A Father's Name
Author:Holly Jacobs

Chapter SIX

“IT’S OFFICIAL,” TUCKER declared to her friends Eli and Laura on Friday night.

One of the many nice things about being adopted by the Keller family was the occasional girls’ Friday night out. When Eli and Laura’s other sisters-in-law were in town, they sometimes joined them, but most of the time it was the three of them.

Eli and Laura were both teachers and both had young children. They said getting together on a Friday night every once and a while was sometimes the only thing that saved them after a crazy week. Tucker generally sympathized with their small-kid-woes, but Bart was, for all intents and purposes, an adult now and she’d forgotten what it was like coping with little kids…until now.

“What’s official?” Eli asked.

“I’ve lost three pounds in the last two weeks chasing after Jace. I officially remember what’s it’s like to take care of a toddler. All those other Friday nights out with the two of you, I’ve commiserated and I’ve sympathized, but I was faking it. Blatantly faking it. I’d forgotten how intense toddlers can be.”

“You’re still babysitting?” Eli asked.

Tucker had expected her friends to be amused by her statement. Instead, both looked concerned.

“Yeah. We did the same kind of baby-balancing act when Bart was young, and it’s all come back to us—to the whole shop. Of course, Joe and North weren’t around back then, but they’ve caught on fine. As a matter of fact, North offered to buy Jace his Halloween costume.”

“It’s only barely July.” Laura’s expression finally indicated the amusement Tucker had been hoping for.

Feeling encouraged, Tucker continued, “North’s got to special order it.”

Laura smiled, as she asked the proper question. “What is North thinking of making Jace?”

“Baby Spock.” Tucker had shared North’s love of all things Star Trek with the women before, so they all laughed. “I told Tyler it was his decision. If he gives North free rein on this, next thing you know, Jace will be in his teens and North will be teaching him to speak Klingon.”

Eli smiled at the statement, but her expression quickly turned serious as she asked, “Is Tyler still looking for a sitter?”

Tucker nodded. “But it’s summer. Whedon’s one daycare center is overflowing with younger kids who are on summer vacation. The same holds true for private sitters around town. And it’s not practical for Tyler to drive all the way into Erie each day, then back to work.” She didn’t add that the truth was, she hated the thought of Jace going to a babysitter. She’d fallen head over heels for the baby.

She’d had Bart while she was still in her teens under less than optimal circumstances. She’d doubted many things about her parenting abilities, but she’d never doubted for one instant how much she loved being a mother.

She knew she wasn’t Jace’s mom, but every time he reached for her or called her Uck, she melted. She didn’t mind not being married, or in a serious relationship, but she was wishing she’d had more children. She was beginning to wonder about adopting a baby. The Kellers had adopted their whole clan, and look how well that had turned out.

Eli’s voice was sharp and pulled Tucker from her baby-adopting daydream. “So, Tyler expects you to limp along like this until fall?”

Tucker eyed her friend. Eli had always been the most easygoing of women, until now. “What on earth is up with you?”

Eli looked primed for a fight. “Tyler’s using you. I don’t like it.”

Laura was a new friend, and it was obvious she wasn’t comfortable with the turn this conversation was taking. She sat quietly in the booth and practiced looking invisible.

Tucker focused on Eli as if she’d grown horns. “Tyler’s not using me. You know me better than that. He never asked, I offered. And truth be told, it wasn’t so much an offer as an order.”

“You’ve told us over and over again how busy you’ve been at the shop. More and more people want you to paint their cars and bikes.”

“So?” Tucker challenged.

“So,” Eli said slowly, “now your dad’s retired and you’re in charge of everything, you’re adding a lot to your plate even without the babysitting.”

“Tyler’s helping with the accounting duties. He’s finding ways to streamline the paperwork process.” Tucker felt it made for an even exchange. She’d much rather cuddle a squirmy toddler than balance a ledger.

“Yeah, because that makes a ton of sense,” Eli scoffed. “Give an embezzler a shot with your books.”

Laura broke her invisibility by murmuring, “Seth will go crazy if he finds out.”

“So, he doesn’t have to find out. It’s no one’s business how I run the garage.” Tucker was ticked off. It wasn’t up to her friends to judge how she handled her business. “I’ve never seen you two like this.”

“We care about you,” Eli said.

Tucker’s annoyance over their attitude warred with the warmth over their concern that prompted it.

“I guess you’re going to have to trust me and trust my judgement. Tyler’s not what you think.”

“So, convince us,” Laura said.

“I—” Eli began, but Laura sent a be-quiet-and-listen look in her direction and she snapped her lips shut.

“Tyler’s…” Tucker hesitated, not sure how to describe him in a way that would change Eli and Laura’s opinion of him.

Her silence seemed to be all the invitation Eli needed to unsnap her lips. “I remember a couple years ago when he was asking you out. I was angsting over the age difference between me and Zac, and you were telling me about a guy who kept wanting a date. You felt you were too different and wouldn’t give him the time of day. What’s changed?”

Tucker started to say Tyler’d changed, but she wasn’t sure that was the truth. Oh, the clothes he wore and the car he drove had changed, but the essence of who Tyler Martinez was hadn’t. “Maybe I’ve simply had an opportunity to figure out who he is, who he was, beneath the fancy clothes and car. He’s kind and caring. You should see him with Jace. Assisting me with the shop’s books wasn’t some nefarious plan on his part. He even told me I’m a fool to let an embezzler anywhere near them.”

“But—” Eli started.

Tucker cut her friend off. “And as for me watching Jace, like I said, I offered. I listen to you two when we go out, and I miss Bart being that age. I’m not really interested in relationships, not to mention there’s a whole other host of things I don’t excel at. But I’m great in a garage, with a paintbrush in my hand. And I’m equally good with kids. I’m enjoying myself. Sure, it’s hard work juggling Jace’s care, but it’s worth it. He calls me Uck.”

“Uck?” Some of the tension eased noticeably in her friends and they both grinned.

“I wasn’t sure he was talking about me the first time he said it, but you can’t miss it now.”

“I don’t think I’d be that impressed with being called Uck,” Laura said.

“Hey, there could have been other variations of Tucker that would’ve been worse. A lot worse.”

Laura and Eli both laughed, and the rest of tension that Tucker had felt evaporated. “Okay, what else is on our evening’s agenda?”

They finished their dinner then went to a movie. Tucker lobbied for a new action/adventure, but found herself sandwiched between Laura and Eli as they both grew teary-eyed at the romance they saw.

Normally Tucker could laugh off a good romance as unrealistic, but tonight’s movie left her feeling strange. She and Tyler were spending so much time together because of work and Jace. She’d told her friends how much she enjoyed Jace, and that was true. She loved watching him toddle around the house, and seeing him change each day. Whether it was saying her improvised name, or adding a new block to his tower. She couldn’t get enough of him. She’d been working a lot of evenings to make up for her days with Jace, but she didn’t mind that. Bart was busy with work, his new, as yet unnamed, girlfriend and his friends. He was gone most evenings and the house got quiet.

Too quiet.

Going back over to the shop gave her something to do. It filled up her evenings. She’d flip her iPod onto shuffle and enjoy singing out loud with her favorite tunes as she designed and painted one project or another.

She liked the new rhythm to her life.

No, it wasn’t Tyler taking advantage.

She wanted to help with Jace. She’d fallen for the toddler.

As for Tyler? Images of the movie’s hot love scene flashed through her mind as she drove home that night, only it wasn’t the actor and the actress she envisioned. It was her and Tyler doing those things to and with each other. Things that left her with a physical longing she hadn’t felt toward a man in a long time. She shouldn’t be thinking like that.

She liked Tyler. Liked him a lot. He’d opened up a little to her about his father. She sensed that other than Jason, Tyler had never really shared that with anyone. But there was still a lot she didn’t know about him.

But she was certain of one thing, there was more to his embezzlement story. She wasn’t sure what, but the idea of skimming money from his employer and clients didn’t fit the man she was beginning to know.

The man she really wanted to know more of.

LATE MONDAY MORNING, Tucker admitted a long-since-cooled-off cup of coffee in her hand wasn’t enough to stop her from glaring at the stack of receipts and bank statements in front of her. Heck, even the fact it was the Fourth of July and she was going to the fireworks later didn’t help ease her dislike of the paperwork.

Honestly, she didn’t understand people who chose careers that involved doing spreadsheets and math all day, every day…on purpose.

“Payrolls, warranties, inspection forms,” she muttered under her breath, like a mantra. No, more like a curse. There was no end to it. “Ordering invoices, preparing estimates, finalizing bills…figures, forms and fun, oh, my…” she continued, with a cadence from the Wizard of Oz’s lions, tigers and bears, oh my.

“Ah, what’re you up to, Angel?”

She spotted her father in her doorway watching her and smiling. She growled a greeting, which only made him laugh.

“Ah, paperwork. It does put you in a lovely mood, daughter.”

“I can handle it, Pops.”

“So, have you given any more thought to a partner? Someone else who had a stake in the business who wouldn’t mind the paperwork.”

“Like I said, I can handle it, Pops. I can handle everything.”

He came into her office with far less nervousness than the guys would have shown. They all tended to disappear quickly when they caught her doing paperwork.

Her father didn’t show any such fear as he sat down opposite her. “Angel, I know you can handle everything. You’ve spent your entire adult life handling everything that was thrown at you. Not only handling, but triumphing. You are an amazing woman and I’m so very proud to be your father. But that being said, you are not meant for an office. You’re an artist. You need to play to your strengths.”

Her father frequently called her an artist, but that felt presumptuous to her. “I’m a mechanic who does a bit of painting.”

“You’re more than that, and we both know it. We have people lined up to have you customize their cars and motorcycles. You’ve put Tucker’s Garage on the map. Don’t think I don’t realize that it was you and your work that took a small local garage and turned it into a place that people drive miles out of their way to come to. We specialize in all kinds of vehicles now, as well as your customized paint jobs. That’s where you belong—in the paint room, or in your office, but designing. You don’t belong behind a desk doing,” he reached across and picked up the paper in front of her, “inspection forms.”

“Pops, I—”

He cut her off. “I know what this is, and it’s my fault.”

“What what is, and how is it your fault?”

“After you got pregnant with Bart I lectured you about responsibility, about standing on your own two feet. I still stand by that, and you’ve more than proven that you can do it all, but just like with Bart, you can ask for help, Angel. More than that, you can accept help. You can share this workload.” He ran his fingers through his thinning, grey hair. “Hell, you can share your life with someone else. I worry I made you think relying on someone else somehow lets me down.”

Was it her imagination or was it thinner? His face showed signs of aging—lines she didn’t recall him having a year ago. That couldn’t do his heart and his health any good. “Pops, you’re wrong. I know how to rely on people. As a matter of fact, I’ve never done anything on my own. Like you said, I’ve had you, the guys. Every single one of them. Look how they’re all pitching in with Jace.”

If her father has been frowning before, he was practically scowling now. “About that.”

Tucker’s worries took a backseat as she sensed a lecture coming on. She felt her hackles rise, even before he said another word. She tried to tamp it down for her father’s sake.

Her father ignored it. “Are you sure you haven’t taken on too much by caring for a baby on top of everything else you do…?.”

“Pops, I’m enjoying Jace. And you know it’s not only me. You’ve come over every afternoon to watch your soap and listen for him while he naps.”

“I don’t watch soaps,” he protested, then added, “and that’s different. I’m retired. I can play surrogate grandpa if I want. You’re too busy. I thought babysitting might remind you there’s more than the garage. I thought it was short term. I wanted you to find a life, not take on more work.”

“Pops, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell me to let other people in, then tell me I don’t have time for it. And Pops,” she added gently, “this isn’t up for debate. In the fall, it will be a lot easier to find an appropriate sitter. We’ve got some feelers out. Eli is talking to Mrs. Keller and she knows absolutely everyone in Whedon. This isn’t permanent. But I’m not going to let Tyler dump Jace with someone because it’s timely or convenient.”

“You have a say in something like that? About who Tyler leaves the baby with?” her father asked. “What is going on with you and Tyler?”

“We’re friends.” He eyed her in his very discerning fatherly way. “Friends, Pops. But I like Jace as much as you do. I heard you talking to him the other day about going fishing, then I caught you in the shed. I’m betting that bag I saw you carry out had Bart’s old kiddie fishing pole, didn’t it?”

“Maybe, but be that as it may, I’m going to tell you now, Angel, that when I hired Tyler, it wasn’t with the idea of him dating my daughter in mind. He’s a great guy, and I believe in second chances…”

“It’s okay to have him work here, but not to date me?”

Rather than look chagrined at the hypocrisy, her father nodded. “That’s absolutely right. I don’t want you and him dating.”

“You don’t think I’m old enough to decide who I want to date?” Before he could answer that question, she asked, “And how did we move from me bringing in a partner, to me spending time babysitting Jace as a favor to a friend, to my fictional dating of Tyler Martinez? He asked me out a ton in the past and I’ve always said no, so why do you think that would change now? And to be clear, he hasn’t asked me out since he started working here.”

“I’ve seen how you look at him, and how he looks at you. There’s something there. There was something there a couple years ago. When I asked you why you said no, you said he was a charmer who wears business suits, as if that were an answer. Well, daughter, he’s not wearing business suits now.” He nodded his head for emphasis.

Tucker knew that her father was here because he loved her, because he worried about her. But that was the last thing he should be doing. He didn’t need the stress. “Pops, I love you, and I love that you care, but I’ve long since stopped needing your dating advice. And to be clear, I’m not dating Tyler.”

“Not officially dating him, but you two are together a lot. And I’ve only commented on your dating one other time—that was with Bart’s father. We know how that turned out.”

That was a direct zing. “Ouch,” she said.

He looked apologetic, as if he knew he wasn’t fighting fair. “I want better for you than a guy with a record.”

“Pops, I’m not looking for a man. Bart leaves for school this fall, and for the first time in my entire adult life, I’ll be on my own. Responsible for myself. Unencumbered. I’m not interested in something serious or permanent with a man—with any man,” she reiterated. “As you’ve pointed out, I have enough on my plate with the business. But if there comes a day that I don’t have time for a friend…” She left the sentence hanging because she didn’t know how to finish it. She knew she’d always find time for a friend.

And Tyler was a friend. “So, that’s that, right?” she asked. “I don’t want to have this fight with you or with anyone else again.”

Friday night her friends, today her father. What on earth was going on?

“I love you, Angel. I’ve spent my whole life worrying about you, and that’s not going to change. You’ll see when Bart goes to college. You’ll still worry.”

“I know you’re right on both counts, Pops. And I love you, too.”

“So, are you going to put aside your papers there and go into town for the fireworks?” She’d forgotten it was a holiday until she got into work this morning and found the garage deserted. Then Tyler had called.

She decided not to mention that to her father. “I had plans to go into Erie for the fireworks, and you’re welcome to come along, too, if you like.”

“I wasn’t fishing for an invitation,” he told her. “As a matter a fact, I’m taking Marilyn out for the evening. They’re having some a polka band down at St. Stan’s.”

“Pops has a girlfriend,” she singsonged. “That explains your worry over my dating habits. You were hoping I wouldn’t notice you’re dating someone.”

“Angelina,” he warned.

She laughed. “I’m bustin’ ’em for you, Pops. I think it’s great. Isn’t she the Bentley Continental GT?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

Tucker let out a long, low whistle. “You picked a classy lady. She’s always been very nice to me.”

“It’s some polka music, dinner, then the fireworks.”

“Do we need to have a discussion like I’d have with Bart, about dating and what could happen and being safe?”

Her father looked as uncomfortable as she’d felt earlier. “You’re funny, Angel. Very, very funny.”

She was giggling as he walked away.

She heard the murmur of voices outside her office door and wondered who else had come into the shop on a holiday.

She thought about getting up and checking, but the inspection form her father had tossed onto her desk taunted her. She sighed and picked it up.

Paperwork was the bane of her existence.


“You heard?” George Tucker asked.

Tyler nodded. He’d heard Angelina’s proclamation that they were friends. She hadn’t dated him when he’d had money, why would she date him now that he was simply a mechanic? Not that he’d ask her to date him. He wouldn’t drag her into his mess.

“Yes, I heard, sir. And Angelina’s right, we’re friends. Only friends. She’s been wonderful with Jace. So have you and the other guys. The daycare center in town is willing to take him. I can see about arranging it.” His stomach turned at the thought of putting Jace into such a big center. Ideally, he wanted to find someone grandmotherly. Someone whose only focus would be Jace. The baby had lost so much. He deserved to be someone’s singular focus while Tyler was busy fixing cars.

“No.” George shook his head. “That’s not what I want, and I know it’s not what Angel and the other guys want. We can continue this for a few more weeks until you find the right place for him. We all love him now, and don’t want anything less than the best.” He paused and added, “I feel the same way about my daughter. She deserves nothing but the best.”

“I understand, sir.” And he did. Angelina deserved the best, and anyone with half a brain would know that was someone other than Tyler Martinez. “We’re friends.”

“Fine then.” George clapped Tyler on the shoulder. “I’m very glad you’re working here. All the guys have nothing but good things to say about you. You’re an asset to the business.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I believe in second chances,” George continued, “but I can’t believe in them where Angel’s concerned. I hope you understand that.”

“I have Jace now, and I guarantee that I get it. Even before he was in my care, I wanted nothing but the best for him.”

“Okay. I assume Angel was waiting for you?’

In the interest of being honest, he told Angelina’s father, “I’m meeting Joe and North in Erie for dinner and the fireworks. Joe’s bringing his wife, and the idea of another in-depth Star Trek vs. Star Wars discussion with North was almost more than I could stand. I invited Angelina to come along and run interference. It wasn’t a date, though. It was all the guys and Jace…”

“It’s fine, Tyler. If you can pry her away from her desk and get her out of here, I’d appreciate it. She’s a very stubborn woman.”

Tyler snorted. “I’ve noticed.”

Angelina threw open the door and said, “I heard the words stubborn and woman and assume the two of you were discussing me?”

“Tyler says he’s taking you into Erie with him and the boys.”

“I know, I said yes,” she said to Tyler, “but really, I have a ton of work—”

He interrupted. “I could use a hand with Jace. I haven’t really tried an outing with him, and rumor has it you’re an expert.”

“Where is he now?” she asked.

“Bart was leaving when I came in and Jace wanted nothing to do with anything that didn’t include him, so they’re out in the front looking for bugs. He ate one the other day.”

“Bart?” she asked with a grin.

Tyler chuckled. “No, Jace. I called poison control, but the lady there assured me he probably wasn’t going to suffer any serious side-effects from chewing on a spider.”

“Oh, gross,” Angelina groaned. “Bart ate a slug once. Pops said think about it as a protein source.”

“Bugs aside,” Tyler said, “you’re still coming?”

She eyed her father, who smiled at her, then she turned back to Tyler. “Fireworks sound wonderful.”

“Thanks. You’re saving me from North’s enthusiastic science fiction talk.”

“Oh, nothing can truly save you from that. But hey, maybe we can scope out the celebration and find a woman for him. Someone who likes guys who have big sci fi tattoos?”

“You think that such a woman exists?” Tyler asked.

“We’ll ask Joe and Carol to keep an eye out. Maybe with all of us looking…”

Angelina’s father said, “Have fun you two, but not too much fun.”

Tyler wasn’t sure if George’s warning was for him, or for Angelina, but he knew her dad was right, having too much fun with Angelina wouldn’t do.

DESPITE THE ODD TENSION between her father and Tyler at the start of the outing, Tucker was having fun.

They all gathered at The Cornerstone for dinner before heading down to Erie’s bayfront for fireworks. North stayed behind with a girl he’d met…a girl he’d met with Tucker’s help. She had watched North and their waitress, Jen, flirting with each other all evening, half-envious of them. It had been a long time since she’d been that young and felt that first rush of attraction. And she wasn’t sure she’d ever flirted.

Then she glanced across the table. It was strange to be with Joe outside the garage. They didn’t do this kind of thing often enough. She hadn’t seen Joe’s wife, Carol, in a long time. But watching them together gave her the oddest feeling, especially when she saw them holding hands. Knowing they’d been married for years and still held hands…

She’d sighed when she noticed, then felt appalled. She wasn’t a sigh-over-mushy-displays sort of person.

She blamed Laura and Eli’s chick flick on Friday.

After dinner, Joe and Carol drove to the fireworks and they eventually lost them in all the traffic. Tucker was relieved. North’s infatuation, Joe’s mushiness with Carol… She was just as glad to escape the chick-flick worthy public display of affection.

Tyler and Tucker parked on Front Street, packed everything in Jace’s stroller and walked to the bluffs that overlooked Erie’s bay. Once an industrial hub, the bayfront was now a tourist destination. A big outdoor amphitheater, a convention center and a huge tower at the foot of the dock anchored the ever-growing and changing landscape of the bay.

They found a small grassy spot and spread Tucker’s red and black checked blanket. Eating out with everyone had tired Jace to the point he practically collapsed as soon as they’d settled.

It was a warm July night, filled with the hustle and murmurs of the crowd that was gathering. Tyler wasn’t saying much. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t said much all night, so they sat in silence waiting for the fireworks. The city was launching them from a barge in the middle of the bay. They had the perfect view of the water. From high on the bluff, Tucker relaxed as the humid summer evening turned darker, the city below them lit up and boat lights bobbed on the water.

She forgot about her father’s lecture and her friends’ concerns. She forgot about paperwork and the new van she was supposed to paint a mural on. She forgot it all as she listened to the other people on the bluff murmur their conversations, and the occasional pop of someone’s home fireworks.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Tyler finally said.

“My thoughts?” She wasn’t sure she’d been actively thinking about much of anything. “My mind has been sort of quiet, but if I had to share a thought, I’d say I think it’s beautiful out here. Whedon is so close to Erie and the lake, but I get so busy I don’t take the time to come enjoy it very often. I’m really glad I came tonight. Thanks for asking. It’s been a perfect evening.”

“I can’t believe you picked up a woman for North.”

How could she have missed the way North had stared at their waitress? “Jen was cute, and asking when she got off work and if she was going to see the fireworks wasn’t much of a set up on my part. North was the one that suggested they meet up.”

“You started it.” Tyler couldn’t hide his amusement.

“Maybe I should reconsider my career choice and become a matchmaker?”

“I think there would be a lot of car and motorcycle buffs who’d hate it if you did.” He paused. “By the way, I love the T-shirt. It’s not exactly car or motorcycle oriented like most of your collection.”

She looked down at her T-shirt that read The Big Bang. It had fireworks exploding from a central point. “I thought it was appropriate for the day. And I have other styles of T-shirts, although most are related to cars and motorcycles. Customers pick them up for me. I swear, I think Lou has my size posted somewhere around the garage as a hint. But I have other interests. Don’t tell North, but I’m a closet science geek who happens to really love science fiction, too. It’s a closely guarded secret.”

“Why don’t you tell him? When he noticed your shirt and started talking about The Big Bang Theory show, you teased him.”

“You bet I did. You’ve seen the way Lou, Joe and Pops pick on North. You think I want to risk my secret getting out? I’d never admit I love that show, and that I frequently understand their geeky references before they explain the joke to the non-geek masses.” It was one of the few shows she DVR’d.

Tyler laughed. “So, basically what you’re admitting is that you throw North under the bus?”

“Nope, I throw him under the UFO.” Tucker knew it was a stupid joke, but Tyler laughed even harder and she joined in. She was relieved that they seemed back to normal. “Ha, I look like a closet sci fi geek, and you look like you’re a preppy, just like when we first met. You’re all khaki and polo shirty. Sunglasses propped just so on your perfect hair.”

SITTING HERE ON THE bluff, overlooking Lake Erie with a beautiful woman and a sleeping baby, Tyler had forgotten George Tucker’s warning until Angelina’s reminder of who he had been, which led to him thinking about who he was now

Tyler knew Angelina was kidding, but he couldn’t help frowning at the reminder of when they’d first met. Back then, he’d thought he had everything he wanted. The good job. The suits. Driving an Audi S5.


“Oh, Tyler, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you…” Angelina left the sentence hanging there between them.

“Finish the thought, Angel. You didn’t mean to remind me that I threw that life away? That I lost everything that I was back then? That I’m a convicted criminal?” Even if he could go back in time and do things differently, he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Although knowing that he did what he did for a good and worthy reason didn’t make his fall from grace any easier to handle.

He’d always thought he’d build a different, better life for himself than his father had. And yet, here he was—practically following in his father’s footsteps. Working in a garage, a kid to take care of, and a rap sheet.

He was a chip off the old block.

“There’s something about your…uh, situation that’s been nagging at me,” Tucker said hesitantly, which was not her standard operating procedure. She was a throw caution to the wind and speak her mind sort of woman, so her reticence stood out.

“My situation?” he asked.

“There’s something you’re not telling me.” Then more to herself than to him she murmured, “There’s something not right about it.”

He chose his words very carefully. “Angel, I went to court and stood before the judge and didn’t fight the charges. I took a deal.”

“See, that’s just it. You didn’t fight the charges and took a deal. Did you tell the judge you did it? Did you actually say it?”

He hadn’t. It was a point of pride. One of the few remnants he allowed himself.

Tyler didn’t lie. He might be a chip off the old block in a lot of respects, but not like that. After each of his benders, his father would swear that was the last time he was done drinking. And every time his father hit him, or beat him, he’d swear that he’d never touch him again.


Tyler had to hold on to at least one truth about himself if he could help it.

So he couldn’t lie to Angelina as she looked at him so trustingly. He had never admitted to the crime, he simply hadn’t contested the charges. Maybe it was splitting hairs, a fine line, but it was a line he drew and could walk. It was a line that allowed him to live with himself. That was the part of the plea deal he’d insisted on. He wouldn’t plead guilty.

She took his silence as a sign she was right. “Told you. You’d never do something like that.”

“You’re wrong, Angel. If it was Jace,” or you, he added silently, “I’d do anything it took. Anything. I’d beg, borrow or steal if I had to.” In his heart he knew it was true. He’d break his last promise to himself and lie if that’s what it took to protect one of them.

“I think I understand that. I’d do anything for Bart.” She paused and added, “You’re a good man, Tyler Martinez. I don’t need you to tell me what happened. I want you to know, I believe in you. You’re a good man.”

It was too much. Too damn much. Angelina sat across from the baby wearing her sciencey, holiday t-shirt and jeans, and looking at him as if he’d hung the moon.

She believed in him. With no proof. Heck, with nothing at all. She simply believed in him. Before the formal charges were even made, friends and colleagues had abandoned him. They’d believed the worst, but not Angelina.

He’d wanted her since the first time he’d seen her. She’d crawled out from under his car with a smudge of oil on her cheek, her hair tucked into a baseball cap, with fly-away curls escaping every which way, and she’d grinned at him.

He generally dated other professionals—women who were more at home in cocktail dresses than jeans. But one look at Angelina Tucker, and he’d pursued her with an instant lust that wouldn’t give him respite.

When it became apparent she wasn’t interested, he’d swept that desire under the rug, but it was back now, stronger than ever because now he knew her and she was amazing. Walking into the garage before, he’d felt the same sense of accomplishment he always did when someone else serviced his cars. He loved to wait at the shop and visit with George Tucker, knowing that he didn’t have to touch a wrench or a lugnut. But George hadn’t been there that day, only Angelina.

He didn’t understand it then, but he did now.

Now, it had gone beyond that initial immediate attraction. He cared about her, more every day. Watching her tonight at dinner, laughing with her friends, blowing on french fries before handing them to Jace, talking with such excitement about the fireworks, like a little girl. And his desire grew.

Like a dash of cold water, he thought of George Tucker telling him that Angelina deserved more than an ex-con.

If only George knew the truth. It wasn’t simply his conviction that made Angelina Tucker out of his league, it was everything else.

He should scoop up Jace and get away from her. He started to move toward the sleeping baby, when Angelina intercepted him and kissed him. She instigated it, and controlled it, taking that simple kiss and turning it into something profound.

There was hunger in her kiss, but there was tenderness, too.

And that tenderness was his undoing.

All his fine ideals and plans to walk away faded beneath the weight of that tenderness. There, over the sleeping baby, he kissed Angelina back trying to say in that one gesture what he would never say in words.

A loud boom over the bay pulled Tyler back to reality, and regretfully, he broke off the kiss. “I think we should watch the fireworks.”

Another boom broke loose. Tyler felt the sound reverberate in the pit of his stomach. Or maybe it was the enormity of what he’d done.

What he was doing.

He was falling head over heels for Angelina Tucker, and he couldn’t let that happen. He was about to say as much when she interrupted his thoughts, “You’re not saying it, Ty.”

“Saying what?” He waited, sure she was going to want to talk about their kiss and try to make it mean more than he could ever allow it to mean.

“Ooh. Ahh. That’s the only proper response to fireworks. You take turns with them.”

A large orange firework snowballed in the sky. “Ooh,” Tucker said.

A group of small, white fireworks zipped to and fro after it. “Ahh.”

He forgot about warning her off.

Tyler Martinez forgot about all the reasons he needed to stay away from Angelina Tucker. He simply sat back and watched her enjoying the fireworks, oohing and ahhing along with her, although he knew she was oohing over the fireworks and he was ahhing about what he couldn’t have.

He’d told her about his father, and she’d assured him she would never let him turn into his father. She’d protect Jace.

But it wasn’t his father’s physical abuse that hurt the most, it was the memory of how he’d treated Tyler’s mother before she died.

Sometimes, secretly, Tyler thought his mother died because she finally gave up. Gave up hoping, gave up dreaming, gave up believing in anything.

He knew what that was like. He could have given up back then as well, but he’d had a friend in Jason when he was growing up, and now, after losing Jason, he had Angelina.

He had her as a friend.

He liked her too much to let it be anything more than that. He continued to watch her as they oohed and ahhed.

When he’d first asked her out, he’d been casual about it, figuring that’s what would appeal to her.

He knew her better now, and knew despite her penchant for funny t-shirts, there was nothing casual about Angelina Tucker.

And more importantly, there was nothing casual about his feelings for her.

Which is why that last kiss was the last kiss.

She deserved more than he would ever be able to give her. She deserved a man with a sterling reputation. A man without a past. She deserved love, laughter and a lifetime of happiness.

None of that was in the cards for him. He was, despite all his attempts, and hers, his father’s son, and Angelina Tucker deserved more than that.

And he cared enough about her to see to it that she got everything she deserved.

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