I thought it might be interesting for readers to see some of the other alternates.
Here's the original version of the opening. (You can find the real opening of Hayden's story on my Excerpt page. http://www.susangable.com/p/excerpts.html)
Superheroes, especially one named Captain Chemo, weren't supposed to murder anyone.
They were supposed to save lives.
Hayden Hawkins furtively glanced in all directions before he climbed from his new Aqua Blue Metallic Camaro. Still clad in form-hugging yellow spandex with a mask and red cape, he vowed: the next time he saw his brother Greg, creator of Captain Chemo, Greg was a dead man.
With a sigh, he crammed his keys into the duffle bag containing his normal-guy clothes. No wonder Bat Man needed a utility belt -- the damn costumes didn't come with pockets.
Captain Chemo was getting an extreme make-over, or he was going on strike. If Hayden had any kind of influence, in the future Captain Chemo would wear cammo cargo pants, a green beater T-shirt, a long duster -- except when it was over 80 degrees out -- and a mask.
End of story.
After a sad pat of apology to his ride for leaving it on the street three blocks from home, and a promise that it wouldn't be for long, Hayden trotted in the direction of the short cut to his new apartment.
His new secret apartment. Not as cool as a secret lair, or the Bat Cave, but still, his family -- save one -- didn't know where it was, and he wanted to keep it that way.
'Cause once they found out, he was in for a load of grief from them.
He dashed down a driveway, vaulted a short row of hedges, and quick-stepped through the lawn of a neighboring house.
A kid eating a Popsicle on the backyard swing-set paused mid-slurp to stare at him.
Hayden waved, then raised a finger to his lips but kept moving.
As Hayden vanished from the boy's sight, he heard slapping footsteps. "Mom!" the boy shouted. "Mom, guess who I just saw?"
A screen door banged, and Hayden hustled down the sidewalk for several houses before darting into another driveway.
At the back of the white ranch house, he skidded to a halt.
A pair of shapely, bikini clad women rested on lounge chairs. The unseasonably-warm-for-Erie-Memorial-Day-weekend sun glinted off the sheen of oil on their skin.
They both rose on their elbows to gape at him.
"Afternoon, ladies." Hayden propped his fists on his hips, the duffle bag banging against his leg. "Did someone call for a hero?"
The brunette with the tiny, hot-pink suit that revealed drool-worthy cleavage swung her long legs around, sitting up and clapping her hands. "A Strip-O-Gram! What fun. Take it off, Stud."
He laughed. "If I could take it off, sweetheart, I wouldn't be running through the neighborhood dressed like this." The zipper was stuck. Greg, who normally made sure the temperamental thing cooperated, had ditched him at the Children's Cancer Institute's picnic. Shannon, Greg's wife, hadn't been feeling well, and the heat had gotten to her. Hayden couldn't blame him for taking care of his sick wife, but the least Greg could have done was make sure he'd gotten out of the suit before he'd left.
The girl's pretty mouth twisted in a pout, and she dropped her hands to her knees. "Well, boo, that's no fun." She brightened. "Raincheck?"
"Maybe. Gotta run, ladies." He made a sweeping bow, flared his cape, then dashed from the yard. He pulled up short against the brick wall of the church.
The six-foot privacy fence that surrounded the property where he lived loomed just across a final, open expanse of freshly mowed grass. The deck to his apartment over the three-car garage was several feet beyond the fence, and several feet higher.
After scanning the area to be sure no one was watching, he rushed the fence, throwing the duffle bag over and up. It landed with a thud on the deck. He pulled himself to the top of the fence, then swung a leg over. Arms carefully outstretched, he rose up, caught his balance, then launched himself across the distance to grab the deck railing.
Four years in the Marines, plus free-running for fun and fitness left Hayden with mad skills that came in handy at times.
His feet hit the deck, and he headed for the door, only to be pulled up short. The neck of his costume shifted, choking him. With a curse, he turned to unhook the cape from the protruding nail-head it had caught on. "Didn't Greg watch The Incredibles?" Hayden muttered. "No capes, darling." He mimicked the superhero fashion designer from the movie.
A car pulling into the driveway of the house made him hurry through the door off the deck, out of sight of prying eyes.
The deck didn't actually attach to the apartment. It spilled him out onto the landing at the top of the stairs from the garage below. After fishing his keys from his bag, he headed inside, locking the door behind him.
Crossing to the window in the dining area that looked out over the driveway and backyard, Hayden lifted one of the blind's slates just a crack. The first car pulling into the driveway was followed by a second.
He'd made it just in time.
Because the family had started to gather at Ronni's new house, for the surprise Welcome Home party.
He'd been off-balance ever since his sister Judy had told him about Ronni's return to Erie. Their dead brother's baby-momma -- though Nick, at fourteen probably would have a few things to say about being referred to as a baby -- whom they hadn't seen in years, was coming home to stay.
A thrum of tension shot through him, a familiar mixture of excitement and fear he'd come to know while in the Corps. The just-before-a-mission jolt that said watch out.
Something unexpected...dead ahead.
Now all he had to do was stay out of sight until the party ended.
And get the hell out of this crazy costume.
There were degrees of widowhood, Ronni Mangano decided, sort of like the new generation had decided there were degrees of virginity. You could be a technical virgin, and still have had plenty of sex in a wide variety of forms.
If you added up the two partial degrees of widowhood she'd acquired in her still-rather-short-despite-what-her-teenage-son-thought life, you'd get a whole.
The thought strangely comforted. Made her feel less of a fraud.
She reached over to the passenger side of her Toyota Venza and yanked the earbud from Nick's left ear.
"Hey!" he protested. The most he'd said in over a hundred miles.
Ronni gestured at the built-in GPS unit, doubting he remembered the familiar landmarks that indicated they were closing in on Erie. He'd had his eyes shut and head bopping in time with his tunes when they'd crossed the Pennsylvania state line. And when he'd visited, he'd flown into Erie's small airport. "Call your grandparents," she ordered. "Let them know we'll be there in about fifteen minutes."
"Thank God," Nick muttered, retrieving his cell phone from his pocket. "The car reeks of cat hurl and I can't stand it much longer."
Ronni glanced in the rear-view mirror. In the back seat, on top of their suitcases and wedged between multiple boxes and bags, Leo pressed his face against the mesh wire window of the cat carrier, whiskers drooping, orange tabby fur poking out at odd angles. "Almost there, Leo," she told the put-upon feline.
He turned around, exchanging his butt for his face. A moment later, the unmistakable sound of cat-yakking started.
"That was on-purpose, you brat! That's wrong on so many levels." Ronni pressed the gas pedal down just a little harder.
This time she had the technical widow part covered. Legal documents that said it was so. Scott Mangano, her husband of six years, had been KIA in Iraq four months earlier.
Thirteen years ago, she'd had the spirit of widowhood covered, though she'd never actually married Ian Hawkins. But her heart had broken at his death in a way that no marriage certificate could have made more real.
Going back to Erie, to the Hawkins family, wasn't something she'd ever expected to do.
But she'd do whatever her son -- Ian's son -- needed.
Ronni hadn't accounted for side-street traffic on a gorgeous May Saturday afternoon. She'd also forgotten to account for the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend. So it was more like twenty-five minutes later, despite her attempts to hurry, when they cruised down a car-lined boulevard and pulled to a stop in front of a brick cape cod. The real estate sign in the yard had a big red SOLD across the top.
A horde of people surged from the driveway that ran alongside the house. Others spilled from the front door. They shouted and waved, and one of them, Lydia Hawkins, her once-almost-mother-in-law who looked just as intimidating as ever, hair now totally a rich shade of silver, held a sign that said WELCOME HOME. They descended on the car.
Ronni shrank back in her seat. "Holy moly." There were way more of them than she remembered. She'd known that over the years she and Nick had been gone, Ian's eleven siblings had multiplied. She read Lydia's Christmas newsletter every year with its recounting of weddings and births, and listened to Nick's endless stories when he returned from his annual summer visits, but still... That was one enormous family.
She climbed out, leaning against the roof to watch as Nick launched himself from the passenger side into a welcome embrace from Lydia. The pair was engulfed by the chaotic swarm. Ronni ran through the list of names, searched for matching faces... Besides Lydia and Michael there was Alan, Bethany, Cathy, Derek, Elke, Finn, Greg, Hayden...
She didn't see Hayden in the crowd.
Her chest tightened. Of all of them, he was the one she most -- and least -- wanted to see. Ian's Irish twin, partner in crime, fellow-wild-child brother...
"Mom! Mom!" Surrounded by the sea of family, Nick waved at her from the front steps of the new house she'd bought, sight unseen except for pictures and videos sent via email, on the recommendation of another of the Hawkins tribe, Judy. Once upon a time, they'd been friends, and Judy, a realtor, had been quick to come to her rescue when Ronni'd called with her request.
"Come on, Mom! Let's check it out."
She never thought she'd be grateful for a puking cat. "You all go ahead. I'll be there in a few minutes." A few long minutes if she could get away with it. "I have to get poor Leo settled first." Ronni shuffled packages in the car, finally retrieving everything. Cat carrier and a bag of assorted supplies in one hand, empty litter pan tucked under her arm and a new box of kitty litter in the other hand, she staggered down the thankfully-flat cement driveway, hoping no one would notice her.
It was hard to be invisible when you were a lurching pet supply store.
She rounded the corner of the house and paused to check out the backyard, such as it was.
A two-story, three-car garage took up most of the space, but just behind the house, behind the enclosed sunroom with the hot tub that had been the clinching factor for Ronni, there was a freshly-mulched flowerbed dotted with pink and purple blooms, a cement patio with a firepit, and a small expanse of grass. A tall, weathered, brown privacy fence surrounded the backyard.
Poor flowers. They didn't stand a chance with her in residence. They'd be dead in weeks. Maybe days.
"Ronni!" Judy shot from the sunroom. "I'm so glad you're here! Let me help you." She took the litter pan from under Ronni's arm. "What do you think of the house?"
"So far, so good." Ronni gestured at the garage. "I'm going to get my cat settled in there for the night. I don't want him in the house tonight by himself." The moving truck with her furniture wouldn't arrive until Tuesday, so she'd grabbed a coupon book at the last rest stop and planned to find a room at one of the local motels.
"Why don't you put him in the basement? You can just close the door. That way he'll start getting used to the house." Judy tried to usher her towards the porch.
"No, the garage will be better."
Judy looked aghast. "Really? Are you sure?"
"Yes. He's a spiteful, evil thing sometimes and I'm not having him mess up the place because he's mad I'm not sleeping with him."
Judy laughed. "Males of any species get ticked when their female puts them out of the bed, huh?"
"I suppose." Ronni gave Judy a sideways glance, putting on the best air of indifference she could manage. "Speaking of males, I didn't see Hayden in the throng. Did I miss him? Easy enough with the crowd."
Judy shook her head, hand on the doorknob of the garage. "No, I don't think so. I haven't seen him, either. Or his car. I think he's on an Expiration Date."
"An Expiration Date. That's what we call it when he breaks up with the latest girlfriend."
"Ah." So the charming flirt she remembered hadn't changed. "I can get it from here, Judy, thanks." Ronni set the cat carrier just inside the garage door, at the foot of the stairs that stretched to the second-story, then took the plastic pan. "I need a few minutes to myself, okay?"
"Don't be too long. Mom's already a little upset that you haven't said hello to her. I know you guys have had your differences, and that was fine when you lived in Georgia, but now that you're back... The two of you should make peace. For Nick's sake."
"I'm here for Nick's sake, Judy. But I'm not sure your mom is ever going to forgive my long list of transgressions. Especially for taking Ian's son so far away from her."
"She's here. She ordered everyone in the family who could come to be here today."
"To welcome home the prodigal grandson, Jude. Not me."
"I don't believe that. At all. Just give her a chance, huh?"
"I'll try." Ronni shut the garage door, flipped a light switch, then shuffled inside, scooting Leo's carrier forward with her foot. He meowed his displeasure.
The space smelled of dust and faint motor oil, along with the fusty scent of a place not recently used. The house had been empty and on the market for months, allowing Ronni to get a good deal. A battered wooden tool bench was tucked into the corner. She set her stuff on it, then crouched to open the latch on the carrier.
Leo darted from it, sprinting across the expansive floor to the far side of the building. He huddled against the wall, glaring at her.
"Yeah, I get it," she told him, putting the carrier on the tool bench, then retrieving a roll of paper towels from the bag. "You're not happy. Me either. Guess we'll both just have to deal with it. At least we're in here, where it's quiet."
After cleaning the evidence of Leo's displeasure, a task she'd elevated to an art form -- or at least to highly honed skill -- she dumped Kitty Nibbles from a small zip-top baggie into Leo's bowl and set it on the floor near the workbench. She poured the end of a bottle of water into his other bowl, left that for him as well. She debated crossing the room to pet him before she left, but decided in his current mood it probably wasn't a good idea. Let sulking cats lie, and all that.
With a resigned sigh, she headed for the door. Might as well face the music -- discordant though it might be -- and get it over with. Running water gushing down a nearby pipe stopped her. She looked at the garage ceiling.
The one-bedroom apartment overhead had been the other clinching factor on the place for Ronni. Scott's death "benefit" -- charming word for it -- had allowed her to pay for the house in cash. Nick's college education was now assured. And she didn't have to sweat getting a job immediately. But the idea of rental income to help pay the other bills had appealed. Greatly. Because her stomach turned every time she thought about Scott's death "benefitting" her in any way.
It was blood money -- Scott's blood -- she didn't deserve. After all, she'd played a part in his death.
Her knees trembled. She took a long, deep breath to combat the wave of nausea. Cat yak was enough to deal with, she didn't need to toss her Oreos, too.
The rush of water got heavier. What the hell was going on up there? Grateful for the distraction, she glanced out the window. Numerous members of her son's family milled about the yard, where one of the Hawkins boys, she wasn't sure which one, had set up a grill. Burgers and hot dogs sizzled. So many people.
Ronni climbed the stairs.
The landing at the top had a glass-paneled door to the left that went out onto a deck, and a solid door to the right. But the knob didn't turn. Damn it. Now she'd have to go into the house to retrieve the keys. Unless... she stretched, running her fingers along the doorframe. The only thing she found was sliver, which jammed into her skin. After pulling it out, she sucked on her finger, looking around.
No welcome mat to serve as a hiding place. She turned. The door to the deck opened without a problem. Just outside, a jumbo blue pot held a wilted, brown plant.
At least that one had expired on someone else's watch.
Water dripped from the edge as she tilted the pot. "Bingo." She scooped up the key.
The unmistakable odor of fresh paint -- a light beach-sand shade -- greeted her as she entered the apartment. Just inside, the kitchen occupied the left side of the large room, divided from a dining area with a high breakfast bar. A battered pizza box, and a six-pack holder filled with five capless, empty brown bottles graced the counter.
The green-and-white linoleum gave way to beige carpet where the kitchen and dining area became the living room.
Ronni paused at the edge of the rug. A large flat-screen television hung square in the middle of the far wall. A canvas lawn chair sat just in front of her, a folding TV table with a remote control and the missing beer bottle alongside it.
The running water, emanating somewhere beyond the archway that led from the living room, stopped.
She hesitantly picked her way in that direction. The archway opened into a short hallway. Directly in front of her, a narrow laundry room held a washer and drier, a laundry sink, and opposite those, a wall of storage cabinets. A window looked out to the neighbor's yard behind the garage.
The door to the room behind the kitchen opened. Steam billowed out...along with a towel-clad man who nearly barreled into her.
They both cursed -- her word choice milder than his -- and jumped back at the same time.
He gripped the baby-blue cloth with one hand, ran the other over his short-cropped dirty blond hair, spiking the longer locks in the front.
"Hayden," Ronni gasped. "What the hell...?"
The quick grin he flashed dimpled his cheeks and lit up his blue eyes.
Her belly clenched.
"Hello, gorgeous. Long time no see."
"No kidding. What I'm wondering is why I'm seeing...so much of you --" She gestured at his damp torso. A water droplet broke free from his collarbone, trickled down an eight pack so fine women undoubtedly wept at his feet. The man had kept his Marine Corp muscles despite being out for years. She reluctantly jerked her gaze back to his face as the droplet met the terrycloth. Ronni swallowed, desperately in need of a drink. Licking the water off that hard body wasn't an option. "--in my apartment."
"'Cause I just took a shower. In my apartment."
"What?" Ronni frowned. "What do you mean, your apartment?"
"I'm your new tenant."
"Oh, I don't think so." Hayden was the last person on the planet she needed living in her backyard, within shouting distance of her son.
Or judging from her reaction, within shouting distance of her hormones, either. Hayden Hawkins was bad news with a capital BAD.
"Why not? You need a tenant, I need a place to live." His welcoming grin turned to a scowl. "Listen, I've been kicked out of Greg's place, then Finn's place just because they had to go and get married. I had to move back home for awhile. I love my parents, but do you know how women perceive thirty-two-year-old men who live with their mom and dad?" He made an L with his fingers, brought it to his forehead.
"I'm sure once you take your shirt off, they're willing to forget that little detail."
His eyes widened, and a faint flush appeared in his cheeks. He glanced down at his feet for a millisecond before meeting her eyes. The smile grew slowly this time. "Think so?" He flexed, making his pecs jump.
She shook her head at his flirtatious behavior -- no, he hadn't changed one bit. Make that a capital and underlined BAD news -- resisting the temptation to slap his chest. "Judy thought you were on an Expiration Date." Ronni wanted to eat the words the moment they left her mouth.
"Shows how expired Judy's information is. That was last week. So...I can stay, right? I mean, I painted the place, and I already moved in."
"Yeah, I saw your furniture in the living room."
"Hey, now. Don't go mocking a guy's decor." Hayden fisted his hands at his side, struggled to keep it light. Ronni had knocked the breath out of him with her sudden appearance. No, not her sudden appearance. Just her appearance.
He'd thought he was prepared. The warning tingle of alarm grew stronger. Danger ahead! The reality of seeing her again after so many years had swamped him with a tsunami of memories. Some good. Some painful.
She'd put on a few pounds since he'd last seen her, but they seemed to have landed in all the right places. She wore snug-fitting jeans and a clingy, scoop-necked t-shirt that offered a peek of cleavage.
Her face, however, seemed as youthful as ever, save the tiredness in her big, puppy-dog, brown eyes.
Still as adorable as ever.
Unable to resist any longer, he reached out, brushed strands of silky, dark brown hair from where it drooped into one eyebrow. "You look great, by the way. You certainly don't look old enough to be the mom of a teenager."
She shied back, so he dropped his hand.
"Well, since I was twelve when I had him..." She offered him a rueful half-smile that twisted his gut. Not twelve, but still, she'd been just a kid herself when she'd had Nick.
They'd all been just kids.
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry about Scott. From what Nick told me, he must have been a good man."
She looked away, staring out the laundry room window. "He was a good stepfather. The jury's out on whether or not he was a good man."
Interesting. He scanned her left hand. Even more interesting. The widow of four months had already removed her wedding band. And judging from the lack of a demarcation line, it had been MIA for some time. Hayden arched an eyebrow at her, waited for her to continue. Silence stretched to the point that he shifted his weight on the balls of his feet.
"Maybe you should put some clothes on before we resume our debate about your living arrangements, huh?"
"Afraid I have an unfair advantage?"
She snorted, flickering her attention back to him. She gave him a once-over that had his body well on the way to a salute beneath his towel. He reminded his libido that Ronni was one of the very few off-limits women on the planet.
But then, his libido never had listened as far as she was concerned. Not even when she was his brother's girl.
"Hardly, Pretty Boy."
"So? What's the problem?"
The air pressure in the apartment changed, and then the front door slammed closed as someone entered the garage below.
"Ronni? Ronni? Are you in here?"
His mother's muffled voice from the bottom of the stairs made the color drain from Ronni's face. "Oh crap." Her head twisted, her gaze scanning the place, a trapped rat seeking escape. "Put on some clothes, dammit! Your mother can't catch us together with you naked!" She started to breathe heavier. Beneath the clinging t-shirt that boasted My Cat Can Take Your Honor Student, her shoulders drooped and Ronni seemed to shrink in on herself.
A flash of fear -- the same fear he remembered seeing the night Ian and Ronni had told his parents about their unexpected pregnancy -- sparked in her eyes.
He grabbed her, pulling her close and clapping his hand over her mouth. "Shhh," he whispered in her ear. "Did you lock the door when you came in?"
She shook her head.
"Be right back. Don't move, don't make a sound."
He sprang across the room on the balls of his feet, turning the lock on the door ever so slowly, preventing it from latching with an audible click. He was halfway back to her when a rap on the wood made him wince.
"Ronni? The food is almost ready. Judy said you were in the garage. Are you up here?"
He picked his way, step by cautious step like tiptoeing through a minefield, to Ronni's side.
"We're both hiding from your mom?" she murmured.
He gave her a wide grin and a thumbs-up.
"Do you think maybe we're too old for this?" she whispered harshly.
"Skulking around, hiding from your mother. Me being afraid of your mother."
"Sweetheart, you shouldn't be afraid of her." Downstairs, the door opened and banged shut again. He raised his voice just a little. Just in case that hadn't been his mother going out, but someone else coming in. "You're not sixteen and knocked-up anymore. You brought her grandson, Ian's son, home to her. That puts you in the power position. She owes you now."
"She does?" Doubt warred with hope.
He once more fisted his hands to keep from reaching out and tapping her on the end of her pixie nose. "She does."
The corners of her lips twitched. One side slowly curved up, then blossomed into a full-blown smile.
Hayden's gut clenched like he'd been sucker-punched.
And he had.
Sucker-punched again by his brother's girl.
If he had an ounce of sense, he'd run after his mother in his towel, burst out into the midst of the family celebration, and spill the secret of his living arrangements.
'Cause once they knew, every last one of his brothers, from Alan to Kyle, would stand in line to beat some obviously-lacking sense into him.
But then, Hayden had always been a glutton for punishment.
She owes me, she owes me, Ronni chanted in her head. I'm not sixteen and knocked up. I have nothing to be ashamed of, or apologize for. She closed the garage door before Leo could attempt an escape.
Hayden had sweet-talked her into not giving him up, but agreed to discuss his hijacking of her apartment once the coast was clear. Why did she have such a soft-spot for sweet-talking charmers? It was a near fatal flaw, one she seriously had to work on.
She greeted various family members clustered around the grill and the folding picnic tables they'd set up. Several small children tossed a football around the lawn. Judy came off the porch with a foil-covered casserole dish in her hands.
Ronni grabbed her, hauled off to the corner of the building. There was very little privacy to be had.
"My mom is looking for you," Judy said.
"I know. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. While there's a part of me that thinks doing this reunion in the middle of a crowd would be a great idea, the other part says not. Is there someplace you can send your mom to meet me where there won't be a ton of ears listening in? And not in the garage. In fact, if you've got the keys, I'd like the bottom door locked so no one accidentally lets my cat out."
Something like relief crossed Judy's face. She dug in the pocket of her jeans. "That is a great idea. Let's do that." Pulling the keys out, she rushed toward the garage.
"You know, don't you?" Ronni hissed.
"Know what?" Judy locked the door and handed the key ring to Ronni. "The key to the house is gold. This is the one for the garage. This is the one for the apartment upstairs."
"Did you give him a key?"
"A key to what?"
"The apartment," Ronni ground out. "Stop playing me, Judy. You never were a good liar."
Judy looked around. "It started out innocently."
"It always does."
"He said he wanted to paint the place for you. Make sure it was ready when you got here. Next thing I knew, he'd moved in."
"Well, don't sweat it. He won't be staying. But...why is it so hush-hush? How come he doesn't want anyone else to know?"
Judy shifted her weight. "It's not like Hayden to keep a secret. So I figured he must have his reasons."
Reasons his sister obviously didn't want to share. "Okay. No matter. I'm kicking him out ASAP. Now, about your mom..."
Twenty minutes later, Ronni had done a walk-through of the house, touched base with numerous more Hawkinses, and was waiting on the second floor of the house. Upstairs consisted of the third bedroom, a half-bath, and a large attic storage area that could conceivably be converted into a fourth bedroom. The previous owners had left behind several tall shelving units in the attic.
Ronni spotted mouse droppings below the window. Leo would take care of evicting that particular squatter and his family.
"Ronni?" Lydia Hawkins appeared in the doorway. "There you are. I've been looking all over for you." She approached her with open arms. "It's good to see you. I'm so glad you decided to move back to Erie."
Ronni forced herself to stand still and let Lydia envelope her in a warm embrace. Ronni came from a very small, uptight, non-demonstrative family. And fate -- or at least a broken condom -- had thrust her permanently into the middle of the Hawkins tribe, who were rowdy, huggy -- and protective of their own. Ian's mother had taken a long time to warm to her. The fact that Ronni had refused to marry Ian while carrying his baby hadn't helped. She and Lydia had only just started to get on track to a decent relationship after Nick's birth when Ian's diagnosis with cancer tipped the family's world upside-down.
After the diagnosis, she'd begged Ian to marry her, and he'd been the one who'd refused, not wanting to marry her just to turn her into a widow. Each time she asked, he'd promise the same thing. When he got better...
A huge lump filled her throat.
Degrees of widowhood...
With a sniffle, she leaned into the hug. Lydia patted her on the shoulder. "I'm so sorry about your husband," she murmured.
Ronni broke free, clearing her throat. "Actually, I've been thinking about Ian more than Scott. I suppose that's to be expected, what with coming back here, seeing all of you."
A brief flash of surprised pleasure shone in Lydia's bright blue eyes, then she covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh my," she said behind her fingers. "Oh dear." After a moment, she lowered her hand. "I'm so, so sorry. I didn't think about how this might drudge up so much pain for you, Ronni."
"I'd imagine you feel the same way every time you see Nick."
Lydia shook her head. "I did at first. When the loss of Ian was so fresh, so big I didn't know how I'd ever survive. But now...I look at Nick, and I see Ian at his age. I see...a wonderful gift."
The attic seemed too close, too small all of a sudden. All the things she'd wanted to say to Lydia that required privacy: the ground rules about calling before coming over, the assertion of herself, the establishing of her power position...it all felt a little mean given Lydia's genuine sympathy.
Ronni gestured toward the door. "I think the hamburgers were almost ready. I haven't eaten since early this morning. Shall we?"
"Absolutely." In the tiny upper hallway, Lydia paused, turned to her. "Now that you're going to be living here again, will you consider changing Nick's last name to Hawkins? Make him feel like he belongs? He mentioned it to me last summer, that's the only reason I bring it up."
Ronni forced a smile she hoped didn't look too much like bared teeth.
So much for their lovely moment.
Hayden paced the length of the apartment, resisting the temptation to peer between the blind slats yet again. Outside, a family party raged. Without him.
He'd managed to get himself trapped in the apartment. If he didn't show up, his mother would be annoyed. Or, as a favorite Hawkins' saying went, his ass would be grass and his mother would be the lawn mower.
After two more circuits, he headed for his bedroom. No point in continuing to risk getting caught looking out. The window in the laundry room caught his attention. He opened it wide. The privacy fence was just inches from the back of the garage.
Not optimal, but doable. Probably. After analyzing for a moment, he sat on the ledge, feet out the window, then flipped onto his belly, ended up hanging from the sill by his fingers. He let go, dropping the two stories to thick grass, letting his knees bend deeply to absorb the shock, and throwing himself over in a controlled roll.
Once back on his feet, he used the wall on one side and the wooden fence on the other to scale the fence. He crouched, balanced on the top for a split-second. With a grin, he pushed off, tucking into a front flip, doing a mid-air summersault to land, feet planted, on the other side.
He didn't know too many guys his age who could pull that off. Plain old running, while great for fitness, had bored him to death, which was why he'd taken up free-running.
He smoothed out his black t-shirt, then sauntered through the church's lawn to the sidewalk. He avoided backyards, taking the longer, non-trespassing route to his car this time. After a side trip to one of the nearby drive-through Beer & Pop stores, he pulled the Camaro to the curb four or five houses down from Ronni's -- there were too many other cars for him to get any closer.
When he strolled into the backyard, Ronni was bent over a cooler, fishing out a pop.
And though he was more of a boob man, he had to admit, she displayed a mighty fine backside in the snug jeans. A small expanse of bare skin showed where the denim ended and her shirt had ridden up.
A sharp slap from a spatula left his bicep stinging, and a smudge of grease behind on his skin. He grabbed his arm. "Ow." He glared at his brother, Greg, who was manning the grill in Finn's absence.
"Glad you could join us, Hayden," Greg said, scowling at him.
"Hayden?" Ronni shot upright, then turned around, dripping soda can in hand. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the garage.
"Long time no see, Ronni."
He gathered her into a bear hug, crushing her to his chest and lifting her off the ground -- giving her time to compose herself. She'd come too close to giving him away.
Frigid water from the can dripped down his back, and he shuddered -- creating delightful, though purely unintentional on his part, friction as his body rubbed against hers.
"Hayden," her voice caught, then she continued, "Put me down."
"As you wish." He gave her his best innocent, who-me-man-handle-you? look. "Where's my nephew?"
"He and some of the other boys went down the street to the park to shoot some hoops."
"Guess I'll have to wait a bit longer to say hello to him, then."
"I guess you will."
From across the yard, his mother's eyes locked on him. A red beam of light from a gun-sight couldn't have been more obvious. He waved to her. "I'm going to go say hi to my mom now."
"You do that," Ronni said. "I'm taking my pop inside and start planning the layout of my furniture."
She put just a slight emphasis on the word furniture that had him fighting a grin.
Teasing Ronni had always been one of his favorite pastimes. Because she gave as good as she got.
"Hold up a minute there, pal. A word, please." Greg dragged him over to the grill.
"Which word you want?" Hayden flinched when his brother brandished the spatula again, but this time he pressed it into Hayden's hand.
"Act like you're helping. Mom's watching."
"What's going on?"
"That's what I want to know." Greg pointed to a spot near the garage doors. "You see that boy playing trucks with Ryan?" Greg's stepson and another boy about the same age collided a pair of oversized yellow dump trucks, then burst into laughter. The other kid had a white t-shirt with red drips down the front.
The image of the same boy, sitting on a swing set, eating an ice pop, came to Hayden. Shithelldamn. "Yeah. What about him?"
"He showed up here about an hour ago." Greg indicated one of the burgers. "Flip that. Said he wanted to talk to the 'Super Dude' upstairs. That it was important."
Adrenalin surged, kicking his pulse higher, tightening his muscles in the flight/fight response. Surely he wasn't going to get caught this quickly? He snorted. "What 'Super Dude?'"
"The kid claims he saw a guy in a yellow suit with a red cape. Sound at all familiar to you?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact it does." The best defense was a good offense. "Been meaning to talk to you about that. I got stuck in something similar this afternoon when my brother, my handler, abandoned me at the picnic and the zipper got jammed."
"It got jammed? Again?"
"Did you wreck it?"
"I didn't wreck it, but it could use some repair work, yeah."
"Crap." Greg yanked the spatula from Hayden's hand, used it to roll several hotdogs on the top shelf. "I'll call Mrs. Jenkins and get the suit over to her. We've got an appearance at St. Joseph's Hospital next week." He shot a slanted look at Hayden. "Where should I pick it up?"
"I'll drop it off. No need to go out of your way. In fact, I'll drop it right off at Mrs. Jenkin's."
"Did I mention the kid said this Super Dude could fly? He saw him fly from the fence to the deck, right over there." Greg gestured with the cooking tool.
Hayden shrugged. "There you go. The kid's obviously gotten into his parents' stash. You know darn well I can't fly." He grinned at his brother. "I'd better go see Mom now."
Once more his brother grabbed him. Hayden stared at his hand for a moment, then square into his brother's eyes. Greg hastily removed his grip. "Hayden, you're not living in that apartment up there, are you?"
"Why would you think that?" Just because I moved out, didn't tell anyone where I was going, just because some bigmouthed little kid saw a superhero fly up to the deck...
"Just a hunch. A bad hunch."
"Yeah, it's a bad one, all right. No. I am not living in that apartment. You know me, Greg. Could I keep a secret like that? Moi?"
Greg studied him. "You've got a point there, JabberJaw."
"So when are you having us over to your new place?"
"After I order some real furniture. Catch you later, Greg." Hayden gave his brother a cuff on the shoulder that left him wincing and rubbing it.
After catching up on the week's news with a variety of his siblings, most of whom he hadn't seen since last Sunday's dinner at their parents, he finally made it to his mother. She sat in a chair in the shade, bouncing Finn's baby son on her knee.
"Mom." He leaned down to kiss her on the check. "Slobberpuss," he said to the baby, who was gnawing on his fist. Hayden growled in the little boy's ear, then play-bit him on the chest.
The baby giggled.
"Don't teach him to bite, Hayden," his mother scolded. "I was starting to wonder where you were."
"I had things to do, Mom."
"Care to elaborate?"
"No thank you."
A minor stampede, complete with a herd of kids plus Hayden's youngest brother, Kyle, saved Hayden from further interrogation. The boisterous group rounded the corner of the driveway, passing the basketball back and forth.
"Uncle Hayden!" Nick yelled. "That's your ride out there? The blue Camaro? That's sweet!"
All gangly arms and legs, the boy loped in Hayden's direction. He had to have grown at least two inches since last summer's visit. Besides the normal family resemblance, the eyes, the angular jawline that ran so strong in the Hawkins family, Nick looked so much like Ian at that age...
Hayden's chest tightened. A pang of regret pierced him. Then the boy slammed into his ribs. "Will you take me for a ride in it?" he asked, pounding on Hayden's back in masculine greeting.
Ronni stepped off the porch.
"At some point. If it's okay with your mom."
The eager excitement fled Nick's face. "She'll say no. It's all she ever says. If she weren't here, we could just go."
"Now, Nicholas," Lydia chimed in, "Saying no is a big part of a mother's job. Boys don't often like to hear it."
"Leave it to me, kiddo. I'll get your mom to say yes." Hayden bumped knuckles with his nephew as Ronni crossed the yard.
Hayden planned to get her to say yes to a few things.
By eight o'clock that night, Ronni stood in the kitchen of her new house, blessedly alone. The last of the Hawkinses -- save one obstinate, pighead she'd deal with later -- had all cleared out several hours earlier. As she stared into the white fridge, rainy country ballads -- her "wallowing" playlist because sometimes you just needed company in your aches -- flowed from the laptop she'd set on the counter.
Finn, unable to leave his restaurant on a Saturday, had sent his new wife, Amelia, with a house-warming care package. Now her refrigerator held the basics of life, including a gallon of organic skim milk, organic, free-range eggs, and most importantly, a plate of his Triple Chocolate brownies.
Collin Raye, crooning about his lover being in somebody else's arms, made brownies a necessity.
Amelia had taken Nick home with her. Nick insisted playing Wii with his cousin, Jordan, or even working in his uncle's kitchen, beat hanging with his mother in "some crummy motel room."
Without her son to worry about, Ronni had no intention of going to a crummy motel room. She'd dragged a zero gravity chaise lounge from the back of her car, along with a blanket and her pillow -- she never traveled without her memory foam, curved pillow -- into the kitchen.
Leo, freed from captivity in the garage, brushed against her ankles, then stood looking expectantly into the open refrigerator.
"You have food, pest. Your bowls are over there." She nudged him with her bare toes. Ronni set the plate of brownies on the counter, then retrieved the bottle of wine Finn had also sent.
She was wrestling with the corkscrew -- boxed wines were so much easier -- when a rap on the back door made her fumble the bottle. With a quiet curse, she set it beside the brownies, going to the door and brushing aside the short ruffled curtain.
Hayden grinned at her, holding aloft a six-pack of dark bottles. "I come bearing a peace offering," he said.
"Great. Leave it on the porch. I'll take your bribe into consideration."
"I thought you'd already made up your mind?"
"I have. That was a lie to get you to leave the beer. Beer goes so much better with brownies."
"Okay, I see how it's going to be. Guess that means you don't want this." He raised his other hand, balancing a large white box.
"From Two Friends?" she asked.
"Mushrooms and sausage?" Her throat tightened around the words.
"On your half."
"That's not playing fair."
"All's fair in love, war, and real estate, babe."
She'd rarely met a pizza she didn't like, but the one he offered happened to be her favorite. Ian and Hayden had shown up at her door with them on a regular basis when she'd been pregnant with Nick.
"Listen, Ronni...I just want to share a pie and lift a glass to my brother with someone who loved him as much as I did. Greg, Finn, Derek...they get it, but not like you get it. Let me in."
"Now you're really not playing fair," she muttered as the song changed to John Michael Montgomery's "High School Heart." She jabbed the skip button before the lump in her throat could make eating pizza an impossible task, then opened the door. "I'd say make yourself at home, but then you already have."
Hayden snorted, setting the pizza and six-pack beside the laptop. "And you had the nerve to mock my decorating skills. I love what you've done with the place."
"Furniture truck will be here on Tuesday. Until then, I'll make do. How'd you know I was here?"
"I saw the light. Saw you lugging that chair in here. Heard you wrestle your beast into the cage. Actually, I came down the stairs to watch that, but didn't want to distract you. Given the noise that thing was making, I was sure you were going to lose some flesh."
Ronni laughed. "Poor Leo. He thought we were going for another long car ride. He can sure make his displeasure known, can't he?"
"Is he displeased often? Maybe I need to buy some earplugs if you're going to keep him in the garage often." He slid a slice onto a paper towel and handed it to her.
"When you find your new place, you'll have to make sure they have a no pet policy."
Hayden twisted the caps off two bottles of ale, offered one to her. When she'd accepted, he held his aloft. "To Ian. To coming home. I think my brother would be glad to know you and Nick are back here."
Ronni blinked against the surprising moisture gathering in her eyes. She hadn't shed tears over Ian in years. There were newer tear-worthy wounds. "To Ian. To Ian's legacy, Nick. May he not make me completely gray before my time." The glass clinked, then Ronni slugged back two long swallows of the dark beer, the slightly bitter taste a perfect illustration of her homecoming.
"I don't see any gray." Hayden leaned closer, peering at her head. The scent of Irish Spring soap, of warm, healthy man overpowered the pizza -- and nearly her good sense. She wrestled with the urge to lean her head on his shoulder, let him wrap his arms around her and keep the world at bay...
But this was Hayden.
A "Walk-away Joe" if ever there'd been one. He went on Expiration Dates. No woman was ever enough for him.
She'd had her fill of that. Scott had broken her heart long before his death. Hell, even with Ian she'd wondered if she was enough to keep him without Nick. Which was why she wouldn't marry him just because of their son. If Ian had lived, would she have been enough for him?
For a lifetime?
She forced a laugh. "That's 'cause I pulled out the few I've already found." She edged out of scent-distance, made a production of savoring her food. "Yum. Thanks for this."
"You're welcome." Hayden leaned against the counter, watching her intently. She'd damn near shouted back-off when he'd gotten too close. And yet, he'd been closer -- and basically naked -- earlier that afternoon, without her getting jumpy.
The comment she'd made about her husband's good-man status being in question, the wedding ring already gone, the fact that she'd come home at all...put together, they made him wonder what the good-stepfather-but-not-such-a-good-man had done to her.
If the guy weren't already dead, Hayden would kick his sorry ass.
"Why'd you really come home, Ronni? When you left, you swore you'd never be back. And you kept that promise for a long time."
She pointed the bottle at him. "I don't think I have enough beer in me yet to spill all my secrets."
"Then by all means, have another." He grinned at her. "And if need be, I've got more over at my place."
"At your soon-to-be-NOT your place, you mean."
"The Ronni I knew would have been bought off by this pizza and beer."
She sighed, staring down at her toes. "The Ronni you knew has been gone for a long time, Hayden. Life has a way of changing people."
She lifted her head. "Well, maybe not you. But then, I think you have to actually live, actually get out there and get battered, in order for life to change you."
"Excuse me?" He set his bottle on the counter, folded his arms over his chest. "I live plenty. Enough for two, actually." He'd made it a point to live wide, experience enough to make up for life short-changing Ian.
"Dating woman after woman doesn't constitute living, PB."
"Is that what you see as the sum of my life? Let's see," he started ticking things off on his fingers, "I did four years with the Marine Corp, got a college degree, a steady job I've had for years --"
"You're a high school gym teacher, Hayden. Give me a break."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Oh, come on. At least you look like you should be teaching kids about fitness, not like most gym teachers I've ever seen. But really, Hayden."
"I teach kids about a lot more than fitness."
The red cell phone plugged into the same outlet as the laptop spewing boo-hoo-my-woman-left-me-and-my-dog-died music, danced across the counter as it vibrated. Looking relieved for the interruption, Ronni grabbed it, looked at the display, then answered. "Hello?" As she listened to the person on the other end, she set down her beer. Her face tightened. She nodded. "I understand. No, no, I don't blame you one bit. I'd feel the same way in your place. I'm really sorry. I'll be there as soon as I can." She flipped the phone closed and tossed it down, bracing her hands on either side of the kitchen sink. She dropped her head, drawing in a deep breath.
He inched closer, resisting the urge to lay a hand on her shoulder, ease the tension from the muscles there. "What's up?"
"That was Finn. I have to go pick up Nick."
When she looked up at him, the quiver in her lower lip made him want to kiss her until that tremble stopped. Made him want to slay dragons for her.
Made him obviously deranged, to be thinking crazy things like that.
"I thought he'd at least give me a week."
"What's that mean? What's going on?"
"Can you just give me Finn's address, Hayden? I didn't think to ask. I'll program it into my GPS."
"I'll show you myself."
She glared at him for a moment, swallowed the protest he was sure she'd offer, and nodded. "Okay. Good thing we didn't get too far on those beers, huh?"
"Good thing." He closed the pizza box, putting it in the fridge.
From one of the overhead cabinets, she retrieved her purse, then threw her cell phone into it. "Let's go."