Lost and found sisters, p.15
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       Lost and Found Sisters, p.15
 

           Jill Shalvis

  “I know and I don’t care about any of that,” Mick said, and he didn’t. “I just want to make sure you know what you’re doing now. Ten years later.”

  “Fuck no, I don’t know what I’m doing.” Boomer let out a mirthless laugh. “I’m keeping my head above water, that’s what I’m doing. It’s a sink or swim world, and I’m doing my best.”

  “And Lena’s your best?” Mick asked.

  Boomer blew out a sigh. “Look, for what it’s worth, I love her. But we’re not together, we never have been, not in the way you’re thinking. And anyway, I told her I couldn’t do this anymore, whatever ‘this’ was, until she settled on just one guy—me.”

  “And she said?”

  “She walked off into the sunset.” Boomer shrugged. “Last I saw her was the other night when she was sniffing around you again.”

  Mick shook his head. “I’m not planning on going there.”

  Boomer paused. “I think I hear a but on the end of that sentence.”

  “But . . . I hope you don’t either,” Mick said. “And not because I want her, but because you have your sobriety to protect, which you’re already straining by working at the bar.”

  Boomer’s eyes shuttered and he stepped back. “Looks like we both have shit to figure out.” He headed to his truck.

  “Boomer.”

  Boomer lifted a hand, but still got into his truck and drove off, leaving Mick eating his dust.

  QUINN DECIDED THE thing to do was to try to talk to Tilly. She parked behind the café, in front of Carolyn’s house. She knew Tilly was staying with a next-door neighbor, but she had no idea which one.

  Getting out of the car, her attention was immediately drawn to the house to the right of Carolyn’s, where a woman who was dressed like her job might be a stripper came out the front door. In five-inch FMPs she got into a little beater of car, and with a puff of smoke out of the exhaust pipe, ripped down the street and vanished.

  Okay, then. Quinn turned to the house to the left of Carolyn’s. There were two guys in the yard, no shirts on, fit and tan and gardening. “Hi,” one of them called out with a wave. “Can we help you?”

  The other one straightened and slid his hand into the first guy’s. “You’re Quinn.”

  She sighed and they laughed. “Wildstone takes a while to get used to,” one said. “I’m Jared and this is Hutch. We were just rearranging the garden a little bit to make room for some more tomatoes. Carolyn loved them. We’re going to miss her, and we’re very sorry for your loss.”

  “Thank you,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m looking for Tilly. Have you seen her?”

  “Other side,” Jared said. “She’s staying with Chuck, though she does come over for pizza night. She’s a meat lover.”

  “Like me,” Hutch said and smiled. “Jared here is a veggie lover.”

  Quinn hesitated. “I just saw a woman coming from that house.”

  “FMPs? Tiny dress? That’ll be Kendall,” Jared said. “Chuck’s renter. She’s an exotic dancer.”

  Quinn turned to Chuck’s house and thought she caught a quick peek of Tilly looking out the window. “Thanks,” she said and headed over there.

  No one answered her knock.

  Quinn was back in her car trying to figure out her next move when Chuck’s garage door went up and a truck pulled out. An older man sat behind the wheel, with Tilly in the passenger seat. Quinn rushed out of her car and waved at them.

  The truck didn’t stop.

  Quinn ran to the driveway and blocked the truck, gesturing for Tilly to roll down her window.

  Tilly rolled her eyes but did it.

  “Why aren’t you in school?” Quinn asked.

  “It’s a minimum day. Heading to the racetrack day.”

  Quinn looked at Chuck, who didn’t speak. “Okay,” she said to Tilly. “Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re good. That you don’t want me to stick around for you.”

  “I’m good,” Tilly said without blinking or batting an eye. “I don’t want you to stick around for me.”

  The man said nothing and the second Quinn backed up, they drove off.

  Chapter 15

  My mom used to say it’s easy to love someone when they’re at their best, loving them at their worst is the true trick.

  —from “The Mixed-Up Files of Tilly Adams’s Journal”

  It was afternoon by the time Quinn walked into Cliff’s office. She found him leaning back against his desk eating the hugest bowl of Cap’n Crunch she’d ever seen. The empty box lay on its side like the dead next to him.

  “Life hack,” he said. “So your cereal doesn’t get stale, you eat the whole box.”

  She found a laugh but sobered quickly. “As the only sane person I know in this whole godforsaken town, please tell me why Tilly is living with Chuck, whose girlfriend is a stripper—excuse me, exotic dancer—and he takes Tilly out of school to go to the racetrack.”

  Cliff shoved some more cereal in, his eyes hooded. Which was interesting, because though she didn’t know him well, she sensed he was honest to the core.

  “Look,” she said. “It’s obvious you have a good idea of what’s going on here.”

  “Carolyn trusted Chuck, enough to know he’d take care of Tilly with or without the compensation she set up from her small estate—”

  “He’s being paid?”

  “But I can tell you,” he went on, “that he moonlights at the track as a janitor and Tilly helps him sometimes. His mom’s in the late stages of Alzheimer’s in a nursing home and it’s expensive. Also Kendall, the dancer, rents a room at Chuck’s. She didn’t start out as his girlfriend, although that seems to be changing.” He paused. “What you have to understand is that Carolyn trusted Chuck with Tilly. Again, you could consider taking over—”

  “She won’t have me.”

  “You’re sure about that?”

  “One hundred percent.” And with nothing to keep her here in Wildstone, it was time to go home.

  Tomorrow morning, she told herself. On the off chance that Tilly changed her mind, she would stay until morning before heading out.

  THAT NIGHT TILLY was in her “bedroom” at Chuck’s house, which was really the laundry room with a futon shoved in it. She had her phone plugged in and was on Hulu with Cliff’s password. She had the volume up so she couldn’t hear Chuck snoring.

  But at least he was sleeping. The poor guy was an insomniac. She’d made him some Sleepytime tea, which he swore helped him. Of course the liberal dollop he added from whatever was in his flask was the real magical element.

  Kendall hadn’t gone to bed yet; she was in the living room practicing dance moves, making the house shake when she leaped across the floor.

  Tilly sighed and tossed and turned some more, stilling at a sudden ping of a rock on her window. Before she could get up, the window slid open and Dylan’s long, lanky body climbed in.

  Her best friend in the entire world had a fat lip and a black eye.

  “I told you to keep this locked,” he said. He was pissed.

  And hurt.

  Tilly drew him down to her bed to take care of him, like she did every time his asshole dad beat on him. She cupped his face, her eyes filling when she saw what had been done to him this time. “I want to kill him,” she whispered.

  “Shh,” he said and closed his eyes. “But if he touches my mom again, I’ll kill him myself.”

  Fear for him made her legs wobble. His dad didn’t live with Dylan and his mom, he’d been kicked out of the house several years back and now lived two towns over in Paso Robles. Whenever he came to “visit,” aka steal money from Dylan’s mom, Dylan did his best to draw his attention away from her.

  Brave. And terrifying.

  She got up and slinked into the kitchen so Kendall wouldn’t hear. Like she’d notice anything anyway with her Beats headphones on as she writhed against the floor.

  Tilly grabbed an ice pack, and then on second thought also peanut butter and jelly, and we
nt back to her room.

  Dylan hadn’t moved.

  He was a year older than she was, a grade ahead of her, and on a different planet when it came to life experiences. He ran with a fast crowd and wouldn’t let her hang with them.

  “You still have a shot at a good life,” he always said when she asked. “I’m not going to fuck it up for you.”

  She sat crossed-legged on the bed at his side and gently laid the ice pack over his eye.

  He hissed in a breath and she laid a hand on his chest. He remained still but the steady beat of his heart reassured her. And something else, something that was her own little secret.

  Whenever she was close to him like this, she felt warm. Hot, even. And tight, like her skin had shrunk and her body didn’t fit inside it.

  She sighed, hating this big, fat crush she had on him. If he knew, he’d vanish from her life. She knew it, so she kept her damn infatuation to herself. “Hungry?”

  Eyes still closed, his lips curved. “Always.”

  She laughed a little. This wasn’t a lie, the guy was truly always starving, like he was hollow on the inside and nothing could fill him up.

  She reached across Dylan for the pack of crackers she had on her nightstand. Her arm brushed his and she felt a tingle make its way through her body. “Here,” she said, dipping the cracker first into the peanut butter and then the jelly, and holding it out to him.

  He opened his eyes and then smiled. “PB and J for dinner.”

  “Is there anything better?”

  “No.” He sat up gingerly enough that she worried he’d been hurt elsewhere as well, but when he saw the look on her face, his eyes went dark. “Don’t,” he said and took the cracker, shoving the whole thing in his mouth.

  “But—”

  “Not talking about it, Tee.”

  They dipped crackers into the peanut butter and jelly until they were both full. Actually, she got full right away but she didn’t want him to stop until he was full as well, so she totally overate.

  And then had to open the top button on her jeans.

  After, Dylan pulled her down with him to the bed again and closed his eyes. She thought that she couldn’t think of another place she’d rather be. She wanted them to grow up and still do this, still be like this. She’d be an artist and he’d be . . . “Dylan?” she whispered.

  “Yeah?”

  “What do you want to be when you get older?”

  “Alive.”

  Her heart pinched. “I mean as a job.”

  His hand squeezed hers. “It doesn’t matter,” he said a little dully.

  She knew what that meant. He didn’t see himself making it out, and that made her so sad that she couldn’t speak for a long moment.

  As if he knew he’d brought her down, he stirred himself and changed the subject. “Did you finish your biology homework?”

  “Shh,” she said. “I’m sleeping.”

  “Tee.”

  “You can help me tomorrow,” she murmured softly, letting herself relax against him, purposely letting him think she was exhausted.

  She felt when the tension finally left him and he fell asleep. Only then did she allow her eyes to close. She was comfortable and she should’ve been thrilled because she never slept as well as she did when he was in her bed. But worry for him kept her up long after he’d drifted off.

  Worry for him, and also guilt. She’d been a jerk to Quinn today and she hated that. But she had to get rid of her, had to chase her away. Because one, Quinn would never stay in Wildstone. She was city through and through. So if for some reason, out of guilt, she decided to take on guardianship of Tilly and then left . . .

  Well, then Tilly would have to leave Wildstone as well.

  And that wasn’t going to happen. She didn’t know that Chuck could be on his own, even with Kendall around. And then there was Dylan. He needed her. They both did. She had to stay and take care of them, and tightening her arm around Dylan’s chest, she snuggled in closer.

  Nope, she wasn’t leaving. Ever.

  NOTHING HAPPENED THAT night. Quinn didn’t hear from Tilly. Or Mick.

  Or Beth . . .

  The next morning she texted Tilly: You need anything, anything at all, you call me. Day or night.

  She didn’t text Mick. Instead, she packed up and checked out of the Wild West B & B . . . and found him in the parking lot.

  He was slouched against her car, arms folded over his strong chest, dark lenses covering his eyes, and just looking at him had all her good spots doing the happy dance.

  He was turned away from her, looking at Coop, who was sitting at the base of a huge oak tree, staring up at a squirrel.

  The dog gave one low, rough bark.

  “No,” Mick said. Then more quietly, “We talked about this. Squirrels are not your friend, man. You got beaned in the head last time, remember? Hard enough to rattle half the thoughts right out of your head.”

  Coop heaved out a sigh and lay down, but he kept his eyes on the prize.

  Mick’s eyes locked in on Quinn, the expression in them matching Coop’s as he kept the squirrel in sight.

  Grim determination.

  Quinn’s feet faltered. What to do? Be a grown-up? Or run like hell? She blew out a breath and walked up to him.

  His lips quirked slightly, like maybe he’d sensed her inner civil war. Then he pushed the sunglasses to the top of his head. “Hey,” he said.

  “Hey yourself,” she said. He seemed impossibly large and unyielding. And slightly wary.

  Although she’d never tell him so, she thought maybe she liked him best this way, a little worn and rough around the edges.

  He was so different from any man she’d ever met.

  “So about yesterday,” she murmured and then hesitated, biting her lower lip. “I might’ve overreacted.”

  “And I might’ve been a dumbass.”

  A small smiled escaped her. “Were you waiting for me?” she asked. “Because I thought I was pretty forceful about us being done.” She let her voice hold a playful note as she tried to convey that she realized she’d been a complete bitch.

  Mick grabbed the ends of her scarf and reeled her in, looking into her eyes. “I should’ve left things alone, let you go back to L.A. in peace. It would’ve made things easier.”

  “But . . . you couldn’t do it?” she asked.

  “I could.” There was no sign of amusement now. “Discipline runs deep, Quinn. And you’d definitely be better off without me. But . . .” He shook his head. “I kept picturing the look on your face yesterday morning. I hurt you, and I couldn’t leave it like that.”

  “Consider it forgotten,” she said, and meant it. “No hard feelings.”

  His phone rang and he ignored it, just staring at her.

  “What?” she asked.

  “I’m leaving too,” he said.

  “Oh.” She nodded and did her best to shrug off any disappointment. He was going home and she’d be doing the same, and they might not see each other again. “Then I’m glad I got to see you before you left,” she said, managing to sound completely fine with this good-bye.

  But she wasn’t fine. Not even close. “Good-bye, Mick.”

  Still holding the ends of her scarf, he lowered his head and kissed her. Soft at first, and then with heat and purpose so that
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