s coat, jeans and boots. A red bandana tied around his head covered all but the ends of his dreadlocks.

“Hey, sweetie,” Jericho called out to Caroline in his lilting Jamaican-accented voice. “Good to see you.”

Caroline went forward and gave the six-foot man a big hug. The two of them had started their businesses about the same time. Both operations were taking off. Smiling, Caroline introduced Jack to Jericho.

“So—” Jericho gestured for the two of them to take a seat at the retro silver-edged counter “—I hear the wedding has a Cinco de Mayo theme.”

Jack looked pained by yet another of his mother’s decisions. “I know it’s unusual.”

Jericho had the opposite view. “Sounds fun,” he said. “As well as challenging.”

Caroline told the baker the preliminary guest list was now topping out at three hundred, the majority of whom were expected to attend. “What would you suggest we do?”

Jericho brought out a portfolio of his designs and a tray
of cake bites to sample. “Depends on how fun you want to go.”

“Knowing my mother? As fun as possible,” Jack said.

“That’s the spirit!” Jericho said, choosing to mistake Jack’s grudging participation for enthusiasm. He offered both of them two square-shaped bites of cake. “So…I was thinking…how about a chapel-shaped
dulce de leche
wedding cake and a sombrero- and serape-shaped devil’s food cake for the groom?”

“I’m not sure about the flavors, but I think they’ll love the designs,” Caroline said.

Jack studied the rough sketches Jericho had produced. “They’d be great for a party, but I’m not certain either is appropriate for a wedding.”

Jack was a linear guy. Caroline supposed she should have expected him to take that view. Still, this wasn’t his wedding, and Dutch and Patrice wanted everything to be fun.

Caroline opened her mouth to argue the subject with Jack. His cell phone chimed. He looked at the caller ID screen and frowned. “Excuse me. I have to take this.” He walked a little distance away. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”

He listened. “Okay, first thing.
Get Maddie away from the scene
. I know, Mom, but she doesn’t need to see this. And then do what you can to stop the bleeding. I’ll be right there.”

He ended the connection. “Got to go. Bounder’s hurt.”

Unable to bear the thought of the adorable dog in pain, Caroline dashed after Jack. “What happened?”

“Mom and Dutch aren’t sure. They put Bounder out back while Maddie was having her bath. When they went to let her in, she was lying on the patio, and there were bloody paw prints all around her. Obviously, Bounder’s
hurt at least one foot, but they can’t tell which one, and she’s so upset, she won’t let anyone touch her. Dutch and Mom have been trying to get a closer look but they can’t catch Bounder—she keeps running away from them. And Maddie’s hysterical. I could hear her sobbing in the background.”

Her heart going out to all of them, Caroline struggled to keep pace as Jack rushed toward his car. “Sounds like you need help.”

Jack shot her a grateful look. “You offering?”

Caroline nodded.

“Then let’s go. We’ll take my car and come back and get yours later.”

Jack climbed behind the wheel of his SUV. He got them “home” in record time. Bypassing the front door, he headed through the gate to the backyard. Adrenaline pumping, Caroline was right behind him.

Bounder was curled up behind Maddie’s swing set. When she saw Jack, the golden retriever whimpered, stood. But when he started to approach, she took off again.

Dutch was on the patio, kneeling, a box of dog treats in his hand. “I’ve been trying to tempt her,” Dutch said, concerned. “She’s not interested.”

“She’s scared.” Caroline kicked off her heels and walked barefoot through the grass, talking softly all the while. “Oh, my poor Bounder. What happened to you, girl? How’d you get hurt?”

Bounder whimpered and went left.

Jack came up behind her.

Dutch started to approach on Bounder’s other side.

Caroline got as close as she dared, then dropped to her knees. She held her arms open wide. “Come on, sweetie. Come see me. Let me help you.”

Bounder hesitated.

Jack caught the golden retriever in his arms.

The family pet whimpered and tried to break free. Caroline closed in, bent down to look. “It’s the right front paw. Easy, girl. Easy.” Gently, Caroline inspected the still-oozing wound. “It looks like she ripped off part of one toe-pad on something. I don’t know if they can stitch this but she is going to have to see the emergency vet.”

Dutch handed them a towel.

Bounder let Caroline wrap her paw. Jack lifted the seventy-five-pound dog in his arms, and together he and Caroline moved her to his SUV.

“You know where you’re going?” Caroline asked.

Jack nodded. “The emergency vet clinic is two miles from here.”

Caroline sat in the back, cradling the now steadily whimpering dog in her arms. She maintained pressure on the wound with her free hand, trying not to think about how much the paw must hurt, and buried her face in the dog’s fur, talking softly to her all the while.

By the time they reached the clinic, Bounder had stopped crying. Jack and Caroline moved the still-trembling animal inside. The emergency technicians promptly took over, and moved the retriever to an exam room in the back.

Finally, it seemed, there was nothing to do but wait.

Jack filled out the paperwork, while Caroline paced.

Finished, he came over.

He looked as overwhelmed with emotion as she felt.

Caroline was already near tears. “Bounder’s going to be okay, you know,” she said thickly.

He nodded, his eyes moist. “I know. It’s just…” He paused, for a second unable to go on. Swallowed. “Maddie loves Bounder so much. That pup is the sibling Maddie never had, and if anything were ever to happen to her…” He shook his head.

Caroline touched his arm. “Maddie would be devastated.”

Jack nodded.

“So you do have a heart after all,” Caroline teased, afraid if she didn’t do something to break the spell, she’d be the one to take him into her arms this time.

And she had no business even thinking of comforting him that way.

One corner of Jack’s mouth crooked up. “That’s the rumor.”

Their eyes locked. Understanding flowed. Along with the realization that the two of them made a pretty good team.

Now, Caroline thought, if they could just transfer that ability to Patrice and Dutch’s wedding, they’d be all set.

 

I
T WAS NEARLY NINE-THIRTY
, but Maddie was waiting up for them when Jack and Caroline returned home, Bounder in tow.

Caroline held the leash, while Jack lifted Bounder to the ground. Together, they walked a limping Bounder over to the grass to take care of business, and then through the front door.

Inside, they were met by all three family members, and the anxious, empathetic look on all their faces let Caroline know this family had more than enough love to give.

“Is Bounder going to be all right?” Maddie asked Jack and Caroline, her lower lip trembling.

Jack bent down to unsnap the leash, then reached over and patted his daughter’s shoulder. “Yes, she is.” Jack had already relayed that information via a phone call from the vet clinic, but it was clear Maddie was still up because she had needed to see Bounder for herself.

The four adults watched as Maddie knelt down to greet
her beloved pet. The two went eye to eye and nose to nose, the love that passed between daughter and retriever evident. “Daddy!” Maddie worried aloud and her lower lip shot out. “Bounder looks so sad!”

Jack hunkered down beside them. “That’s because Bounder doesn’t like her Elizabethan collar,” Jack explained.

It did look a little weird, if you had never seen one before, Caroline thought. The black cushion-collar fanned out from the pet’s head, like an inverted cone or a satellite dish. It was designed to keep a dog from licking or chewing a wound.

“But she has to wear it, so she won’t try and take off the bandage on her paw,” Caroline explained.

Maddie transferred her attention to the thick wrapping obscuring Bounder’s paw. “Her bandage is purple!” Maddie admired.

Everyone grinned.

Jack went on to explain. “The vet gave Bounder medicine and said she has to rest in order to feel better. So we’re going to put her to bed now, okay? And I want you to go to bed, too.”

“Can she sleep on her cushion in my room?”

Jack nodded.

Maddie kissed and hugged her dad good-night, then turned to Caroline shyly. “Thank you for helping save my dog,” she said. She held out her arms.

Surprised and touched by the show of emotion, Caroline knelt so they could hug. She held Maddie close, deep maternal feelings welling up inside her. “You’re welcome, honey.”

Maddie held on a little while longer, then reluctantly let Caroline go. She looked at Caroline’s elegant business
suit. Shook her head. “Your clothes are all icky. Yours, too, Daddy.”

Jack wasn’t sure why he hadn’t noticed until then. He supposed it was because he had been so focused on Caroline’s emotions—which had mirrored his—and the continued welfare of the beloved family pet, but now that he took a good look, he saw Maddie had a point. Both he and Caroline had a mixture of dog saliva, mud and dried blood staining their clothes.

Out of the mouths of babes…

“Maddie’s right. You can’t go anywhere looking like that,” Patrice declared. “Caroline, I’ll get you something to change into. Jack, get out of those clothes and bring them down to the laundry room for soaking. If we act quickly, there’s a chance we can save them with some enzyme spray.”

 

J
UST AS IT HAD BEEN
with her own mother, it seemed there was no arguing with Patrice once Jack’s mom had her mind made up.

So, in the hopes that her elegant business suit could be saved, Caroline accepted Jack’s white oxford cloth shirt, the oversize gray workout shorts and white cotton crew socks Patrice returned with. There wasn’t a lot of choice. Caroline would never fit in anything the very petite Patrice had in her closet. It would have been embarrassing to try.

Better to tighten the drawstring waist on the men’s shorts and head for the laundry room, where Patrice was already spritzing the stains out of Jack’s clothes with an enzyme pretreater.

Patrice frowned at the silk-and-cotton fabric in Caroline’s hands. “I’ll give it my best effort.”

“Don’t worry about it, if it doesn’t come out,” Caroline said.

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