Dani loves the life she’s built working at the salon, but she craves the belonging of family. When she and Kyle start to get serious, she thinks the full life she wants is in reach. Even personal tragedy doesn’t completely destroy what they are building together.

Kyle has been estranged from his family for years but when his dad is in a serious accident, Kyle returns to the family boat shop to run things while he recuperates. He soon learns, however, that the accident is just one link is a chain of problems from someone who is determined to destroy everything their family has—including Kyle’s life with Dani.

 

Chapter 1

Dani glanced down the dark street in both directions, her eyes pausing on each face on the San Jose street. Though it was well after sundown, young couples strolled down the littered streets. A boy of about three ran past her, a few feet in front of a tired-looking woman who called for him to come back to her. Hardly anyone entered the old theater that specialized in old movies, but she got in line. Though everything had seemed fine, she couldn’t help glancing back over her shoulder before going inside the run-down building. Empty parking lots and dark streets always freaked her out so she jumped at shadows. She touched her shoulder to make sure the wad of tips she’d stashed in her bra after work was still intact and headed for the concession stand.

Armed with her soda and Raisinets, she turned and headed for the seats. The theater was predictably only half full and smelled of popcorn. Dani looked at the room with its old seats and sticky floors—not at all like the plush, shiny theaters popping up all over the city. But then, she wouldn’t have been able to find a showing of classic 1973 Soylent Green if she’d gone to one of those other theaters.

She found a mostly empty row and slid into a seat near the middle. Dani loved to people watch, and took a good look around her at the other theater patrons. Most of them were old enough to be her parents, but there were a number of hipsters sitting in the corner, sipping coffee and projecting an air of culture and self-importance.

She checked her classic Stuhrling Original women’s watch—which she’d picked up at a jeweler’s liquidation sale for a steal—and noticed there were still a few minutes to go before the opening credits started.

A man with the most impossibly perfect brown hair slid into her row and looked at her. “Are these seats taken?”

When she shook her head, he sat a couple of seats down. She couldn’t help but allow her eyes to linger over the tall, brown-eyed man. He was in his mid-twenties, wore a button-down white shirt like he’d come from a board room—though if he’d been wearing a tie earlier, it had been removed, and the two top shirt buttons were undone. He tossed popcorn kernels into his mouth, and a huge soda and a large box of Raisinets sat beside him. She shifted her own box of Raisinets to the side and took a sip of her diet soda, facing front again. At least he had good taste in movie snacks.

Dani wiggled her feet, enjoying the way they tingled, grateful to be off of them after a ten-hour shift of cutting and coloring hair. Her Doc. Marten ankle boots were insanely comfortable, but her feet could only be expected to take so much abuse.

“Been on your feet long?” the man beside her asked.

She glanced over, a little embarrassed he’d noticed the move. “Yeah. I have one of those jobs.” She flicked her eyes over him. He had a cleft in his chin, something she found strangely appealing, though she’d never felt that way about the feature on other guys. “You look like a salesman or junior executive.”

“Guilty as charged—I’m a salesman.”

“I hate to say this, but you look a tad out of place here.” Despite the wide range of audience members, he stood out in a crowd. But maybe it wasn’t entirely due to his clothing.

His eyebrows lifted. “You’re one to talk.” His eyes skimmed over her, undoubtedly taking in her short, curly blond hair, fresh manicure, and abundant costume jewelry. “I have a hard time believing you went begging for something to do tonight, so you came here out of desperation and loneliness.”

She laughed, despite the fact she usually didn’t speak with strange men when she went to the movies alone. “I had other options; I preferred to come here tonight.”

“What did you tell all the guys who asked you out?” he asked, his manner flirtatious. His voice became high-pitched like he mimicked her, “‘Sorry, Arnold, I’m going to an exclusive showing!’?”

Dani couldn’t help but laugh, even as she shook her head. “It was the girls at work I had to fib to. They think I’m curled up in a pair of sweats with a bowl of ice cream and a sappy old movie like Steel Magnolias.”

“I see. You’re one of those closet geeks. That’s okay, I promise I won’t let your secret out.” He winked.

Dani smiled back at him and was disappointed when the lights went down and the show started. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, but he settled into his seat to watch the movie. As the opening credits rolled, she couldn’t decide if she was more disappointed to have the conversation interrupted, or glad he wasn’t going to presume and move closer.

She turned her attention back to the screen, chiding herself for letting her mind wander, and prepared to be entertained.

Throughout the movie Dani was well aware the man laughed in all the right places—not that the movie was intended to be funny, but they found the same corny lines hilarious.

When the lights rose again, she tucked the half-empty box of Raisinets into her purse and rose, glad she’d come. She hadn’t been in the mood for a chick flick, and this had been both entertaining and intellectually stimulating.

The man stood as well, jamming all of his garbage into the otherwise-empty popcorn bucket. He glanced over at her. “How did you like it?”

“It was great, as always. It’s definitely more impressive on the big screen.”

“Agreed.” He hesitated for a moment. “Look, I never do this—really, I don’t—but would you like to go next door and get some ice cream or a soda or something? Then at least part of what you told your coworkers will be true.”

Normally she would have said no, but he was cute and entirely non-creepy, so she agreed. After all, it was next door—it wasn’t like she’d be getting into a stranger’s car. The street would be full of theater-goers exiting the building.

She followed him outside and they strolled down the sidewalk.

He played with the ripped ticket stub in his hands. “My name is Kade, by the way.”

“Danica, but I go by Dani.”

“I like that. Pretty. It fits you.”

Her smile was her only response to the compliment. “So, Kade, what kind of salesman are you?”

“Boats. I work for Silveridge Boats.” He dipped his hands into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet, extracting a business card.

Dani recognized the manufacturer logo and turned the card to the light to see his full name. “Kade Frame. Why boats?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I grew up in a boat shop and couldn’t quite drag myself away from them, though I admit I preferred selling boats to consumers more than selling them to retailers, which is what I’m doing now.” They reached the diner and he held the door open for her, andthen followed behind. The diner’s décor was decades more recent than the theater’s had been, though the orange tables put it a solid twenty years behind the times. They picked a window booth and a waitress brought them menus.

“I’m going to have a late dinner, I’d be happy to buy if you’d like more than ice cream,” he offered.

“No, a sundae is plenty for me.” She looked at the menu and ordered a hot fudge, with extra fudge. Might as well go for broke as long as she was being bad, she figured.

When the waitress left, Kade turned back to Dani. “So what kind of job keeps you on your feet all day?” He lifted a palm to stop her from answering. “No wait, let me guess.” He put his hand on his chin and pulled a face like he was in deep thought. “High fashion? Retail?”

She laughed. “Nope, I’m a cosmetologist. I do hair all day—and I’m technically self-employed, so I suppose that means I’m a business woman.”

“A point so many people seem to miss.” He unrolled the paper napkin from around his silverware. “Do you ever get sick of hair?”

“Do you ever get sick of boats?” she countered.

A grin flashed across his mouth. “No, but I do get sick of people sometimes.”

Dani laughed. “You don’t know the half of it until you’ve cut hair for a living. It’s a good thing I love what I do, or I’d’ve given up years ago. I have this client who is never happy, no matter what I do, but she refuses to use anyone else.”

“At least you’ve found a productive way to counter that—I mean Soylent Green of course.” His eyes twinkled at her.

“If you’re advocating cannibalism as a way to combat client irritations, I know someone who can help you get through your emotional problems.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if I ever get desperate, but I was referring to watching the show, rather than a means of disposing of the body.”

His food and her ice cream arrived and they dove into a discussion about the movie, dissecting the plot and metaphors. The conversation segued into other movies and how they compared. They both had a soft spot for The Black Hole, which she’d seen at the same theater a few weeks earlier.

By the time he finished his food and she scraped the bottom of her ice cream dish, an hour had passed, and she didn’t want to go anywhere. They lingered over drinks and chatted.

Eventually she checked her watch and sighed. “I’m having a great time, but I ought to get going. I have an early start tomorrow doing hair for a client’s bridal pictures.”

Kade pulled out his wallet and threw some bills on the table, a generous tip, Dani noticed. Too few customers tipped well.

“Let me walk you to your car,” he said as he stood.

“Okay.” After an hour of talking with him, she felt comfortable with him. Dani took her purse and accompanied him out of the restaurant.

“You know, I almost went home tonight, grabbed a soda, and ordered in Chinese to watch a basketball game.” He sent her a sidelong glance. “I’m glad I didn’t.”

“Me too.” She couldn’t help but ask, “So, did you DVR the game?”

“Of course.”

“Who are you rooting for?” she asked, hoping he wasn’t a fan of the wrong side.

“The Kings, who are, unfortunately, not having an amazing season.”

She couldn’t agree more. “The coach needs to bench Shipley. I don’t know how he ever made the NBA.”

His smile grew and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. “You follow basketball, too?”

She shrugged. “It comes in handy to know a little about a lot of subjects.” She shook her head and decided to come clean. No need to hide the truth—he wasn’t Ronnie. “Actually I’ve always loved to watch basketball. The Kings were my dad’s favorite team when I was growing up, so I got plenty of exposure. I still take in a game now and then.”

Dani was surprised to find she wasn’t nervous in his presence, even in the dark parking lot. It had been a while since she had been so trusting of someone she had just met. They arrived at her car and stood staring at each other. There was no reason to linger, but she was reluctant to go. How could she feel so connected to him after such a short period of time? And despite his paying for her ice cream, he hadn’t even tried to hold her hand. Did he like her, or was he glad their time together was over? “I’m glad I met you tonight,” she said.

“Me too.” He set a hand on her side view mirror. “Would you think me pushy if I asked if I could call you sometime?”

Though caution was usually her motto, she agreed. But instead of rattling off her cell number, she produced one of her own business cards. Before he could take it, she pulled it back, a smile teasing her lips. “Wait, are you actually going to call me, or are you one of those guys who likes to collect phone numbers and toy with women’s emotions?”

That brought out another of his deep chuckles. “Don’t worry, you’ll hear from me.” He accepted the card, then stepped back, giving her room to turn and unlock her car door without feeling like he hovered over her shoulder.

She slid inside and locked the door, then rolled the window down a few inches. “I excited for your call.” The move felt so forward and flirty, despite the mildness of her statement that she could feel her heart pounding. Though she had mastered the art of light flirting—it came in handy when she had a guy in her chair at the salon—she rarely dated and normally would never have joined him for a post-movie snack. Something drew her to him, though, and she couldn’t say no.

He smiled and waved as she pulled away. Dani glanced back at him through her rearview mirror before she pulled out of the parking lot. He climbed into a green sedan only a couple of rows over from where she had parked.

That night before she went to bed, hating she had become so jaded, but wanting confirmation anyway, she opened her laptop. A reverse phone lookup on the number on his business card showed it really did go to the company he mentioned. Further search on the company’s website listed Kade’s name as one of the company reps, and even included a picture.

Not that Ronnie had lied about who he was—but her ex-boyfriend had lied about practically everything else, and she wouldn’t be so gullible again.

Secure that Kade was at least not lying about his identity, she prepared for bed.

***

“Thanks Mr. Wheeler, and I hope you enjoy your new rod and reel,” the man said as he waved the customer out the boat shop door. Looking around, he voided the purchase of the three-hundred-dollar deep-sea fishing equipment, and pocketed the cash Mr. Wheeler had paid with.

Jeff came in, his graying hair thinning on top and his eyes tired. “How’s it going? Did he buy the equipment?” He’d walked by when Mr. Wheeler had just arrived, so he’d known what the customer wanted.

“He’s going to think it over. You know he’ll be back though. He always is.” The man grinned at Jeff, hoping he didn’t notice the expensive gear missing for a few days. Jeff wasn’t nearly as detail oriented as he should be, but the clerk wasn’t about to say it. He had a pretty good deal here, and the extra cash came in very handy.

“We’re setting up a new boat in the show room. Come give us a hand.”

“Sure thing, Jeff.” Smiling, he followed him into the back. This was too easy.

***

Kade made himself wait until Monday to call Dani—Danica Andreason, her business card said. She had mentioned her appointment for Saturday morning, but he didn’t want to betray his eagerness to see her again by calling only hours after they met—then kicked himself all day Sunday for waiting. It had been a long time since a woman had intrigued him so much. He took a deep breath to brace himself and finally dialed her salon at eleven. He got a voicemail message stating they were closed on Sunday and Monday. He groaned and wished again that he’d called on Saturday like he’d wanted to do.

On Tuesday, he had better luck.

A perky voice answered, quoting the salon’s name.

“Hi, is Dani available?”

“She’s with a client right now. Do you need an appointment?”

He considered giving an excuse and calling her back later, but didn’t want to have to psych himself up for the call again—especially if she might be busy with another hair cut or something. “No, but could you leave her a message for me?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

He left his name and cell phone number, then hung up and tried to focus on his work while he waited. Despite his excitement about the newest boat specs, which had just come across his desk, focusing wasn’t easy.

He must have checked the clock every five minutes for the next two hours. Finally his phone rang with the salon’s number on it. “Hello?”

“Kade, it’s Dani. You called?”

“Yes. I hope you had a good weekend.” Lame, can’t you do better than that?

“I did. I caught up on all of those things around the house that never seem to get done.”

“Me too.” He leaned back in his chair and tapped a pen on the top of his desk, nerves shooting through him. “Hey, I wondered if you’d like to get some dinner tonight. Maybe we could swing by a Chinese place I know. Talk movies or something.” Idiot, she’s going to think it’s all you care about.

She paused for a moment and he wondered if he had totally misread her before. When she spoke, though, her voice was enthusiastic. “Sounds great, but I get out of here late tonight. It would be at least seven-thirty. Is that okay? I could meet you there.”

Relief poured through him—she hadn’t decided he was a dork. The fact that she’d returned his call hadn’t been enough reassurance. “Sure.” He rattled off the address. “I guess I’ll see you then.”

“See you.”

He hung up after he heard the click on her side of the line, grinned, then tried to settle down to work.

***

On their second date the moon shimmered through the telescope lens, taking on a mystical quality no photograph had ever managed to portray. Dani had never seen anything so beautiful and had to catch her breath in wonder.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Kade asked. “Doesn’t it make you think of Neil Armstrong and the moon landing? That must have been the most incredible day.”

“This is insane.” Dani kneeled back on her heels to look at him beside her, his features softened by the night. “You keep surprising me with new sides of yourself.” It was their second date, if you didn’t count when they met at the movie, which Dani didn’t, so she knew there was still plenty to learn about him.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to become too predictable.” He leaned toward her, his eyes intent on hers. “Where would be the fun in that?” His fingers lifted to brush lightly along her cheekbone as the crickets chirped in the background.

Why was she so drawn to this man? Her lips curved as she lifted her mouth to his and spoke in a whisper. “Oh, I think there’s an argument in favor of predictability too. Like right now.” They hovered there for several seconds before she closed the gap the rest of the way, pressing her lips to his, unable to stand the sweet tension rising between them. His mouth was soft and warm and so, so gentle. Unlike so many who rushed to take, to devour, his touch was teasing, sweet and giving. When his hand slid to her shoulder, drawing her closer, she was happy to comply.

They lingered over the kiss for a long, long moment, and when they pulled back, she hummed. “Mmm, nice.” It had been so long since she’d had anyone she wanted to kiss—none of the few men she’d been out with over the past year had even tempted her.

“I’m not being too forward for you?” he asked as his hand caressed her shoulder.

She’d never had any guy ask her something like that before—not for a simple…okay, not-so-simple kiss. “I don’t know. We might have to try it again so I can make up my mind.”

“If you need some convincing.” His lips curved as they met hers again.

Better and better, she thought as she wound her arms around his neck. Though a tiny voice hidden in the back corner of her mind cautioned her to be careful, go slow, she was able to ignore it. She hadn’t seen any of the warning signs so far.

When he moved away, it was with a murmured, “I was dying to kiss you the night we met.”

She smiled. “Yeah? You didn’t act like it.”

“You were a little skittish. I thought I was better off convincing you to go out with me first.”

“Good call.” Dani swallowed back the emotions rising inside her. She’d never felt so connected to a guy so fast before, and she wasn’t quite sure what to do about it now. Deciding she needed time to think it over before they took even one more step down the road they were on, she turned back to the telescope. “Have you ever used a bigger scope?”

“I have one at home strong enough to see the rings of Jupiter. Sometime we’ll have to head further out of the city, or I’ll borrow a boat and we can go out on the water where we don’t have so much light pollution. You won’t believe it.” He checked his watch, pushing a button to make the face light up. “We have a while before the Leonid meteor shower really gets going; let me show you some other things.” He started adjusting the telescope and she shifted out of the way.

“How did you get into astronomy?” Dani wanted to know what made Kade tick, how he was formed, what he thought about things. Maybe then she would dare trust him as much as her heart wanted her to.

He took a moment to answer. “When I was a kid my dad took me to a planetarium and we looked through one of those huge telescopes, the kind that can see Mercury like it’s across the room. It was so cool. I started talking about becoming an astronaut.”

She could imagine his youthful enthusiasm because he still had so much of it. “And yet you sell boats?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, it wasn’t long before I decided space flight wasn’t a great option. I actually get motion sick on planes, so living on a rocket or space station is definitely not in the cards for me. Besides, I’m too tall.”

“But you still keep up the hobby. Is this your telescope, or did you inherit it from your dad when you moved out on your own?”

“No, it’s mine.” His voice was a bit low and hard to hear. A moment later he moved away and gestured for her to look in the lens. “Check it out, it’s Pisces constellation.”

She put a hand on the eyepiece, but kept her gaze on Kade. Something wasn’t right here, and she had to understand it before she could really trust him. “Tell me about your family. I think we’ve talked about everything else out there. Do you and your dad still go star gazing together sometimes?”

He avoided meeting her eye, looking instead at the grass, and a nearby tree. “No. We haven’t done it in years. I don’t know if he even has the equipment anymore.” He brushed at his jeans, as if he’d gotten something on them.

He doesn’t know? What happened between them? She wanted to push harder, but since it seemed to be a sore spot, she turned the focus. “What does he do for a living? What about your mom? Do you have a brother or sister?”

“A brother. Jason’s in college and works in my dad’s boat shop. Mom’s always stayed at home. She loved to bake and was involved with some organizations around the neighborhood when I grew up. I swear she knew everyone and was always taking people goodies and staying to chat when they were having a rough time. She always had a smile for everyone and never complained about anything, no matter how rough things got.” Both laughter and tears filled his voice, making it husky.

“You’re talking about her like she’s gone.” An ache for her own loss rose in Dani’s chest. “Did she die?”

His head shook for a moment before he spoke aloud. “No. She’s still around. Doing well, from what I hear.” He picked a handful of grass from the ground beside them and threw it into the cool November breeze. “We’re not really in touch much anymore.”

When she saw the hurt on his face she lifted a hand to his cheek. She knew that ache. “I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?” She doubted he would, but she was dying to know what happened. It was too soon to push for answers though. They didn’t know each other well enough.

“Not tonight. Some other time.” He grabbed her hand and turned his face so he could brush a kiss on her palm. “Tell me about your family.”

“It’s just me and my older brother, and he lives in Oregon.” She tried to keep her voice light and even, but his emotions had touched off hers and she struggled to stay calm. “My dad died in an accident when I was seven. Mom never remarried. She said she’d never meet another man like him.” She shrugged as she held back her own longing for a love that strong. “She died of cancer when I was nineteen.” Dani had been enrolled in cosmetology school when her mom’s diagnosis came back: an inoperable brain tumor. Dani had postponed school and stayed to help out. She never regretted it—it was the best and worst time of her life. “She had treatments, but nothing helped. She only lived another six months.”

Dani thought of her brother Trent’s trial less than a year later, of how lonely she’d been since his incarceration, and felt her heart weep. She wasn’t ready to tell Kade about it, though.

“I’m sorry, honey.” He brushed away the tear on her cheek.

“I’d give anything to have either of my parents back.” She tried not to push him about what had happened with his family, but she couldn’t help but wonder how he could be happy knowing they were around, but not being in touch with them.

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