Busted (Promise Harbor Wedding)
Author:Sydney Somers

chapter Four


“More like a tree,” Hayley muttered, pushing junk off the passenger-side seat of Matt’s rust bucket of a sedan.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Hayley tried three more times before leaving another message for Gavin. She hadn’t a clue whether Allie was with him or if she’d told him to go fly a kite back in Alaska. She didn’t want to think how Gavin would take that kind of news after pulling a stunt like that at the church.

Surprisingly, the Promise Harbor Inn was already swarming with cars by the time they arrived. She’d hoped most people would realize the show was over, but many had turned out. For the food or more drama?

“Maybe I should try to find a spot around back.”

“Probably already packed.”

“Yeah, but you might not get swallowed by the mob if we go in the rear entrance.”

As much as she appreciated her brother trying to make things easier on her, she pointed to a spot that opened up on the left. Matt turned out to be bang on, and a few people made an immediate beeline for her when she climbed out of the car.

Locking her patience firmly in place, she answered as best she could.

“No, there was no warrant out for Gavin’s arrest.”

“No, he and Allie weren’t having an affair.”

“No, he did not kidnap Allie.”

Even Gavin wasn’t that crazy, though dozens of people had probably already made up their minds about them having an affair.

She ignored the questions about how long she and Jackson had been together. If she hadn’t recognized so many faces that she’d gone to school with, she would have thought she’d been cornered by the press.

Half an hour passed from the time they left the church until she reached the banquet room where the reception was being held and she spotted Josh. People were giving him a wide berth, and given the don’t-fuck-with-me expression on his face, Hayley couldn’t blame them.

“We need a drink.” Matt reappeared at her side long enough to tell her that, and then was gone, heading toward the bar.

More than a few people shot her curious glances, talking in hushed voices that weren’t any quieter than when they’d been in high school. Some people never grew up.

“Your pal made quite the entrance, Hayls.”

Seriously? She gritted her teeth at the sound of Eric’s voice, but kept her face neutral. Maybe she shouldn’t have left Jackson behind at the church, although she’d dealt with Eric and his ego long before Jackson Knight rolled back into town.

“You should have talked him out of making such a complete ass of himself.”

She didn’t bother telling him she’d been just as surprised by Gavin’s unexpected arrival as everyone else. Ignoring him seemed like the better play.

“I told you before that you could do better at picking your friends. Gavin was always beneath you.”

Having heard her friend’s reputation and motives called into question one too many times in such a short span, she felt herself snap. Maybe it was because she felt compelled to defend her best friend even when she didn’t even know what was going through his head, or maybe because Eric was the last person who had the right to question anyone else’s character.

Either way, she grabbed Eric’s shirt and yanked him forward.

He was standing close enough that no one noticed when the move took him by surprise, letting her jerk him close.

“At least Gavin stands up for what he wants and to hell with what everyone else thinks. Someone people could stand to learn a lot from. Someone brave enough to take that kind of risk. And whatever happens is between Gavin and Allie.” She tacked on the latter in case he was digging for anything he could turn into a local headline for his family’s newspaper.

“And Josh.” Jackson joined them, his hands tucked casually in his pants pockets. “Between Gavin, Allie and Josh.”

Eric jerked free of her hold, and for a moment she thought he might apologize for sinking low enough to criticize Gavin just to get to her. Then he glanced back and forth between her and Jackson, clearly picking up on the tension and enjoying it.

Bastard.

Eric walked away, smoothing out the shirt she’d wrinkled. She ignored the increasing stares from the handful of people close enough to have overhead their conversation.

She blew out a breath, wondering if she was better off leaving. Gavin and Allie wouldn’t be showing up here, that much she could guarantee, and she wasn’t so sure Josh knew anything if he was hanging around.

“What did you ever see in that asshole?”

“I was young and stupid,” she offered, wishing it were a valid excuse. But Eric was the last person she wanted to waste time thinking about right now, so she didn’t elaborate on her bad judgment.

Across the room she spotted Josh talking to his ex-girlfriend, Devon—the woman who’d sat beside Hayley in the church, though she hadn’t realized it at the time.

Talking to his ex was a little convenient, wasn’t it? She cringed the moment that thought went through her head. She wasn’t any better than Eric if she let herself go there.

She checked her phone again—no new messages—then decided to talk to Josh after all on the off chance he knew what happened to Gavin and Allie.

“He doesn’t know anything,” Jackson said when she made a move to go around him.

“Where are they?”

“He doesn’t know that either, but she left with Gavin.”

She felt Josh look in her direction, and would have walked over if not for Jackson standing in her way.

“Do you know where they’d go?”

Hayley shook her head.

“Would you tell me if you did?” When she didn’t answer right away, he sighed.

“He wouldn’t stay in town,” she offered. She knew that much. He wasn’t close enough to his family. That left her. If Gavin had plans to lay low in Promise Harbor, she would have heard from him by now.

“Where exactly does he live? Josh wasn’t sure.”

“Alaska.” But she couldn’t imagine him talking Allie into going all the way across the country when he’d just turned up out of the blue. And Allie had been too stunned at his arrival to have known he’d been planning on bursting in like that.

“Here.” Matt shoved a glass in her hand. “You’re going to need this. Eric’s dad is here and he’s talking to your boss.”

Hayley felt a migraine coming on. The last thing she needed was Eric’s dad demanding answers like he had any stake in the outcome. It was a wonder he hadn’t placed a call to the mayor.

Her mother had had a previous engagement that kept her from attending the wedding, and Hayley couldn’t have been more grateful for that. There would have been no dodging questions from her mother with the town’s most influential businessman looking for information.

She took a long, deep drink, nearly choking on the vodka. She peered into the glass. “Is there actually any orange juice in here?”

Matt shrugged. “I told them to make a double. You may need it if Mom calls you.”

“Great.” What she really needed to do was go before anyone else, especially her mother, tried to take advantage of her personal relationship with Gavin to satisfy their own curiosity.

“How’s Josh doing?” Matt asked.

“As well as he can be, considering his bride left him at the altar.” The last part was directed at Hayley.

She bristled at the implied accusation. “You’ll have better luck with that coaching job than waiting for me to apologize for my friend.”

“I’d settle for you sounding like you at least feel bad for Josh.”

“You’re up for a coaching job?” Matt interjected, trying to change the subject.

They both ignored him.

“He doesn’t exactly look torn up at the moment.” She nodded to where Josh stood with his head bent close to Devon’s. The comment was out before she could take it back, but the way Jackson looked at the pair made her think maybe she wasn’t reading too much into the situation after all.

As if he knew they were talking about him, Josh walked in their direction, and Jackson met him halfway. Hayley finished her drink, not even wanting to imagine how strange the rest of reception would be with no happy couple to celebrate.

“You’re with Jackson Knight, aren’t you?” A petite brunette with bottomless green eyes and a curvy figure that wouldn’t need a single Photoshop touch-up gave her a shy smile.

Matt made a small croaking sound, like maybe he’d swallowed his drink the wrong way.

“We’re not together, no.”

“Oh. Great.” She slid a finger down Matt’s tie, which Hayley had just noticed was covered in XOXOs. “Cute.”

Matt made another choking sound at the woman’s attention, staring after her when she approached Josh and Jackson. A moment later Josh left with Devon trailing after him—an interesting turn of events—and Jackson’s head snapped in Hayley’s direction.

Matt glanced at her. “Weren’t you two supposed to be watching each other’s backs?”

“I thought you said he could handle himself?”

“He can.” Her brother searched her face, but she wasn’t sure what he was looking for. “What did he do?”

Hayley took another sip and found her glass nearly empty. How had that happened so quickly? “He blames Gavin for what happened.” As if that much weren’t painfully obvious.

“Well,” her brother said cautiously. “It wasn’t exactly Josh who called things off.”

“I know.” She set her glass aside. “I shouldn’t have waited so long to tell Gavin about the wedding. I knew he wasn’t really over her, and Allie clearly isn’t over him.” She let out a breath.

“This isn’t your fault.”

“I know—”

“And I know you,” he interrupted. “You want to fix this the same way you want to fix Gramps and his house and everything else, and you can’t. Gavin and Allie and Josh will work it out on their own.”

Before she could respond to that, Jackson touched her arm. “Can I talk to you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He drew her through the crowd, not stopping until they reached the inn’s lobby.

A few people lingered nearby, but they didn’t pay any attention to either of them.

“You told that woman I was available.”

“You are available,” she pointed out, then shook her head. “Sorry, I was…” She trailed off, waving her hand between them. “This was a bad idea.”

“Apparently.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m trying to clear the air here.”

“And doing a bang-up job of it,” he shot back.

“You’re unbelievable.” She whirled around, wishing she hadn’t bothered apologizing.

His hand snagged her wrist, dragging her back to him. Warm and solid, his chest moved with her, bracing her when she might have used the wall of muscle to push him back. His arms locked around her back, but then there wasn’t time to think about that. Wasn’t time to think about anything.

His mouth covered hers, the kiss exactly like he played the game he loved. Fast, hard and taking her by complete surprise. Smooth, hungry lips teased across hers, pushing deeper the second she dragged in a breath.

And god she needed to breathe—needed something to anchor her or she’d wind up swept away as she had years ago. She’d learned by accident that Jackson Knight knew how to kiss, but even that one time didn’t compare to the present.

Not when he cradled her jaw and slowed the kiss, his tongue sliding across her bottom lip and stroking the length of hers. She wasn’t sure when her fingers found their way to his shirt, but she slipped them beneath his suit jacket to get closer.

So much closer.

Seconds, maybe minutes later—and altogether too soon—he drew back after one more slow, soft pass of his mouth, but didn’t release her. His heart pounded furiously under her palm and he breathed as hard as she did.

“No one has ever kissed me like that,” she whispered. She hadn’t planned on saying it aloud, but once the words left her mouth, she was too caught up in the delicious high to care.

“Hayley,” he murmured.

She nipped his bottom lip, loving the way he said her name. She hadn’t planned on liking a damn thing about him aside from the way he played hockey, but the moment he climbed into that tree without complaint and without dropping a kitten with a vicious streak, she guessed there might be a bit to like after all.

Like the way he set her entire body on fire with just a kiss.

Sensing movement, she looked to her left, frowning at the guy holding his phone up at them.

Photo op.

Two little words shouldn’t have been enough to extinguish the need and longing that had taken her over so completely. Her gaze rose to Jackson’s, and she knew in a heartbeat that he’d known about the camera the whole time.

Hayley stiffened and eased out of his arms. There had been enough scenes for one day. “Guess you got what you needed.” She said it for his ears only, and every syllable scraped her throat.

“Hayley,” he began, and she shook her head.

So help him, if he said a damn word about what she’d admitted about the kiss, their photographer would be emailing an entirely different picture to the sports blogs cheap enough to dig at athletes’ personal lives.

“I’ll see you later.” Hoping to hell she didn’t look as stupid as she felt, she made her way to the front door.

The breeze had picked up, bending the bright-colored blossoms planted around the inn’s front entrance. She rubbed her arms but the sudden chill had nothing to do with sun sneaking behind some clouds.

She pulled out her phone, then changed her mind about texting Matt. She didn’t need her brother to take her home. A taxi would be fine, and with a big event at the inn, she wouldn’t have to wait long for one to pass by.

At least her ankle wasn’t bothering her anymore, but the dull ache in her wrist had worsened after she’d grabbed Eric. She was in great shape, she thought wryly.

Her phone rang and she checked the number, hoping to see Gavin’s name and at the same time praying it wasn’t her mother.

Her partner’s number flashed across the screen.

Figuring if it was important, he’d leave a voice mail, she ignored the call. He’d probably heard about the Wedding That Wasn’t by now and wanted details too. As if Jackson’s arrest hadn’t put her front and center at work. They’d all be grilling her on Monday morning about the wedding.

A vehicle pulled up in front of her.

“Get in.”

She stared though the open passenger window at Jackson. “You don’t need to drive me.” She really didn’t need him feeling sorry for her when she’d foolishly read far more into a kiss that was little more than a publicity stunt.

“I brought you. I’ll take you home.”

Voices echoed behind her, and she watched Eric strolling her way with the same petite brunette she’d sent to talk to Jackson.

Her day kept getting better and better.

Choosing the lesser of two evils, she walked to the car. “You should stay with Josh.”

“He left.”

Hayley couldn’t blame him. She wouldn’t have chosen to hang around either if she’d been in his shoes with people gossiping all around.

She opened the door and slid inside, sticking as close to the passenger side as she could without making it obvious. She couldn’t be angry with him for using her to undo the damage done last night when she’d agreed to it in the first place, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be annoyed with herself for getting a little wrapped up in a charade. Their kiss at seventeen had been a mistake, but this time she’d been a willing participant. Very willing, as it turned out.

She knew better than this. Jackson Knight had trouble written all over his handsome face. The kind of trouble she couldn’t afford. She’d worked her butt off to shake her rebellious image, and going on a date with Jackson, even a pretend one—after arresting him no less—had only given the town a reason to remember the way she used to be.

And that was before their picture had been taken.

Jackson left her to mull it all over in silence, and the second he pulled up in front of the apartment building she barely lived in anymore, she couldn’t scramble out of the car fast enough.

“Hold up a second.”

She shut the door but leaned into the window.

“Today didn’t go like I’d planned.”

Not the way anyone had planned, Hayley thought, resisting the urge to ask him exactly how he had planned for their fake date to go.

Jackson stared out the windshield, and she took a step back from the car. “Bye, Jackson.”

“It wasn’t just because of the picture.” The words came out rushed, like he might trip over them if he didn’t get them out. “The kiss, I mean.”

The rough confession was either the perfect line or he meant every word, and no matter how much she tried to fight it, her body responded as though it was the latter, warming her head to foot.

“Sure you’re not just trying to smooth things out with the cop who arrested you?”

“Absolutely,” he admitted, grinning. “That doesn’t mean I’ve ever kissed anyone like that either.”

The warmth gave way to a knee-weakening flush almost as potent as their kiss had been.

“Bye, Hayley.” He smiled again, the sexy curve of his lips making her think crazy thoughts that went against her better judgment. She’d just reminded herself why being anywhere near him was a bad idea, and she still found herself half wanting to crawl across the seat and see if what happened in the lobby had just been some crazy fluke.

She settled on keeping her distance, knowing it was for the best, but couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Your kissing skills have improved.” Smiling, she didn’t wait to hear his response, but felt him watch her until she reached the front of her building and let herself inside.

Welcome home, Jackson.





Jackson sat in his car long after Hayley had gone inside. What the hell had she meant by that?

It crossed his mind to turn off his car and find out, but he doubted she’d let him in. She wanted him to stew over that tidbit. Probably wanted to drive him crazy wondering about it, and damned if he wasn’t halfway there already.

He would have remembered kissing Matt’s sister, and he’d never had so much to drink that he would have forgotten something like that.

And after that kiss at the inn—poorly timed though it might have been—he was even more convinced something like that would have stayed with him.

He’d been fighting the impulse to kiss her for most of day, and somewhere between his frustration with the wedding and his unexpected attraction to her, he’d just gone with his gut.

The camera had registered only a moment before he’d made up his mind to reach for her, and it ceased to matter the second she was in his arms. He wasn’t sure if she believed that it wasn’t just about putting on a show. The fact that she’d looked like maybe she wanted to get back in the car nearly as bad as he wanted her to gave him hope.

Determined to figure out this mystery kiss on his own, he finally drove away.

A few minutes from Hayley’s place he passed the hospital, trying hard not to think of Mitch Stone. It didn’t work.

Distracting himself with thoughts of what just happened between him and Hayley wasn’t even enough to keep him from remembering what Matt had told him that afternoon.

Coach had cancer. Fuck.

The tough old bastard was the reason he’d been drafted, and the thought of that disease eating away at him made Jackson’s gut ache. He pulled in to the parking lot even though he’d rather do anything than face Mitch Stone. The old man was dying, and Jackson didn’t have anything for his coach to be proud of. Not anymore.

He turned off the car once he found a place to park but stayed where he was, dragging it out. He wasn’t sure what the hospital’s visiting hours were, but maybe that didn’t matter so much with palliative care. He gripped the wheel hard then climbed out.

Counting on the small hospital not to have changed all that much, he headed up to the fourth floor. He’d lost track of the number of times he’d walked these halls after countless sports injuries growing up.

The area outside the double doors marked Palliative Care was quiet and Jackson hesitated. He should come back another time. He even turned around, but never made it to the elevator, changing his mind.

He pushed through the doors, noticing the different in atmosphere almost immediately. The walls were painted a warm yellow instead the industrial off-white found in the rest of the hospital. The scent of antiseptic was much softer, and he didn’t hear the usual buzz of monitoring devices.

Jazz music drifted from a room down the hall, and two people laughed at something as he passed a waiting room of sorts. But instead of uncomfortable, practical chairs lining the perimeter, plush leather couches and a big flat-screen television filled the space.

He didn’t reach the nurses’ station before stumbling across Mitch’s room. The hockey paraphernalia decorating the door, along with posters depicting stick figures on the ice proclaiming Mitch the best coach ever, gave the room away.

Something familiar caught his eyes, and he studied the crayon picture long enough to notice the kid on the ice was wearing his hockey jersey number. A second stick figure with bulging eyes and a trademark toothpick between his lips yelled, “Go, Jackson, go.” Coach.

His throat tightened up and he couldn’t make himself take another step inside the room.

“He’s sleeping.”

Jackson turned toward the voice. A woman in her midfifties emerged from the room across the hall. She crossed to him and nudged the door open enough to give him a peek inside.

He wished to hell she hadn’t.

His first instinct was to tell her there had to be some mistake. Mitch Stone had been a big, burly man, too much life in him to ever be confined to a meager hospital bed that nearly swallowed him.

Christ.

She closed the door and offered a friendly smile. “I hope you’ll come back tomorrow. He’s been talking about you more than usual lately.”

Jackson managed a nod, staring hard at the closed door for a long moment.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Mitch Stone was not supposed to go like this. Not fading away while cancer ravaged his body.

Frustration tore at Jackson. Something else that was beyond his control.

He made it to his car, holding on to the helpless emotion lodged in his chest, then lashed out. The hood of his car vibrated under the force of his fist, the pain barely penetrating his thoughts.

Palms down on the car, he dragged in a deep breath, then another. And another.

He dug out his keys and slid behind the wheel, cranking the music until it drowned out everything else. The drive back to his parents’ wasn’t long enough to settle the relentless ache wedged between his lungs. He tried watching television for a couple hours, then gave up, contemplating heading to Stone’s to see if Matt was there. In the end he decided to go for a run.

The sun was dropping behind the trees when he cranked his iPod up until he couldn’t even hear himself think, and ran until his muscles burned and his knee throbbed. By that time his thoughts had returned once more to Hayley.

She was a whirlwind. Cool, calm and collected cop meets animal activist and loyal best friend with a mouth hot enough to melt a polar ice cap.

And just like that running became uncomfortable. He slowed to a walk, a little annoyed that something as simple as a memory of one kiss could make him harder than a sixteen-year-old flipping through a borrowed Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

God damn.

He turned down a dead-end street. Spotting the lake through the trees should have made him feel like he was breathing through a straw all over again. Instead he felt himself grinning, reminded of winters he’d played hockey on that lake in mid-January.

Fifty feet to the southeast of the house on the lake was exactly what he needed. He didn’t know what he’d do with it exactly, but something.

The house was dark and he found the shed unlocked like always. Coach hadn’t locked it for as long as he could remember. The light switch inside worked for about half a second then fizzled out, plunging him back into darkness.

He threw both doors wide open, relying on the light from the full moon. A flashlight would have made his search go that much faster, but he couldn’t see one, naturally. Crates of hockey gear of all kinds—gloves, helmets, skates, pads, tape—spilled from boxes stacked higher than Jackson.

He tripped over stuff on the floor and bumped into a tool bench hard enough to knock loose whatever had been hanging on the wall. Squinting to make out the shapes in the dark, he replaced the tools one by one, almost losing a finger to a hatchet or small ax.

Wouldn’t that just be the perfect way to end the day?

Someone really needed to go through this stuff. It was both a hockey enthusiast’s dream and an organizational nightmare all rolled into one. How Coach ever found anything in this chaos made Jackson’s head spin.

Movement to his left had him turning around, ax still in his hand, and then something slammed into him and all he could do was yell.