A Father's Name
Author:Holly Jacobs

Chapter FOUR

THE FRIDAY AFTER JASON’S funeral, Tucker asked herself for about the thousandth time what she was doing. The answer remained the same—she didn’t have a clue. But not knowing what she was doing didn’t stop her from pulling into the driveway of an old farmhouse. The cedar siding had once been white, but had worn until it was grey and weathered.

The porch was huge, but also weathered. Two old rockers sat on either side of a small wooden table with a huge fern.

When she’d thought about where Tyler lived, she’d pictured a condo where everything was white and black, sleek and chrome. Something out of a magazine.

Not this.

She hadn’t seen him since the funeral service. She’d gone with all the guys from the shop and Bart. They’d sat in the back of the church while Tyler sat up front with Jason’s parents.

Even with the length of a church separating them, Tyler’s sadness was palpable. She understood that kind of friendship. That’s what her relationship with Eli was—closer than sisters. She had other friends, but there was a special bond with Eli. The thought of losing her friend was enough to make her knees buckle. It didn’t take any stretch of her imagination to know how hard losing his friend had hit Tyler.

And that’s what she was doing here on his porch. She somehow wanted to ease that pain for him. Before talking herself out of it, Tucker knocked on the door.

Moments later, Tyler opened it, Jace on his shoulder. Jace whimpered. It was the kind of sound that said he was getting over a fussy jag.

“Hi, munchkin. I thought you’d be on your way to Florida by now,” she said. “What’s got you all upset?”

“I told him no,” Tyler said, sounding as upset as Jace. “He was reaching for the stove, and I said no, but I think I must have said it too harshly because he started this.”

“Kids don’t like hearing no, babies, toddlers or teens—doesn’t matter. They want their own way. Being sharp when he tried to touch the stove was a good thing. He could hear in your voice that it’s totally off-limits. There’s no negotiation on the issue. Be consistent. When you say no, mean no. If he gets upset, do what you’re doing—comfort him. Comfort but don’t give in.”

“You think it’s okay to comfort him after I was the one who upset him?” Tyler asked.

“Sure. When you’re upset, even if it’s because of something you did, don’t you want someone to comfort you?”

“No,” came his flat response.

Tucker realized she’d put her foot in it. She thought about the way his ex-colleagues had acted at the funeral home. She felt even more sympathy for him. She held the baking dish out. “I brought a lasagne. I’ll put it in your fridge, if you point the way.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, I know the guys would have sent something, too, but it wouldn’t have been safe to eat. Not one of them can do much more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. North ran out of jelly once and made a peanut butter and dry Jello sandwich. Of course, he has less taste than the rest of them. He puts peanut butter and mustard on his hot dogs.” She was babbling and knew it, but didn’t know how to stop. There was the fact of Tyler kissing her standing between them. Her babbling helped bridge that fact; at least for her it did. “I don’t know why people bring food when someone suffers a loss, but they do, so I’m here.”


She put the lasagne in the refrigerator and couldn’t help but notice it wasn’t filled with other offerings of food from friends. She wanted to do something more for Tyler, but couldn’t think of what.

“You’ll have to heat it up when you want it. And there’s enough to last a couple days, or it freezes well.”

She looked around the kitchen. It was old enough to be almost retro-chic. There were floor to ceiling cabinets, a giant country sink and old white enamel appliances. Again, it’s not the sort of kitchen she’d pictured Tyler having.

Tyler Martinez was an enigma.

“Seems like he’s calmed down,” she said.

“Yeah.” Tyler put Jace on the floor and the baby toddled over to Tucker. She knelt down and said, “How’re you doing, munchkin?”

Jace babbled some response, then walked toward the stove and said, very clearly, “No.”

Tucker smiled. “Good boy, that’s a no.”

“No, no, no, no.” Jace waggled his chubby finger at the stove, but didn’t get too close or touch it.

Tucker glanced up at Tyler and smiled. “See, I think you made your point.”

“But I made him cry.”

“There’s no reasoning with babies. Actually, he’s more of a toddler.” She remembered when she accepted Bart wasn’t a baby anymore. The feeling of nostalgia engulfed her. He was a high school graduate as of yesterday. Legally an adult.

She’d sat with Pops, Eli, her husband Zac and the guys from the shop. All of them had helped raise him. All of them reveled in the moment he took his diploma and moved the tassel of his cap from one side to the other.

Her son was a graduate.

She felt adrift for a moment. And at the end of the summer, he’d be gone. She’d spent her entire adult life as Bart’s mom. She was still his mom, but it wasn’t the same.

Jace walked his drunken-sailor walk over to some wood blocks and plopped onto the floor.

“Yeah,” Tyler agreed. “I guess toddling has to be the definition of toddler.”

They stood in companionable silence for a minute that went from comfortable to awkward for Tucker. Time to go. She’d done her duty and brought him lasagne. “So we’ll see you at the shop on Monday.”

“About that?” Tyler said.


“Jace has a regular sitter in Erie, but she’s out of town, and I have to find someone closer anyway, but I haven’t had time to interview anyone. I—”

“Wait a minute.” The impact of what he was saying sank in. “You’re keeping the baby?”

He nodded. “I didn’t plan on it, but the Matthews are getting older and Mrs. Matthews had one hip replaced and they need to do the other one. They love him, love being his grandparents, but can’t play surrogate parents. Jason was an only child, so there’s not one else on that side, and Mellie didn’t have any immediate family. That leaves me. Jason named me Jace’s guardian in his will. I tried to convince his dad they could find someone better to raise him. He wouldn’t listen.”

“I’m glad he didn’t, because I don’t believe that they could have found anyone better,” Tucker said. She had to admit that on the surface an ex-con as a guardian for a young child seemed less than ideal. But watching Tyler with the baby, it was evident that he loved him and would do his best for him. A kid couldn’t ask for more than that.

“I didn’t plan on having kids…ever. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Rather than beating a hasty escape, Tucker sat down at one of the kitchen chairs and Tyler followed suit.

Jace occasionally looked up from his pile of blocks and no-noed the stove.

“Listen, Ty, I understand feeling overwhelmed and I understand that given your…past, this is especially hard. Well, my situation was especially hard, too. I didn’t plan on being a parent, especially not when I was still in high school, but there it was. I had a teacher in my corner. Eli found programs and opportunities in the community for me. Hell, she started the whole teen parenting program because she found the system was lacking when she tried to help me. Even after I graduated, she went from teacher to friend. And Pops was great, once he got over the initial shock, but mainly it was me and Bart.”

“What about Bart’s father?”

After all these years, Tucker rarely thought about Bart’s father. She didn’t blame him for walking away, but she did feel bad for him. He should have been sitting with them yesterday marveling in how amazing his son was. “He’s never had anything to do with Bart. What I’m saying is, I didn’t plan it. I had good people in my corner to help when I needed it, but so do you.” He looked confused.

Tucker didn’t feel insulted, she simply got specific. “You’ve got me, Pops and the guys at work. And we need you back at the garage, so bring Jace to me Monday morning.”

“Tucker, I couldn’t.”

“You can and will. Bart’s working as a lifeguard at the Sunrise Foundation’s day camp this summer, three days a week, so he’ll be around a few days to help, and I’ll stick some toys in the front office and that portable crib. Jace can hang with me while I do the dreaded paperwork each day.”

“What about your painting?”

“I can do that after hours, or schedule it so I can do it on Bart’s days off. And Pops is around. Odds are he’s going to grumble, but he loves kids. He’ll help. This isn’t the first time Tucker’s Garage has dealt with a baby. North and Joe weren’t around when Bart was little, but it was nothing to see Lou holding my son as he talked to a customer, or Pops talking softly on the phone in his office because Bart was taking a nap. We’ll make it work. Come in on Monday and bring a diaper bag.”

“Tucker, I couldn’t—”

“You can. You work for Tucker’s Garage. It’s okay to need and accept help, Tyler,” she added. “When I had Bart, everyone pitched in and I never felt as if I was doing it alone. You’re not going to either.”


Tucker knew that laying down the law was sometimes the easiest thing to do. “I’m the boss, so there’s no butting. Bring him in on Monday.”

He cracked the ghost of a smile. “You’re trying to sound scary, but it doesn’t work.”

Tucker sighed. “Yeah, that’s not the first time I’ve been told I’m not scary. But be that as it may, bring him. You’ll find someone permanently soon enough, but until then, we can make it work.”

Tucker saw that he was going to protest some more. “Hey, I’m not looking for a permanent babysitting career. Been there, done that and as soon as Bart heads to college this fall, I’m done. I’m planning to start living my life for me.”

“What plans?”

Tucker felt relieved that he was smiling. “Big plans.” She tried to think of something she’d do when Bart was gone…something different. “Maybe a cruise?”

Tyler chuckled. “Yeah, you’re wild.”

She shrugged. “I don’t really know how to live a life where all I have to worry about is me. But I’ll figure it out. And you’ll figure out how to handle Jace.”

“We’re sort of living life in opposite directions.”

“We’ve always had that opposite…uh, thing going for us.” She’d almost said opposites attract, but had managed a nice save.

Tyler nodded, as if he understood what she was saying, which was great because Tucker wasn’t entirely sure herself.

Tyler still looked confused. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

Tucker stood. “You don’t have to try and thank us. It comes with the job description.” She pushed her chair back under the table. “So, I’ll see you both on Monday, bright and early.”

He nodded. “Fine. We’ll be there.”

She made a dash for the front door before he could change his mind, or start arguing again.

“Hey, Tucker,” Tyler said, the baby on his hip as he followed her.

Damn. She’d almost made a clean break. She kept her hand on the doorknob as she turned. “Yes?”

“I have never claimed to understand women, but I’ve decided you’re more mystifying than most. I was under the impression you didn’t like me, so I’m not sure why you’ve gone out of your way for me, but I appreciate it.”

His statement surprised her. “I never disliked you, Tyler. I thought we covered this before—I was put out that Pops had hired you without consulting me. And of course, he’d just told me he was retiring. You know that phrase, it isn’t you, it’s me? That applies here. I didn’t not like you, it was simply a lot to process.”

“It wasn’t only that first day at work,” he said with a shrug. “You always said no when I asked you out.”

“Well, I’ve told a lot of guys no—doesn’t mean I disliked them, only that I didn’t think we’d suit each other. Suits.” She remembered joking with Eli over being asked out by a guy who would always be better dressed than she was. “That was part of it. We’re just so different. I couldn’t see the point in us dating. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like you.”

Tyler didn’t look convinced. “Oh.” He paused a moment, as if he’d been processing her words, then asked, “So if I’d been wearing jeans instead of a designer suit when I asked you out, you’d have said yes?”

“It was what it was…. I don’t play what-if games.”

“But what if?” he pressed.

Tucker shook her head. “Still not going to play. I gave up on what-ifs when I had Bart—he didn’t need a playmate, he needed a mother, so I grew up. I don’t deal in the hypothetical, but rather in what is. I became a woman who works in a man’s world. I grew up,” she repeated. “And grown-ups don’t play what-if games.”

Tyler stared at her chest. He didn’t seem the kind of guy to stare at a woman’s breasts, so she spotted what he was looking at. Her T-shirt was a girly pink and had pictures of battered butterflies and read How Could You Tell I Ride a Motorcycle?

“I don’t know that you grew up all the way,” Tyler pointed out.

Tucker shrugged, but felt her cheeks flame. “I didn’t buy the shirt. A customer gave it to me.”

Tyler nodded, his expression serious. “It looks a bit playful to me. Almost as if the person wearing it has a bit of an inner-child left.”

“It doesn’t look playful. It looks tough. Those butterflies are smooshed.”

“They’re still butterflies. And it’s pink. Very pink. That says playful and girly.”

“I still don’t play what-ifs,” she maintained.

Tyler smiled. “Thanks. That’s the first laugh I’ve had in…well, in a while.”

Tucker tried to look stern, but it was hard. She was relieved to see Tyler loosening up. “You’re nuts. I’m a hard ass, and you probably should realize that.”

“Tucker, you can pretend you’re tough, but it’s all a facade. In addition to being a sweet woman who likes to wear pink, you’re a pushover. And you’re a good friend.”

“Sweet?” Tucker scoffed as she finally opened the door and beat a hasty retreat. Sweet? No one had called her sweet…ever.

She glanced back over her shoulder at Tyler. He was still laughing. Well, if thinking she was sweet lightened his load a bit, then so be it. His misperception was a small price to pay to pick him up a bit.

But Monday, she was definitely not going to wear a pink t-shirt.

She had tons of black t-shirts. She’d wear one of those.

Black and tough looking.

Tyler wouldn’t be thinking she was sweet on Monday.

She stopped huffing and thought about Tyler and the baby. She’d found herself a parent at an unexpected moment in her life.

Now he was going through the same thing.

Wanting to help him didn’t mean she was sweet. It simply meant she understood better than most people could.

TYLER SOMEHOW MANAGED to get out of the house on time Monday morning, but it was a near thing. Getting Jace up, dressed, fed and out the door was tough. He was thankful he’d packed the diaper bag Sunday night.

He still didn’t feel right allowing Angelina to throw her day into chaos in order to help him, but he needed this job. He’d put in a call to an agency, hoping to find a sitter, but he didn’t expect to hear anything right away. He could check out daycare centers, but he’d prefer the baby have one-on-one care. For now, Jace at work with Tucker’s help was his best option. His only option.

Once Jace’s regular sitter was home, he could always see if she’d keep watching Jace, though that would mean a half-hour commute to get him to Pam’s in the morning, and then another half hour back to Whedon in time for work. Not a great situation, but for now, it was all he had.

He entered the shop. No one was in the garage, so he walked back to Angelina’s office and knocked.

“Come in.”

He went in and burst out laughing. Angelina was wearing a black t-shirt with a skull and crossbones on it, under which it read Biker—’Nuf Said.

“Do you even ride motorcycles?” he managed to ask.

“Of course, I can ride them. I simply don’t often, and I’ve never owned one. I do paint them, and the guys I do work for have noticed my t-shirt collection and feed my habit.”

He knew the black shirt was in response to his teasing about the pink one and couldn’t resist assuring her that “Skulls don’t make you look tougher. You’re a marshmallow. And if I’ve noticed that after only a few weeks of being here, odds are everyone else knows it, too.”

Her insistence that he let her help with Jace cemented her marshmallow status in his mind. They were traveling in opposite directions—her son was leaving home, and he suddenly had a baby—yet, marshmallow that she was, she’d put her almost-childless status on hold to help him out. He couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if she’d said yes when he’d originally asked her out. It was probably for the best that she hadn’t accepted. Because if they’d gotten together, when he fell into the mud, Angelina, being Angelina, would have jumped in, too. She was entitled to more than that. More than him.

“Marshmallow?” she repeated. “If I dock your pay for calling me names, you’ll see that I’m no marshmallow.” She couldn’t even convince herself she was that tough. “Fine. You’ve discovered my deep, dark secret. Now, hand over the baby and get to work. There, did that sound tough enough to you?”

“No, but it will have to do.” He passed Jace into her open arms and put the diaper bag down. “Thanks, Angelina—”

“It’s Tucker, use it on a regular basis like everyone else does.”

“Your name is rather like that t-shirt. You think being a Tucker rather than an Angelina makes you seem tougher, but you’re wrong. At your core, you’re Angelina and I can see that, even if everyone else you work with can’t.”

She scowled, but even that wasn’t overly convincing. He quirked his eyebrow and grinned.

Angelina sighed. “Get to work, or I’m seriously going to dock you. Me and Jace have some invoices to go over.”

He leaned down and kissed Jace’s forehead. Every fiber of his being yearned to do the same to Angelina. A simple soft, sweet kiss on the forehead to start his day on the right note, but he suspected it wouldn’t start hers on anything close to a right note, so he resisted.

He’d wanted her for a long time, despite the fact she’d consistently turned him down. He still wanted her, but what could he really offer her now? So he simply waved goodbye and left them to get reacquainted.

He checked on Lou’s manifest and started repairing a beautiful 1956 Ford F100 truck. There were flames bursting from the headlights back to the truck’s tailgate. The letters AT were worked seamlessly into the bottom right of the design. Angelina Tucker.

She was a gifted artist.

A businesswoman.

A mother.

And a hell of a friend.

He wouldn’t push her for more than she wanted to give. That didn’t stop him for wishing things were different. That when he’d asked her out before he’d kept trying, even after she’d said no repeatedly.

Mrs. Matthews used to say, if wishes were horses beggars would ride. But when Jason’s family had taken him in and made him one of them, he’d discovered that sometimes wishes came true. He simply had to remember that because it happened once, didn’t mean it would happen again. Lightning only struck once.

Before he could begin, Lou and Mr. Tucker came in.

“Good to see you back.” Lou sounded genuinely pleased to see him. “We’ve got a lot on at the moment.”

“Can I talk to you before you start working?” Mr. Tucker asked.

“Sure.” He followed Angelina’s father outside.

George Tucker had always seemed a bit larger than life. But he seemed smaller these days. It wasn’t the diet Angelina had, according to sources, put him on, it was the fact he’d been ill. He suddenly looked his age. Balding, white haired and less robust. He still maintained an air of joviality, that was now replaced by seriousness. “I wanted to tell you again how sorry I am for your loss.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Angel tells me she volunteered to help with the baby,” he said slowly, studying Tyler with an uncomfortable intensity as he said the words.

Tyler nodded. “Yes, but I don’t want you to think I’m going to take advantage of her offer. I’m looking for a sitter already and—”

“That’s not what I was going to say, Tyler. I was going to say, thank you. Angel, she needs to realize there’s more to life than the business. In the past, she’s had Bart to balance her out, but he’ll be gone in a few months, and maybe spending time with the baby will remind her there’s a lot out there for her, if she’ll only go for it. I’ve been trying to talk her into letting me sell my share of the business to someone. A partner would allow her to have more time for a life. I’m hoping Jace will help me convince her of that.”

“Sir, I know I don’t know your daughter that well, but it seems to me, if Angelina wanted something, she’d go after it.”

“Oh, you’re right, but the thing is, she’s never known anything other than working at the shop and hanging out with us. There might be more that she wants, only she doesn’t have enough experience to recognize it.”

“I see your point.” Still, Tyler believed that if Angelina felt shorted, she’d go out and rectify that.

“I talked to the guys,” Mr. Tucker continued, “and we’ll all pitch in until you can work out something else for the baby.”

“Thank you, sir.” Tyler didn’t know what else to say. “I mean it, thank you. For everything. For the job in the first place, for letting me take last week off, for the help. Just thanks.” There was nothing more to say after that. He headed back to the Ford.

George Tucker called, “One more thing,” and stopped him in his tracks.

“I’ve seen how you look at my daughter.”

Tyler immediately started to argue. “I—”

Mr. Tucker cut him off. “There’s no use denying it.”

Before Tyler could come up with a response, George Tucker clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I like you, son. Always did, and it had nothing to do with the expensive cars you drove and the business you threw our way. I liked you. That hasn’t changed. I believe in second chances, but I also believe my daughter deserves more than someone who’s had trouble with the law. Do I make myself clear?”

Tyler nodded. “Crystal.”

“Fine. Now, I’m going to see if Tucker will loan me Jace for a bit. We’re going to pull some weeds in my garden. It’s shady enough this time of the morning, he won’t get burned.”

“Thank you, sir.”

They went inside and Tyler watched Angelina’s father stroll toward her office.

He totally understood Mr. Tucker’s concern. The man had been good to him, offering him a job when no one else would. Pitching in to help with Jace until he could get things settled.

But more than a good friend, he was a great father who only wanted the best for his daughter. Some men might take offense at his concern, but Tyler didn’t. He wanted the best for Angelina, too. And he, better than anyone else, knew that wasn’t him.

For a while he’d thought he’d overcome his past, but here he was, exactly where his father had been—an ex-con who worked in a garage with a kid who was relying on him.

Oh, he didn’t drink like his father, but otherwise he’d have to be blind not to see the similarities.

Angelina deserved more than he could ever give her.

So, he’d accept her help for his godson’s sake, but he’d look hard and fast for another alternative.

Angelina had been thrust into adulthood when she was little more than a child herself. When Bart went to college in the fall, she’d finally have the opportunity to live for herself. To be independent.

He wanted that for her.

That and so much more.

Tyler went to work on the truck, and tried to put thoughts of kissing Angelina out of his mind.

He didn’t need her father to warn him off.

He’d see to that himself.

“HEY, POPS. YOU TWO done in the garden?” Tucker asked a few hours later as her father came into her office.

“We got most of the weeding done. Jace finds worms highly entertaining, and slightly edible.”

She must have looked upset because he hurried to assure her, “Don’t worry. I didn’t let him eat it. But it was a near thing.”

“I’m pretty sure Bart ate a few things I’d find less than palatable, so I’ll try not to sweat it. But maybe we should get you something better to snack on?” she asked Jace as she took him into her arms, then turned back to her father. “I got finished the Burhenn’s paint job on that Jeep. It’s the first time someone asked me to airbrush a Jeep.”

“When you’re good, you’re good. Doesn’t matter what your canvas is.”

“Thanks. I’m going to try to get Jace down for a nap, then make some calls. The guys all said they’d stagger their lunches, so he can play with them and I can go back to the paint room.”

“Sounds like you’ve got it all under control.”

“I think so. Bart’s home at three and said he’ll get him then.”

“It takes me back to when we were all juggling him,” her father said. “Hard to believe he’s graduated now.”

“Yes, it’s hard to believe,” Tucker murmured and handed Jace a sippy cup of milk, followed by a handful of Cheerios. They read Russell Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances together, and within minutes, he was down for the count.

She tucked the baby into the porta-crib, turned on her iPod in its dock in order to provide some background noise, then returned to her desk.

Maybe she should consider her father’s suggestion that she take on a partner. If she kept controlling shares, and had someone else to do the books, it might not be too bad. She could hire someone to do them without letting go of any of the business, but she wouldn’t for the same reason her father never had—it was tough to trust someone who didn’t have a vested interest in a company.

Bart was off to college as an undeclared major, but had talked about doing something with business, or numbers.

Maybe he’d get his MBA? A degree in accounting?

She sighed. That was years down the line, and odds are he wouldn’t want to work in the shop. As much as she might fantasize about having a partner who didn’t mind paperwork, odds are she’d never give up any control in the company. No partners for her.

Paperwork was in her future.

She sighed again and scanned her call-back list. She’d started dialing the first number when Eli appeared in the doorway. Eli Cartwright Keller had been the teacher who’d helped Tucker so much when she’d found out she was pregnant. Three years ago, Eli had found herself unexpectedly pregnant. Even though Eli had been long-past teenhood, she’d gone through a lot. The baby’s father had deserted her, which gave Zac Keller the chance he’d been waiting for. He was raising her son as his own, and they’d adopted a little girl together.

“Shh,” Tucker warned her friend, and pointed to the baby sleeping in the crib.

“Something you want to tell me?” Eli asked softly, sinking into the chair across from Tucker and nodding her head at the baby. “I know I’ve been caught up in the end of school year chaos, but…?”

Tucker wasn’t sure where to start. Hell, she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t called Eli and filled her in on the whole situation earlier. “Remember that guy who kept asking me out a few years ago?”

“A lot of guys ask you out, Tuck.”

“Yeah, this was the one I wouldn’t go out with. Mr. Designer Suits?”

Eli laughed. “Oh, him I do remember.”

Tyler had been pestering her for a date at the same time Zac was trying to win Eli over. Zac had succeeded, Tyler hadn’t. “Well, Tyler works for us now and…” She launched into the story.

Eli studied Jace a moment. “So, you’re helping him out with the baby?”


“And he kissed you and you kissed him back?”

“Only once, and only a little. I don’t think it meant anything,” Tucker justified. “He was upset and needed comfort.”

“And you?”


“He was upset, and I get that. People want to feel connected to someone else when something horrible happens to them. He reached out to you. That explains him kissing you. But you kissing him?”

Tucker started and sputtered to aborted explanations for a moment, then finally settled on, “I…I was only being nice.”

Eli burst out laughing. “You can tell yourself that all you want, but I’m not buying it.”

“You’re saying I’m not nice?”

“I’m saying that in all the years I’ve known you, you have always been nice, but that kindness didn’t include kissing for comfort. Name one other man you’ve ever kissed out of mere compassion because they were traumatized?”

Tucker didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t even know why she’d mentioned that barely mentionable kiss to Eli and deeply regretted that she had. Eli was going to blow it all out of proportion.

“So, what’s standing in your way now?” Eli asked. “If he’s working here, he must have retired the fancy outfits, right?”

“His life’s in turmoil. He’s barely got out of jail, lost a friend and inherited a baby. That is not a good candidate for dating.”

“And you?” Eli pressed.

Tucker blustered, “What about me?” She knew she sounded defensive. Too defensive.

Eli Keller had fallen head-over-heals in love a few years ago, and now was terminally afflicted with fantasies of happily-ever-afters.

“What about you?” Eli repeated. “It’s all him and his problems standing in the way of you dating him, hmm?”

“Sure it’s him. I don’t have any problems.”

Eli’s teasing evaporated, and she looked serious. “Tucker, we’ve been friends for years. I’ve watched you with men—”

“Hey, don’t say it like that. You make it sound like I’ve had a long line of men.”

“No, that might not be as troublesome as the fact that the few guys you go out with are men you’d never seriously consider anything long term with.”

“I’ve dated some very nice men.”

Eli nodded. “You did. But you didn’t find any of them nice enough for more than a few dates.”

“I practice a catch and release system of dating.” She’d explained that philosophy to Eli in the past and they’d laughed, but Eli wasn’t laughing now, so she added, “I like my independence.”

“I think it’s more than that. Bart’s father did a number on you.”

No way was Tucker using that lame crutch. “Eli, that was years ago. I was a kid, and so was he. I certainly don’t believe I can never find love because one teenage fling didn’t work out. Give me some credit.”

“Then what is it?” Eli asked. “I’ve never figured it out.”

Tucker sighed, not sure she had either. “I know when Bart was little, I worried about bringing a guy into the mix. You hear horror stories about men who resent raising other people’s sons.”

“Zac didn’t, doesn’t, resent raising Johnny.”

Tucker had seen Eli husband with their son, and there was no doubt in her mind that Zac thought of Johnny as his own. “I know. I said, when Bart was little. I eventually figured out that I was strong enough to protect him if need be, but that odds are, any guy I fell for wouldn’t require it. So, that’s not it. Maybe once, but not any more. I date. And I like to think I open myself up to the idea of each man’s potential. The problem is, I’ve never met a guy I wanted to spend more than a few dates with. I want…”

“What?” Eli asked. “What are you looking for in a guy?”

“I want a partner. Someone I can relate to. Someone who accepts me for who I am, not who they want me to be. Let’s face it, I’m not the traditional woman. I’ll never spend my time cooking gourmet meals, or ironing some guy’s underwear. I need him to being willing to accept that I’m happiest in the garage with grease under my fingernails, and paint smudged…everywhere. When I find that in a man, I’ll snag him.” She made an X over her chest. “Cross my heart.”

Eli sighed. “Okay, that will have to do.”

Tucker laughed. “I’m glad you think so. And while I love it when you visit, I suspect you didn’t come see me to harangue me about men, or my lack thereof.”

“No, the haranguing was spontaneous,” she said with a laugh. “I actually came over to invite you to a Hurrah-the-School-Year’s-Over Party, otherwise known as a Keller excuse to get together at my house.”

“And by invite, you mean attendance is mandatory.” Since Eli married into the Keller family, Tucker had been to more than a few Keller parties; she knew the score.

“Now, Tucker, you know I’d never say that. Mrs. Keller, she might say it. Okay, so she often says it. You can be sure she’ll expect you, your dad and Bart there.”

“Every time I show up at a Keller function, the official and unofficial family has grown.”

“Kellerized,” they both said in unison. Years ago, when Mr. and Mrs. Keller discovered they couldn’t have children, they’d adopted six, including Eli’s husband, Zac. Over the years, they’d continued to add to the family without any more formal adoptions. When Eli married Zac, Tucker got Kellerized through osmosis, then her father and Bart were added as well.

“Will Laura and Seth be there?”

Eli nodded. “With the baby.”

“You had me at baby,” Tucker admitted. “We’ll be there.”

“Why don’t you bring Tyler and Jace, too,” Eli offered.

“I’m not going to have you trying to set me up with him, Eli Keller.”

“That hadn’t occurred to me, but I’m encouraged that it occurred to you,” her friend said with a grin. “I simply thought as an unexpected new parent he might like to hang around with some old pros. And goodness knows the Kellers are all pros.”

Tucker felt stupid. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh.”

Eli grinned so broadly, Tucker feared her face would crack. “Wipe that smile off your face.”

Tucker watched as Eli tried. Valiantly. But without success.

“Sorry,” she finally said, grin firmly in place. “You’re kind of cute like this.”

“Like what?” Tucker asked.

“Flustered by a man.”

“I am not.” When Eli kept grinning, Tucker stated even more firmly, “I am not flustered by Tyler Martinez. I’m his friend. Only a friend. That’s it. That’s all she wrote, folks. I’m helping him out like I’d help out any of the guys that work here. I’m not looking for anything more than friendship. I’m looking forward to this next chapter of my life. Bart will go to school and for the first time in my entire adult life, the only person I’m responsible for is me. I’ll be exploring what independence is really like.”

Eli nodded, looking totally unbelieving. She gave Tucker the party info and said, “See you there,” as she hurried out of the office.

Tucker stared at the closed door.

She meant what she’d said. She was looking forward to figuring out who she was going to be in this new phase of her life.


She’d never used that word about herself before.

It felt odd.

And secretly she acknowledged, a little lonely.