A Father's Name
Author:Holly Jacobs

Chapter FIVE

TYLER GLANCED ACROSS the car at Tucker, her words from last week played over again in his head. He’d been about to knock on her partially opened door when he’d heard her say, “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.” Who could blame her?

He’d wanted to say no to her invitation to the Keller picnic, but he’d found her argument that the Kellers were baby experts compelling. He could use all the help with Jace he could get. He knew he was ill-prepared for raising a child.

The baby was in the back, and Bart and his grandfather were coming a bit later. They’d decided to bring two cars in case Jace acted up and he needed to leave.

“Angelina, while I have you to myself,” he started, and realized that hadn’t come out the way he wanted it to. “I’m trading in my truck and buying a truck with a backseat, so I can return your car soon.”

“Okay. It hasn’t been a problem though.”

He shrugged. “I don’t like asking for favors.”

“You didn’t ask,” she pointed out.

“I know. You offered. Like you offered to watch Jace. His old babysitter is back in town, and she said she’d be happy to watch him until I can arrange for someone closer.”

“In Erie?” Angelina asked slowly, as if thinking about it.

He nodded.

“I don’t know that I think driving into Erie and back for work, then doing it in reverse after work is the best use of your time. Jace is fine with us until you find someone closer.”

When he told her that she didn’t need to look after a baby any more, he expected a sigh of relief on her part, not an argument. “Angel, I’m taking advantage of you, and—”

She snorted. No dainty ladylike laugh, or some quiet attempt to dissuade him. A snort. “Yeah, because I’m wrapped so tightly around your finger, you can make me do anything—even what I don’t want to do. I’m just a weak-willed woman who can be forced into things by a big strong man like you.”

He knew he needed to say something, but he wasn’t sure what in the face of her sarcasm. “I’m sorry. I—”

“No, I’m sorry. Sometimes my mouth slips into gear before my brain can catch up with it. It’s nice that you’re worried about taking advantage, but you’re not,” she told him. “I don’t think I had Jace more than an hour or so a day. I have at least that much to do in the office for that long. Did you know I have to file all kinds of tax stuff quarterly? And let’s not even talk about payroll. Checking time cards, calculating overtime. And ordering. The invoices never stop rolling in, and I think they should be paid immediately because as a small business owner, I know they all rely on their money coming in regularly, like we do. And I don’t even want to think about the end of year extras.”

“I take it paperwork isn’t your favorite thing?”

“I’d rather clean toilets—the ones in the garage bathroom, which I won’t use myself. That should tell you something.”

He let out a long, low whistle. “Any time you need help, holler. I’m good with keeping books and money…” He let the sentence trail off as he remembered he was a convicted embezzler. He never thought of himself as such, but he knew the rest of the world did—and rightly so. “Sorry. That was a stupid offer.”

“One I’m happy to say yes to. I’m not too proud to take help with the paperwork.”

“But you shouldn’t take help from me.” He waved a hand in the air. “Convict, remember?”

“I’ve wanted to ask you about that. Why—”

He cut her off. “There’s nothing to tell. They accused, I didn’t argue with them, I went to jail, served my time and paid restitution.”

“You sold off everything?”

He thought about Mr. Matthews saying that they wanted to pay him back from Jason’s estate. He should be pleased, but he wasn’t. Taking that money would seem like an admission that Jason owed him, when in reality, he owed Jason a debt he’d never be able to repay—and never could now.

He thought about how to answer Angelina. “I liquidated almost everything. The condo, the cars. I had enough left to buy the farmhouse and the truck, so, no, I’m not destitute by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve got a roof over my head, enough food to eat. I’m fine.”

He knew what it was like to look in a cupboard and find it literally bare. He knew what it was like to start school with no supplies, no new shoes or clothes. His father hadn’t paid the water bill and they’d turned it off one summer. Tyler had scraped up enough money to do his clothes at the laundromat most of the time, but a few times he couldn’t even manage that. He’d had to go to his neighbor and ask to use her machines. It was one of his most humbling memories.

“I’ve got enough,” he assured Angelina, “so I’m fine. I will always see to it Jace has what he needs.” It was more a promise to himself.

“Well, back to Jace, the offer stands. Paying Jace’s sitter will only be one more bill on your already stretched finances, and Tyler, I really enjoy having him around. We all do. It reminds me so much of when Bart was young.”

He could hear the wistfulness in her voice.


“We’re here.”

They pulled up in front of Eli’s house. Rather than go to the front door, she led him around the house on a brick walkway. “The party’s in back. Eli’s place isn’t big enough for Keller functions inside.”

As they passed under a small vine covered arbor, Tyler got his first glance at the Keller family. When Angelina had issued the invite, he’d said no. He didn’t want to go to a party with a bunch of strangers—strangers who more than likely knew about his past. But Angelina had told him that Mr. and Mrs. Keller had adopted their six children. Her friend Eli had adopted a daughter as well. If anyone could give him tips on parenting Jace, they could.

When she threw Jace’s well-being into the equation, he didn’t have any choice but to say yes. He’d do anything—even go to a party—for Jace.

“Tucker,” a number of them yelled when they spotted her.

“Hey,” she called back, then grabbed his hand and pulled him into the throng. “This is the garage’s newest employee, my friend Tyler, and this is his godson, Jace. He’s going to be raising Jace, and I told him he couldn’t find any better authorities on childrearing than the Kellers. Don’t make a liar out of me. Tyler this is…”

She pointed and rattled off names. He caught a number, but not all. Eli, her husband Zac Keller and their kids, Ebony and Johnny. Another Keller, Seth, and his wife Laura with their son, Jamie. There were more Kellers, and a number of people who didn’t seem to be Kellers, but seemed like part of the family regardless.

When he could fade back from the throng, he did. Taking Jace with him to a quiet corner where he could study the loud, happy family.

So, this was what it was like. A real family.

He studied Abe and Deborah Keller, a large grizzled man and a tiny, round woman with salt and pepper hair and an ever-present smile. How did two people open their home and heart to six children who weren’t theirs? Not only the kids they adopted, but by the looks of this party, they’d opened their hearts to half of Whedon as well.

Mr. Keller was talking to a man who Angelina had introduced as Colm. She’d told Tyler that Colm was special, and from the rapt attention Mr. Keller was giving him, he thought so, too. Mrs. Keller was chatting to a young girl with buzz cut hair, and more piercings than he’d ever seen on a kid. But it didn’t seem as if Mrs. Keller saw the goth looking clothes, or the piercings. She simply listened and smiled at what the kid was saying, giving the girl her undivided attention.

He checked on Jace, who was sitting next to him on the grass, batting at a branch on the hedge.

“Penny for your thoughts.”

He turned and saw Eli Keller behind him. She plopped down on the grass next to him, seemingly unconcerned about stains on her light tan shorts.

He didn’t know how to respond, and before he could formulate something, she continued, “Being Kellerized can be a bit overwhelming.”


“Tucker came up with it. It’s how she describes being absorbed by the family and counted as one of their own. When you’re accustomed to a more solitary existence, it can be even harder to adjust to the Kellerization.”

“How can you tell I lead a solitary existence?”

She laughed. “You’re over here with Jace, and everyone else is over there. That was my first hint.”

He smiled. “So you’re a detective as well as a teacher?”

“I think that both jobs require the same sort of observation.”

Jace stood and toddled over to Eli and flopped in her lap. She wrapped her arms around him, as if it were second nature. “Tucker said you’re going to be raising Jace?”

“Yes.” He still wasn’t sure how it had happened. He wasn’t even sure if it was wise.

“She told me she was going to use that as a way to lure you into our clutches.” Eli chuckled. “If you have any questions, we’re here. You’re lucky you have Tucker. She’s one of the best parents I’ve ever met. I worked with teen parents for years, but when it’s your own baby, you second guess everything.”

“She was young when she had Bart,” he said. “And I look at him, and I’m amazed at what a phenomenal kid she raised. If I can do half the job she did with him…”

His sentence died when Jace skooted off Eli’s lap and said, “Eye,” then toddled in his direction and sat on his lap with a decided thump.

“He said your name.”

Tyler looked down at Jace who started chanting, “Eye, Eye, Eye…”

Tyler laughed. “I think we have a future sailor on our hands.”

TUCKER GLANCED OVER at Tyler, Eli and Jace. Whatever they were talking about, Tyler was happy.

Seeing him relaxed made something in her ease.

“Eli will bring him around,” their friend Laura said. “She’s impossible to resist. I remember.”

“She is a force to be reckoned with,” Tucker agreed. One of the best things she’d ever done was to go to Eli then-Cartwright at school and tell her about the pregnancy. Eli had come with her when she told her father, and she’d stayed with her throughout the pregnancy, offering advice, finding programs that could help. “Yeah, a force of nature.”

Laura nodded her agreement. “So, how long have you been hung up on him?”

“Huh?” Tucker asked, surprised by the question.

“Tyler,” Laura said. “How long have you been hung up on Tyler?”

Tucker scoffed. “I’m not hung up on him.”

Laura laughed. “If you say so.”

Laura obviously didn’t believe her denial, so she said it more forcefully. “I’m not.”

“You don’t have to argue the point with me. If you say you’re not, you’re not. I know what it’s like to come to terms with falling for someone. You have to figure things out for yourself. Remember, when you’re ready, I’m here.”

“Wow, you marry into the Keller family and next thing you know, you’re as mushy as the rest of them. They make you go soft in the head.”

“No, they make you go soft in the heart.”

Tucker rolled her eyes, but Laura only laughed more. “Just don’t forget, we’re all here. I remember a woman showing up in a snowstorm, wearing only a hoodie, bringing me food after I’d had Jamie.”

“You’re exaggerating. There was snow, but not a storm.” Tucker had simply shown up with Eli.

“You have your version of events, I have mine. All I know is you hardly knew me, and were there for me. I’m here for you if you need me.”

Laura’s new husband, Seth, came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. They’d both lost spouses, but had found each other. Laura had once confided that loving Seth had helped her heal. She’d worried it was too soon to fall in love again, but Seth had convinced her that it was never too soon for love. Their happiness was overwhelming. And watching them made something in Tucker twist. She glanced at Tyler, who was still talking to Eli.

“What are we talking about?” Seth asked.


The normally easygoing man, frowned. “I know I’m going to sound suspicious and very police-like—”

“You’re allowed to sound coppish…it’s in your DNA,” Laura assured him.

“I heard through the grapevine that he has a record.”

Tucker knew there was no way this was not going to get out, but she felt bad for Tyler, regardless. There was something about the situation that felt off to her, but she couldn’t pinpoint what, and she certainly couldn’t defend his actions. “Whatever he did is in the past. He’s served his time, paid restitution and works for us. He’s been a stellar employee, and he’s been loving to Jace. I’m willing to accept him on those facts. I hope you can, too.”

Seth nodded. “I know better than anyone that you can’t let you past rule your present and taint your future. I’ll give him the benefit, but if you ever need me…”

She smiled at the Erie police lieutenant. “I know how to reach you.”

Seth nodded, then grinned and said, “Rumor has it the dogs and burgers will be done in a few minutes.”

“We’d better help Eli bring out the salads and stuff.”

As if she’d heard them, Eli got up and left Tyler with Jace. She waved at them and joined them.

“He’s a nice guy,” she said to Tucker.

“He is,” was all she said in response.

Tucker glanced back at him, and Seth had walked over and was talking to him. She was about to go run interference, when Colm joined them. The gentle man said something that had both men laughing and Tucker relaxed. It was fine. She’d been right to bring Tyler with her.

THREE HOURS LATER, JACE had conked out in his bed at Tyler’s and they both stood at the doorway, watching him sleep.

“We should think about redoing this room,” Tucker whispered.

“What’s wrong with the room?”

It was barren other than a small dresser and the crib. The walls, while clean, had once been white and had aged into a cream color. The hardwood floor was a bit nicked, but basically in good repair, though it could benefit from an area rug to soften the feel.

“Nothing’s wrong with it, but Jace is going to be living with you, the room should look like a little boy’s, not like some makeshift guestroom.”

Tyler frowned and appeared to be studying the room more critically. Tucker rushed on with her ideas. “Maybe a coat of paint, an area rug, a toy box and…”

He nodded. “Make it a little boy’s room.”

“Yes. I’d help.”

Tyler’s frown deepened.

She resisted the urge to stamp her feet. She’d spent her life in the company of men, but they still could be the most aggravating people. “Stop. I thought that if I took you to the Kellers you’d get it.”

“Get what?” he asked.

“That it’s okay to rely on others. It doesn’t unman you, or make you weak. You’re not losing anything—you’re gaining. That’s what the Kellers are like. They celebrate everything, but more than that, they support each other without question. You talked to Seth, right?”


Tucker continued. “He spent a few years apart from the family. He didn’t cut them off, but he held them at a distance. I’m not sure exactly what it was all about, but when he got together with Laura, whatever it was got fixed. I saw him before, and I’ve seen him since, and he’s a completely different person. Standing on his own didn’t make him stronger, it made him lonely. Relying on his family, that’s what made him stronger.”

“So what you’re saying, in your own so subtle way, is I should let you help paint Jace’s room?”

“Listen, Bart wouldn’t be who is today if I hadn’t had people to rely on. My dad, Eli, the guys at the shop. That’s what Jace deserves. This is about more than a coat of paint in his room.”

“I can do it on my own,” he maintained.

Tucker recognized stubbornness when she saw it. She’d grown up with her father after all. He still managed to throw out getting a partner comments whenever he had a chance. She was pretty sure that bullheadishness was a gene that attached to the Y chromosome. Maybe it wasn’t just bullheadishness. Maybe it was pride. Patiently, she acknowledged he was right. “You can do it on your own, but you don’t have to, and I’ve decided that I’m going to take my own advice and I’m going to take you up on your offer.”

“What offer?”

Pride wasn’t related to gender. She certainly had some. Possibly it was time to set it aside as an example to him. “Well, actually, I was going to barter with you. I’ll still help with Jace, while you look for a reliable sitter in Whedon, and you’ll do some of the paperwork.”

“I went to jail for embezzlement.” His voice rose from their hushed tones, and he stalked down the hall and toward the kitchen muttering.

Tucker followed after him and caught the last part of his soliloquy. “What kind of person would let me anywhere near their books?”

Tucker caught his arm, and spun him around, then pointed at her t-shirt. It was baby blue and had a small yellow bird with googly eyes and said, Crazy Car Chick.

He scowled, but she could catch a hint of humor beneath his annoyance. “I’m going to have to start paying attention to your t-shirts.”

She grinned, but didn’t say anything as she waited for him to continue.

Finally, Tyler sighed. “Yes, Tucker, if the offer still stands, I’ll take it.”

She pushed her luck and asked, “With both the room and the babysitting?”

He nodded. “So, it’s not only Bart who gets Angelina’s life lessons, it’s me?”

“It is. And can you tell me what your life lesson was today?”

“When someone offers to help, I should say yes?”

“Not all the time, but in this instance, yes. When people love your kid and want to help, you should say yes.”

“He is mine now, isn’t he? The thought still terrifies me.”

“It should—at least if you were doing it alone, but in this case, you have help. You know what they say, it takes a village—or in this case a garage—to raise a child.” She laughed at her own poor adaptation of the phrase. “It’s okay to be single and a little hung up on your feelings, but when you have kids, they have to come first above everything else. So, what if we run to Home Depot and look at some paint tomorrow? We can start on the room. And maybe next week, you can take a look at my books and offer a few suggestions.”

“You’re pushy and crazy,” Tyler said with no heat.

Tucker agreed. “I know. I think I have a t-shirt that says as much.”

Tyler tried to look stern, but in the end, he laughed. “I’m sure you do.”

TUCKER WAS ON TYLER’S doorstep at ten the next morning, Bart in tow. “The painting crew has arrived.”

She’d made a run to the store and bought various shades of blue paint, and she’d also packed some of her tools of the trade, most notably her airbrush and a small, portable compressor.

Bart was handing a second load of things from the car.

“You gonna give us a hand?” she asked.

Tyler leaned over to pick up her compressor and stopped mid-way to stare at her chest.

She might have taken offense, but she knew he noticed her shirt. “I wore it for you.” It showed a woman pushing a car up a hill and read, Pushy Women Get the Job Done. “It was a present from Lou.”

Tyler chuckled and picked up the compressor. “How many t-shirts do you own?”

Bart came up behind his mother. “Way too many. I think both her dressers are filled with them. She has them organized by color and by age. The older ones are work shirts, the newer ones she considers dressy.”

“This is an old one,” she clarified, “’cause we’re here to work.”

“I’m here for a few hours, then I’ve got to go,” Bart added apologetically.

“It’s nice of you to do this. Both of you,” he clarified.

“Don’t fool yourself. Mom’s not merely doing, she’s in charge. She might let you think you’re the boss. I mean, after all, it’s your house, but she won’t trust you with painting. We’re her peons. That’s it.”

“Bart,” she scolded. “You weren’t supposed to tell him. I wanted to leave Tyler with the illusion of—”

“When you showed up with everything, I’d already figured out I was at your mercy. So what color are we…” His question trailed off as Bart started coughing. Well, actually, the coughing was an attempt to cover his laughter, but it didn’t work very well.

“Color, Tyler?” Bart shook his head. “You really have never met Angelina Dorothy Tucker, have you.”

“Wait a minute, Dorothy? Your middle name is Dorothy?”

“After Pop’s mom. She was a very nice lady. Sweet and easygoing. They hoped some of her attributes would rub off on me.”

“They didn’t,” Bart assured him. “Mom’s sweet like a Sweet Tart. Big emphasis on the tart.”

“You’re calling your mother a tart?” she asked, her voice challenging.

“No one uses that word the way you’re taking it, Mom,” he assured her.

She stopped her mock squabble with Bart when she spied Jace sitting in the middle of the living room floor.

Jace stood and hurried across the floor, raised his hands at Tucker and babbled what was obviously baby orders to pick him up.

“Hey, big guy. What do you think about your bedroom getting a quick coat of paint?”

He reach out, grabbed one of her short curls and pulled.

“I take it that’s a yes. Let’s get to it, boys.”

LATER THAT AFTERNOON, Jace was napping on a blanket on the floor in the living room as Tyler worked on painting a dresser on the porch. Bart had long since left, and Angelina was doing something on the two-toned blue walls in Jace’s room.

She’d asked if he minded a surprise, and he’d said no, so she’d banished him to the porch with a can of paint, the dresser and instructions.

He thought about her t-shirt and grinned. She was definitely pushy, but in the best kind of way.

He wouldn’t have thought about painting the baby’s room.

He glanced at Jace sleeping peacefully and despite the fact he continued to call him a baby, he wasn’t. Jace was a toddler.

And Jace belonged to him now.

He understood the Matthews weren’t capable of raising their grandson.

He understood it, but he was scared. Scared to his bones that their trust in him was severely misplaced.

What if—

“Hey, slacker, you done yet?” Tucker asked, pulling him from questions he couldn’t answer.

He took another brush at the drawer for effect and nodded. “Done, ma’am.”

“So am I. Come in and see what you think.”

They tiptoed past the living room and the sleeping baby.

At Jace’s bedroom door, Tucker asked, “Remember the other day when Jace was eye-eying all over the place?”

He nodded.

“Well, pair that with the fact we live on the doorstep of one of the great lakes, and…” She opened the door with flourish.

Tyler stepped forward and took it in. She’d had him help paint light blue on the upper part of the walls, and a darker blue on the lower half. On her own, she’d painted in waves, and clouds. The sun shone brightly near the window, and there was a huge sailboat taking up the biggest wall. He got closer and saw it was named Jace-Racer. And there were two people on the deck. “Me and Jace?”

She smiled.

“Angel, it’s amazing.”

“Thanks. My friend, Laura, has a big mural on her baby’s wall. I thought it was cool. I wish I’d have done something like that for Bart. Since I didn’t…” She shrugged.

“Laura. She’s the one with…Jamie?” he asked, remembering the blond woman from the Keller house.

“Yeah, that’s her. Her husband’s the cop who grilled you. One of her students painted the mural as a gift, and I loved the idea, so…” She shrugged again.

He studied the walls and turned to her. He schooled his face into a serious expression. “I only have one complaint.”


“You should be on the boat with us. And Bart. You both did more of this than I did.”

“We don’t need to be on it, too. We’re…”

“Unless it’s too much work?” He knew Angelina would take that as a challenge.

She snorted. “No, it’s not too much work.”

He watched, as she got out a paint set and a small brush and drew in two more people on the deck with sure and easy strokes. Minutes later, there was a miniature Angelina and Bart next to him and Jace.

“Thanks,” he said.

Underplaying her gift, she said, “It was nothing. It only took a moment.”

“It wasn’t nothing,” he assured her. “And I’m not thanking you for only this, I’m thanking you for everything.”

“You’re fam—”

He cut her off. “You’ve made me feel a part of something I haven’t felt in a very long time. I worked at the investment firm for years, and I wasn’t ever anything more than employee. If I’d worked there another three decades, I’d still have never been more than a body to them. I walked into Tucker’s Garage, and you all took me in when you had every reason to hold me at arm’s length. I don’t know how to tell you what that means.”

Tucker looked uncomfortable. “You really want to thank me?” she finally said.


“Great. I accept your thanks, so stop thanking me.”

“I don’t think I can say it enough.”

“If you want to thank me, then stop thanking me. You could, however, order a pizza. I’m starving and I’m officially inviting myself to dinner.”

Before he could think of anything more to say, Jace squawked and Tucker hurried from the room, no doubt to check on the baby.

He stopped in the middle of the room and studied the sailboat. Jace, Tucker, Bart and him.

Almost as if they were a family.


Perhaps once he could have had that dream, but now? He felt horrible that Jace would be raised by a man with a record, although it meant his father’s name was unblemished, at least. Tyler could take comfort in that. But he wouldn’t let anyone else share the burden of his name and conviction. He knew what it was like to be tied to a man whose name was tarnished.

Almost would have to do.

ON MONDAY AND TUESDAY, the whole shop took their turn with Jace. Angelina had the morning shift, then each of the guys sat with him while they rotated their lunch breaks. Watching North trying to teach Jace to do a Vulcan sign was about the funniest thing Tyler had ever seen.

Mr. Tucker went to sit at Angelina’s house while Jace took a long afternoon nap. Angelina confided he had a soap opera he enjoyed.

Bart helped out after Jace woke up.

It was a hodge-podge way of caring for a kid, but Tyler loved knowing that Jace was close at hand and surrounded by people who loved him.

He didn’t doubt that part.

If Tucker’s garage had been quick to absorb him into their arms, they’d moved even faster with Jace.

On Wednesday, when he’d finished the BMW he’d been working on, Tyler headed over to Angelina’s to collect Jace.

Tyler heard raised voices before he’d even reached the porch and his stomach roiled. He hesitated before knocking on the door.

“Come in,” Angelina called. “Have a seat and give me a sec. Jace is sleeping.”

She turned back to her son. Bart towered over her, and was obviously as upset as she was.

Tyler took a seat, but sat on the edge, poised to make a fast getaway with the baby if need be.

“You know you’re supposed to call.” Angelina’s voice was filled with anger. He’d never heard her like that. She practically radiated with it.

Bart threw up his hands. “I forgot, so sue me.”

“I don’t need to sue you.” Angelina took a step toward him and waggled her finger up at his face. “I have so many other options. I can ground you—you might be eighteen and all that, but you still live here, in my house. I can take away your car privileges. Or how about I take your phone? How will you communicate with your girlfriend without a cellphone? You’d have to—” gasping, she held a hand to her mouth for dramatic effect “—use the landline.”

“Mom, I said I was sorry. I mean, what do you want from me? I can write it in blood if you think that would help.”

“You did say you were sorry, but you said it as if I were the worst mother in the world to insist you tell me where you are and what you’re doing. How hard is it to call and say you’ll be late?”

“I’m eighteen.”

Tyler remembered his last fight with his father had been on the day he’d turned eighteen. He’d stayed at the Matthews’ house most of his senior year of high school. He hadn’t seen his father in months. His stomach churned harder at the memory. His father had hit him, and for the first, and only time, he’d hit him back before his father could continue the beating. He’d left then and had never looked back.

Until now.

Nervously, he tried to focus on mother and son.

“You are eighteen,” Tucker agreed. “Which means you do know my cell number, and I’m sure, judging by the amount of time you talk to whoever this new girl is, you know how to use the keypad either to call or text me.” She jabbed at an imaginary keypad for emphasis. “Just pick up the damn phone and tell me you’ll be late. Let me know you’re not dead in a ditch.”

“Why on earth do you always go there if I’m a little late?” Bart asked, then muttered, “Drama queen.”

“Drama queen?” Tucker sputtered, as if looking for something to say that would counter his accusation. “Have you read the statistics for teenaged drivers?”

“I’m not a freaking kid anymore.”

Bart’s voice was still loud, but the angry edge had faded, as if he was finally understanding what his mother was saying. As the tension between them ebbed, Tyler felt himself relax a bit.

“No, you’re not. You’re old enough to care about someone else’s feelings. In a few months you’ll be gone to college. You’ll be independent. I get that. I remember what it’s like to feel as if you’re an adult for the first time. But a real adult would realize that being courteous isn’t a sign of immaturity. Worrying about someone else’s feelings shows exactly the opposite.”

She turned and asked Tyler, “If you were going to be late picking up Jace, you’d let me know, right? You wouldn’t leave me here worrying?”

“I don’t think I want to get in the middle of this.”

She turned back to Bart. “Ha. That’s Ty’s polite way of saying, he’d call. Because he’s an adult. Because he wouldn’t leave somebody hanging, especially someone who cares.” Tucker reached out and gently touched Bart’s forearm. “I worry because I care. I’ve spent eighteen years worrying, and it’s going to be a tough habit to break. I won’t make you report in at college, but when you’re here, when you’ve said you’ll be home at one time and then ignore phone calls and texts, and don’t show up until two hours later—”

Any residual anger bled off, and Bart seemed truly apologetic. “I get it and I really am sorry, Mom.”

Angelina seemed to relax as well. “Well, okay then.”

“I’ll call next time,” Bart promised.

“I’d appreciate that.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek.

It was so tender, so loving, Tyler felt a pang of longing. Would his mother have loved him that fiercely if she’d lived, or would she have been like his father?

“So, what’s for dinner?” Bart asked.

“Taco lasagne.”

Bart leaned over and kissed her cheek in return. “I guess there are worse things than having someone worry about you.”

“I guess there are. And while you’re feeling so mellow, I should probably warn you that if you don’t call at least once a week while you’re in college, I’ll worry. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll drive down to Pittsburgh.”

He laughed and started down the hall. “So, if I get homesick, I should not call…got it.”

“Smart ass,” she called after him.

She turned back to Tyler. “Sorry about that. Jace is napping and…” The sentence faded off and she looked concerned. “What’s wrong, Tyler?”

“You two were fighting and then you weren’t. Just like that.”

“Yeah, we were fighting. Bart went out and said he’d be home by two-thirty, but he didn’t walk in until right before you did. I’d tried calling, but he’d had his phone on vibrate, and then left it in the car.”

“But you were fighting, then you were talking about food.” When his old man fought with him, well, it didn’t end in a dinner discussion.

Angelina was staring at him as if he were slightly crazy. She nodded slowly. “Uh-huh. We fought. Bart apologized and will probably remember next time. At least for the next few times. There’s a chance we’ll have a similar fight again before the summer’s over, and probably when he’s home for his first holiday break. But eventually, it’ll sink in. My future daughter-in-law will appreciate the efforts I made.”

Tyler shook his head. He felt mystified. “I’ve never seen a fight like that.”

“You’re new at the garage. It would have happened sooner or later. Pop and I used to get into some major rows…” She paused. “You’ve never fought like that?”

“No. I’d get mad at Jason. He was like my brother, so okay, we occasionally annoyed each other, but we never fought. The one time we did, I ended up taking a swing at him.”

She whistled. “He must have done something really boneheaded because I don’t see you being prone to that kind of thing.”

“You don’t know me.” She kept looking at him as if she did. But she didn’t. And for the life of him, he didn’t understand her. She was pissed her old man hired an ex-con, then suddenly was acting as if it had been her idea all along. Hell, she was trusting him to help with their accounts, even though she knew what he’d gone to jail for. What was with her?

“I don’t really know you, but I’d like to,” Tucker said slowly. “So tell me. Tell me about you and fights.”

“I don’t do it with people, not even normal arguments, because I don’t know how to do it without someone getting hit.”

“Your parents?” she asked softly.

Tyler shook his head. “No. My mom…she died when I was ten…my father was a drunk. A mean drunk.” He let his explanation rest there. It was apparent that she understood what he was saying without him going into graphic detail. He remembered odd incidents. The day he’d used the last of the milk on some cereal, and the old man—hung over as usual—went to get some for his coffee. That time the authorities had questioned his father, who said his son’s broken arm was the result of a fall.

As the social worker stood next to the bed, asking about the accident and if he’d really fallen, his father had stood on the other side of the bed waiting for Tyler to agree with his version. Tyler had been maybe fifteen. He’d wanted to tell the social worker that his father was lying. Sure he’d fallen—fallen down the stairs—but only because his father had pushed him. In the end, he’d nodded his head in agreement; telling the truth wasn’t a luxury he could afford.

Tucker reached across the table and put her hand on his. “I’m sorry. But fights don’t have to end up with someone getting hit. And I maintain that Jason must have done something truly stupid if you reacted violently. That is not the Tyler Martinez I know.”

“But that Tyler Martinez is the one I live in fear of. I’ve spent every day of my adult life trying not to be my father’s son. Not to live down to the name he’d given me. It was easier when it was me, on my own, but now there’s Jace—and there’s no way getting round him. What if I’m like my old man, Angel? What if Jace comes in late, and rather than have a fight with him like you did with Bart, what if I smack him across the face, then toss him down the stairs the way my father did to me?”

“You won’t.” There was so much certainty in her voice.

“I might. I’ve read that people parent the way they were parented. And my father’s SOP involved an open hand if you were lucky, and a fist if you weren’t. I know I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I ever raised a hand to Jace.”

He raked his fingers through his hair. “I didn’t want this,” he said with a burst of anger. “I had my life planned and it didn’t involve raising someone else’s child—ever. I don’t want to screw up Jace, but I know if Jason were here, I’d be apt to deck him for a second time. None of this is happening how I expected it to.”

Angelina pulled her hand away. “My first instinct is to whap you upside the head and say, idiot, but somehow I think that would be counterproductive, so instead, just sit there and listen.”

She got up, paced and didn’t say a thing.

“Angel,” he started.

She shushed him and continued walking around the table for another few seconds, then stopped to face him. “The first thing I need to say is, taking in Jace wasn’t what you planned, but it’s what you’ve done, so now you’ve got to deal with it. I’m going to tell you to shut up, suck it up and figure it out because those are the exact words my Pops used when I had Bart. Neither of us planned being responsible for a kid, but life is what it is, so now you’ve got to stop whining.”

“Whining?” He wasn’t sure if he was insulted or amused by her choice of words.

She shrugged. “Whatever you want to call it. It’s done. Jace is yours, for better or worse. And that leads me to the second thing—you love Jace. It’s written all over your face every time you pick him up. At first, you probably loved him ’cause you had to, because he’s your best friend’s kid and you were his godfather. But now, it’s there. As clear as the nose on your face. You love him like I love Bart. Completely and all encompassing. I’d throw myself on a grenade for my kid. You’d do the same for Jace. That’s something. Something big.”

“But what if I’m the grenade that explodes all over him?”

“Shh,” she said again. “You love him too much and you’re too smart for that. But me saying that probably won’t make you worry less, so let me add this—if you ever lay a finger on that baby, now, or when he’s Bart’s age, I’ll step in, even take you on, Martinez.” She stood, hands on hips, looking fierce. “I might be small, but I’m scrappy.”

Something in him melted. She was such a petite woman. Tiny even. And yet, he believed her. She’d take him on and she’d win. She’d never let him hurt Jace.


His relief spread at the thought.

Angelina Tucker would never let him turn into his father.

He reached out, took her by the hand and drew her into his arms. “Thank you,” he said before he kissed her.

He kissed her with all the hunger he’d felt when he’d first asked her out. He’d hardly known her then, all he’d known was that he was attracted to her. Now, he wanted to know more.

He wanted to go on kissing her and more.

Much more.

The sound of a door slamming somewhere in the house reminded him they weren’t alone and reluctantly, he pulled back.

“Well,” was all she said.

“Well,” he echoed because he didn’t know what to say either.

She saved him from finding something else to say by asking, “So, you’ll stay for supper?”

He nodded. “I’ll set the table.”

And just like that, they bustled around her kitchen as if nothing had happened. Tyler tried to ignore the fact he never should have let it happen. She deserved her shot at freedom. She deserved a better man than him. He couldn’t let it happen again.

But something had happened.

Something big.