The sun beat down on Rebecca Gilbert as she carried Danny through the parking lot into the Valley Skilled Care and Rehabilitation Center. Her purse and diaper bag weighed down one shoulder, and her friends’ baby occupied the opposite hip. Inside, the air conditioning sent a shiver through her sweat-soaked back. The lobby was small but appointed with a leather sofa, two armchairs, and a fake fireplace mantel decked out in fall décor. The few faux pumpkins, gourds, orange and red leaves, and miniature scarecrows were a nice touch. Valerie, the desk attendant, waived her through, unlocking the door with the button on her desk. Autumn might kill her if she found Rebecca dragging her son into a nursing home, and only because Rebecca had never mentioned to her friends she came here.
Her father, Stanley, was a resident ever since he’d suffered a stroke at the ripe old age of fifty. The stroke had resulted in paralysis on the left side, and the doctor advised her he needed intensive therapy to regain mobility. It was the sole reason for her return to White Oak and giving up an apprenticeship cooking with a big-name chef in California, and it was why she and her mom had a strained relationship. When she returned, she’d promised her mother she’d leave when Stanley recovered; that was a lifetime ago.
“Dad,” she said, storming into his room. “I told you I was babysitting today; now you refuse to let them help you. Why would you…” That’s when she saw her father’s eyes go straight to Danny and knew he’d played her. “You did this on purpose?” Great. She’d been suckered into bringing the baby in here, and elderly women could smell infants like sharks with blood in the water. Soon they’d be circling, five or six waiting in the hall wanting to touch Danny and try to get their lips on him. She was always afraid he’d end up with the plague. Then, Autumn and Dan would murder her. “I can’t keep carrying him down here.”
Stanley gave her a one-sided smile then raised his right arm and motioned for her to bring the baby closer. Rebecca sighed and dropped the diaper bag and purse onto the chair; together, they weighed a ton. “Fine,” she said, “if you pull this again, I’m not bringing him.” She pointed at him. “Are we clear?”
She received a nod.
She was grateful that Danny was the happiest baby she’d ever seen. After a rough start that could have killed him and Autumn, he was almost always agreeable, smiling, and cheerful. He had plenty of love coming from everyone in their tight circle of friends and his family. Danny gladly cooperated, allowing her father to touch his hands, feet, and make noises at him. Danny smiled and wiggled around, grabbing handfuls of blankets. At five months, he was a handful. Sitting with him in her lap, she had to concentrate on keeping him from falling off the bed.
Later that afternoon, Rebecca entered the code of the security fence at Huntington Farms. The wedding venue was located in the shadow of Monteagle Mountain, owned by her friends Brandon and Ben. They hired Autumn McMillan as site manager before opening. They’d purchased the adjacent real estate with a brick home and a log cabin already on the property. The guys lived in the house while Autumn moved into the cottage during pregnancy. After Dan Madera retired from the military, he and Autumn shacked up together.
Driving the path around the venue and out to the other gate that separated the work property from the personal residence there, she entered another security gate. The entire farm rested in an alcove backed up to the woods, and the plateau rose behind them and circled the right side, creating a gorgeous natural view. Those views made them an almost overnight hit. There was no shortage of interest in the business, which helped bring more tourists to the growing township of White Oak. A few niche businesses had popped up in town including two new bakeries, three bed-and-breakfast places, and a bunch of freelance photographers.
Rebecca parked in the gravel in front of Autumn and Dan’s place, next to Weasel’s old white truck and Justin’s red sedan. Summer had held on making its last stand with record temps, but the sun was starting its downhill slide into shorter days, which would cool it down. In the backyard, Ben and Brandon sat in matching lawn chairs, a large umbrella perched over them, blocking the evening sunlight. They reclined, relaxing with a book and a pitcher of margaritas between them. Justin and Weasel were bow shooting targets.
Justin was her friend Hannah’s husband. Weasel was a police officer, an expert marksman, and weapon aficionado. But he only hunted with a bow, and his favorite was the compound bow with an attached quiver he was now using. Weasel stood wearing only athletic shorts that had sunk dangerously low, poised with an arrow aimed at a target in the shape of a deer, lean muscles pulled tautly. Hannah had mentioned he looked great shirtless and dang if she wasn’t right. Why was he so tall, strong, and hot? Rebecca tried to keep him relegated to the “friend” category in her mind and his. Sometimes that was easier than others.
On New Year’s Eve, he dragged her onto the dance floor at the party. With his arms wrapped around her, she’d lost herself in his solid embrace, then his lips. God, those kisses were incredible. She could have him, but he’d never be hers. He didn’t do long-term, and she didn’t do one-night stands or even dating any longer, not after Kyle. With the arrow launched into the faux deer’s kill spot, he turned and zeroed in on her standing there. She averted her eyes. Weasel sat the bow down and strolled toward them.
“Miss,” he nodded to her. “Hey, bud,” he added to Danny, lifting the infant from her arms as he swung him in the air. She held her breath, but the boy laughed. Hugging the baby against his chest, he kissed him on the head. Rebecca’s uterus screamed, You sent this man away.
This isn’t what we want, she retorted.
The hell it’s not, her uterus responded.
Well, I’m not taking my orders from you.
Rebecca reached into the bag, removed a blanket, and spread it out in the shadow cast by the umbrella. “Here, set him down, so he can play.” He did as instructed, and then stretched out on the ground next to him, leaning back on his elbows. Rebecca remained on the other side of Danny and busied herself putting out toys to entertain the child
“You’re hanging out with the munchkin today?”
“They went to visit Jason in Nashville.” Autumn’s brother, and Dan’s best friend, struggled after he had returned from war. He’d been hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury. He’d graduated to an outpatient program for veterans. “They should be home soon,” Rebecca took out her phone from her purse and found a text from Autumn. “They’ll be here any minute.”
Weasel watched her fiddle with the phone and stare at it; she made a display of ignoring him. He’d recognized her pretending that she hadn’t been watching him shoot. His first mistake was not asking her out when she moved there. The second mistake was keeping his distance while she dated Kyle. Not wishing to miss out on a second chance, they kissed on New Year’s Eve, and he’d moved too soon. The chemistry between them was unmistakable; she had to sense it. After Hannah’s wedding, Rebecca claimed to only want to be friends. Typically, if a woman declared no interest, then he’d move on. No worries, plenty of fish, so to speak.
But she’d lied.
After nearly ten years in law enforcement, he could spot a liar from a mile away. And occasionally, his life depended on it. Weasel trusted those instincts. Why had Rebecca lied? No clue, but he stopped pursuing her. The friendship meant more than nothing.
Autumn advised him not to give up; then she dropped a bomb that left him confused and pissed that he had missed it. She told him that Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend wasn’t the nicest person behind closed doors. Without further explanation, his cop mind seized control. He’d seen a wide variety of not-so-nice things that men have done to women over the years. If he got confirmation of what Kyle did, he might kill the little twerp. Weasel set out to prove that he would never hurt her, by making no overt moves.
Danny rolled to his tummy, rocking back and forth. Rebecca was encouraging him to learn to crawl. Her long dark hair was down, and the curl gave it a wild look he knew annoyed her. While she kept it up in a bun for cooking at work. Weasel loved it down and untamed. He wanted to run his hands in it and everywhere else on her body too. On all fours, Rebecca was attempting to demonstrate crawling for Danny, and that was treating Weasel to a front row view of her sweet little posterior. She was curvy, soft, and perfect. It’d be fun if they were naked in his bed right now.
He turned and locked eyes with Hannah. Busted. Yep, he was staring at Rebecca’s ass and having dirty thoughts over it. Oh well. What could Hannah do besides tell Rebecca? He’d already had his tongue down her throat, so his interest was clear. That cat was out of the bag, and he was sure everyone knew it.
“You guys wanna do a bonfire and grill tonight?” Ben said, putting his book down for the first time all afternoon. He continued to turn up the margarita.
“Maybe you should let someone who hasn’t been boozing handle the fire,” Weasel said.
Justin came over from target practicing and kissed his wife. “I second that.”
“Oh please,” Ben waved a dismissive hand. “It’s my day off.”
“And let’s try not to catch fire,” Weasel replied. “I’ll light it.
Rebecca watched Weasel cross the lawn and pull a shirt from his backpack. Weasel slid his arms into the sleeves, dropping it over his head. It fell loosely around his middle. Autumn and Dan pulled up and distracted her. Everyone yelled greetings as Autumn made a beeline to Danny. Scooping up her son, she cuddled him and thanked Rebecca for babysitting. With the mention of fire, all of the males wandered up to Ben and Brandon’s house for firewood, leaving her alone with Hannah, Autumn, and the baby.
“How’d it go with Jason?” Rebecca asked Autumn.
“Great, actually,” she snuggled the infant, “much better than I expected.”
“So, he’s not pissed at Dan anymore?” Rebecca asked. Jason was less than thrilled to discover that while deployed in Iraq, his sister and best friend had gotten involved, and she was pregnant.
“It worried me that seeing us together would be a problem, but it was fine.” Autumn checked, making sure the guys were out of earshot. “He and Dan talked alone for a long time. They didn’t tell me what they spoke about.” Autumn shrugged. “Maybe I’ll find out one day.”
“Any prognosis on Jason?” Rebecca asked.
“No, but, he seems much happier. He’s gained weight and is looking better.”
“Why were you bent over like that?” Hannah asked, pointing at Rebecca.
“Teaching Danny how to crawl,” Rebecca said.
“Well, Weasel was studying your ass like it contained the secrets to the universe.”
“She wasn’t any better,” Hannah said. “Weasel walked across the yard for his shirt, and she looked ready to jump his bones right there.”
“Did not,” Rebecca interjected.
“Oh, come on. Just do him already. You’ll feel a lot better,” Hannah grinned.
“You will,” Autumn agreed, nodding to the squirming child in her arms. “It’s time for him to eat dinner.”
Rebecca pushed off the blanket to follow them.
The minute the cabin door closed behind them, Hannah continued. “Why not?”
“Really?” Rebecca retorted. “Why not sleep with Weasel? Are you serious? We’ve been over this. We are just friends.” Because the thought of someone as rough and wild as Weasel getting angry like Kyle use to was terrifying. Rebecca opened Autumn’s refrigerator. “Have any wine?”
“Bottom shelf,” Autumn said preparing a plate of baby food while Danny beat his high chair tray with all his might.
“Thanks.” Rebecca removed the bottle and rummaged through the cabinet for a glass.
“Yes, I’m serious,” Hannah responded. “Sometimes you need a good man-induced ‘O’.”
Rebecca took a slow drink considering Hannah’s remark. “What makes you think he can induce an ‘O’?”
“Oh, I’ve heard.” Hannah laughed and took the bottle from Rebecca and poured the rest into a glass. “Remember, I’m a hairdresser. I get all the juicy gossip.”
That had her interest piqued. “What have you heard?”
Crossing the cabin Hannah peered out the window for any sign of the men. “Well,” she came back to the table, “rumor has it that he used to travel to other towns to pick up women. I have never seen him in a bar in White Oak, trolling for tail that is. At The Bar, he’s only with us.”
“Hang on,” Rebecca said and emptied her cup. “Do you have any more wine?”
“No,” Autumn replied. “There’s tequila in the cabinet and mixer in the fridge.”
Rebecca mixed freestyle margaritas in the kitchen and passed them out. “Okay, go on.”
Hannah sipped and nodded her approval. “Well, I had this girl in for a cut, and she was from over in Martin talking about this guy she’d taken home. And said his name was Weasel, and she thought it was a fake name,” Hannah chuckled. “He was upfront about it being a one-time thing. Let’s just say she was happy with the experience. From what I gathered, it’s pretty big, too.”
“No,” Rebecca cried, covering her ears. “Don’t say things like that. I can never un-hear that; we’re just friends.” Hannah and Autumn laughed. “So, he’s a slut,” Rebecca quipped. “And you want me to sleep with him?”
“I think,” Autumn interjected, “that something’s changed in him, recently.” She gingerly scooped a spoonful of baby food off of Danny’s chin and into his open mouth.
Rebecca rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, he doesn’t seem to go out searching for one-nighters anymore,” Hannah said.
“I’m not looking for anything serious, but still, I don’t know if I can get past the man-whore part,” Rebecca said.
“Who’s a man-whore?” Dan asked. The three women jumped and faced toward the doorway where Dan, Brandon, Justin, and of course Weasel stood. How long had they been standing there?
“No one,” all three women responded in unison; they stared at each other and busted out laughing. Dan, Justin, and Weasel pointed at each other.
“Well, they’re not talking about me,” Brandon said.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Autumn said. “You might be, but it’s Ben’s problem.” That brought another round of giggles out the women.
The guys glanced at each other. “Are ya’ll drunk?” Justin asked.
“Wow, in the time we took to light a bonfire and a grill, you ladies got lit,” Dan said.
They crossed the room and Weasel moved to Rebecca’s side and lifted her glass, smelled, and took a drink. “Hey, that’s mine,” she protested.
“Good lord,” he coughed making a face. “You realize you’re supposed to put in more mixer than tequila, right?”
She shrugged. “I may have mixed it just a teensy bit strong,” she answered. She held up her fingers showing a minimal amount then snickered.
“Who’s the man-whore,” Dan asked, sitting next to his fiancé and planting a kiss on her neck. She shivered and giggled. Rebecca’s eyes rolled in her skull. Autumn deserved every bit of happiness she now had. Rebecca delighted in her friends’ good fortune, but to witness such domestic bliss was annoying.
“Someone I’m trying to set Rebecca up with,” Hannah said with a sly smile. There was a gleam in her eye. What was she doing? It was for no other reason than to incite Weasel. He’d never let that statement go; she felt his attention land on her.
“You tried to set her up with a man-whore?” Dan asked.
Hannah shook her head. “That’s her excuse.”
“Look,” Rebecca said, needing to nip this quickly, “I realize we’re all codependent here, but my romantic life is not a group decision.” She pointed at Hannah. “Or up for debate.”
“Romantic life,” Hannah said. “What romantic life? Your vagina’s growing cobwebs.”
Choking out a laugh, the heat coming off her face might light a fire all its own. “I don’t tell you everything,” she said to Hannah with as much dignity as she could muster. “Besides, I could have had a hot date and not told you.” She continued to ignore Weasel.
“In this town,” Brandon scoffed. “Highly doubtful.” A date would turn into town gossip.
“I wouldn’t be happy about that,” Hannah said and paused for a beat. “I know, we’ll set up one of those online dating profiles.”
Rebecca choked. “Absolutely, not.” It had to be about provoking Weasel. Why Hannah and Autumn wanted them together, she had no clue. “I’m not doing that.”
“We’d have to carefully vet anyone before you go out with them,” Dan said.
She shook her head. “I’m not interested in that. Besides, you never know what they smell like.”
“Excuse me,” Brandon said. “Smell?”
“As in they stink,” Hannah said.
“Yeah, either that or they’ve taken a bath in a vat of cologne. It clogs my sinuses, and I can’t breathe. It’s gross.”
Autumn and Hannah nodded in agreement. “That’s true,” Autumn said. “I don’t like heavy cologne either.”
“No,” Rebecca said. “It needs to be just enough to notice when you’re right up against him.”
“I think so too,” Autumn said wiping Danny’s sticky face. He resisted by turning his head to avoid his mom’s efforts.
“We left Ben cooking the burgers,” Brandon announced. “We should get back.”
“Yes, please,” Rebecca replied looking at Weasel. “Where’s my drink?”
“Down the drain, Tipsy,” Weasel replied.
She scowled at him. “I wanted that.”