Cross My Heart

CHAPTER ONE

“I hate you.”

Michael Stone glanced over at the passenger seat, where his fourteen year old daughter slouched down with folded arms.

“I know.”

She shook her head. “You only think you know. This isn’t some teenage drama thing, Dad. This is Count of Monte Cristo hatred.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to spend the next thirty years plotting revenge?”

“I’m just saying I won’t forget this. Ever. And I’ll never forgive you. The day I turn eighteen, I swear you’re never going to see me again.”

He sighed. “Look, Claire, I know you wanted to go to that summer camp. But I only get to see you a few times a year, and—”

“The camp is only three weeks long. Why couldn’t I have done this stupid visit in August?”

Stay calm, he reminded himself. He’d only picked her up at the airport twenty minutes ago.

“Because I put in for this vacation six months ago. I have surgeries planned around my schedule. I can’t just—”

“I don’t see why the hospital couldn’t have worked with you.”

Stay calm.

“Because you only told me about the camp last week. Maybe if I had a few months notice I could have—”

“Forget it, okay? Just forget it. I don’t know why I even try to make you understand. Just because you happened to contribute some sperm during the conception process doesn’t mean you care about me.”

If he said anything to that, he’d regret it.

They drove for a minute in silence. Then Claire reached out to turn on the radio, scanned quickly through the channels, and settled on a song that sounded as much like music as a bone saw. He put up with it for a few minutes before turning the radio off again.

Claire didn’t waste words on him this time. She just slouched down lower and turned her head away.

Their annual summer visit was off to a bang-up start. Thirty minutes of icy silence later, Michael turned onto his street and slowed the car as he approached his house.

“Oh, my God,” Claire said suddenly, looking out her window.

Michael followed her gaze as he pulled into his driveway, but he didn’t see anything more startling than his next door neighbor getting the mail. Not that he didn’t find his neighbor startling, but he doubted it was for the same reasons Claire did.

“What is it?” he asked.

“That’s Jenna Landry. At least it looks like Jenna Landry. You live next door to Jenna Landry?”

“Well, that’s her name. But from the tone of your voice I’m guessing it means more to you than it does to me.”

Claire turned to look at him, and he was pretty sure he’d never seen such complete contempt in anyone’s face before. “You have no idea who she is.”

“All I know is that she’s my next door neighbor. She moved in a month ago.”

He remembered the day perfectly. He’d come home after spending twelve hours in emergency surgery, and all he’d wanted was to take a quick shower and crawl into bed.

There was a U-Haul in the driveway next door. He didn’t remember seeing a For Sale sign go up, but his neighbors, a middle-aged couple whose names escaped him, hadn’t been around for a few weeks. He glanced over without much interest as he went up his walkway, wondering if they’d moved away.

That’s when he saw her.

His eyes locked on her but his body kept moving, and he tripped over his front steps. He barely registered the fall as he scrambled to his feet, continuing to stare at the dark-haired beauty who was talking to two other people with big, enthusiastic gestures and an even bigger smile.

She had pale, creamy skin and jet black hair, held away from her face with a red headband. Her tee-shirt was red, too, and drew him like a cape draws a bull. He took a step towards her without thinking, bumping into his porch railing and grabbing onto it with both hands.

Her faded jeans showed off incredible legs. She leaned over to pick up a box, showing off an even more incredible derriere, and when her shirt rode up he could see a tattoo on her lower back. When she turned around again, the sunlight glinted on a silver belly button ring.

Tattoos and body piercings had never been his thing. His last girlfriend had been elegant and sophisticated and a little on the conservative side. Claire’s mother had been like that, too. He’d always assumed that was his taste in women—stylish, classic, refined.

So what the hell was happening to him now?

His heart was pounding. He was gripping the porch railing like a lifeline. And he was painfully, impossibly hard.

He forced himself to go inside his house, where he showered and slept for ten straight hours. When he woke up he told himself his reaction to his gorgeous new neighbor had been a combination of eleven months of celibacy and exhaustion brought on by his schedule at the hospital.

Except that it happened every time he saw her.

He’d never spoken to her, not even a casual hello. He’d learned her name when a package for her had been delivered to him by mistake, but she wasn’t home when he left it outside her door.

He assumed she was a musician, because she left the house most mornings with a guitar case slung over her shoulder. He knew she was social, with friends dropping by often, especially on the weekends. She smiled and laughed a lot, as if she enjoyed life.

The universe had sent his polar opposite to live next door to him, encased in the most beautiful body he’d ever laid eyes on.

“So who is she?” he asked his daughter as they got out of the car.

“Only lead guitarist for the Red Mollies, one of the greatest all-girl bands in the entire history of rock and roll. At least until they broke up a few years ago.”

Well, that explained why he’d never heard of her. His knowledge of music was pretty much nonexistent.

Claire continued chatting about her idol as they made their way into the house, and he tried to remember the last time he’d actually seen his daughter excited about something. Instead of disappearing upstairs with her suitcase she actually stayed with him in the kitchen while he got dinner started. He couldn’t think of the last time that had happened, either.

“They’re doing a reunion tour this fall, and everyone’s hoping they get back together.” She leaned against the sink and looked out the window, staring at Jenna’s house. “What’s she like? I bet she’s really cool.”

“I don’t know. We’ve never talked.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged as he chopped cucumbers for the salad. “There’s never been a reason for us to. And I don’t think we have much in common.”

He’d told himself that before. Every time he saw her, in fact, because his visceral reaction to her was so strong he was always tempted—for the most primitive male reasons—to find some excuse to talk to her.

Claire turned away from the window and huffed out an angry breath. “God, that’s so like you.”

He frowned at her. “What is?”

“You’re so judgmental. You decided what Jenna’s like without even knowing her. Maybe she’s really nice. Maybe you have tons of stuff in common.”

Michael added the cucumbers to the greens and started slicing radishes. “Claire, you just told me she’s a rock musician. I’m a cardiac surgeon. We don’t exactly travel in the same circles.”

“Do you even know how snobby that sounds?”

He’d grown up in a rough part of Chicago and made it through school on scholarships and loans, so he didn’t think he could qualify as a snob. But since he rarely talked about his childhood with Claire he didn’t bother making that point.

“I don’t think cardiac surgeons are better than rock musicians. Just different.”

“What’s wrong with different? Are you saying you can only hang out with other cardiac surgeons? What are there, like, twenty of you in the entire state of Iowa? Way to be broad-minded, Dad.”

Of course that wasn’t what he meant. But as usual with Claire, the conversation had gotten twisted around somehow, to the point where he wasn’t sure what they were talking about anymore.

The one thing he was sure of was that Claire didn’t want to be here, with him.

He sighed. “Why don’t you go upstairs and unpack? Dinner will be ready in an hour.”

She shrugged irritably. “Whatever.”

She grabbed her suitcase and left the kitchen. Michael added the radishes to the salad and started slicing carrots, listening to Claire climb the stairs and slam the door to her room.

He laid the knife on the cutting board and took a deep breath.

There was no reason to be disappointed that this visit had started off exactly like the last one. What did he expect? That all of a sudden, his daughter would turn from a sullen teenager into a rational human being? Someone he could actually talk to? Someone who didn’t seem like such an alien creature, with feelings and reactions he didn’t understand?

It had been so much easier when she was younger. When Claire turned six, the only thing she wanted was a princess dress. Cinderella’s dress, to be specific. He remembered how she’d looked when she asked him for it—the eager, wistful expression in her big brown eyes.

He’d gotten her the dress, of course. Along with matching shoes, a tiara, and a surprise trip to Disney World, where he’d made reservations for a character breakfast at Cinderella’s Castle.

She hadn’t asked him for anything in the last two years. He had to ask her grandparents what to get for Christmas and birthdays.

And from here on out, things would only get worse. The gulf between them would only get wider. Until Claire grew up, went to college, got married…at which point their contact would probably be limited to awkward phone calls once or twice a year.

He was surprised by the sudden stab of pain in his chest.

He’d been staring blankly out the window for the last minute, dinner forgotten. Now, slowly, Jenna Landry’s house came into focus as an idea took root in his mind.

There was one thing he knew Claire wanted. Something she’d told him about herself, that he hadn’t had to learn from her grandparents.

She wanted to meet Jenna Landry.

He wanted to meet her too, of course, although for completely different reasons. Reasons rooted in animal lust, which was why he’d never followed one of those crazy impulses to walk over there and introduce himself. Logic told him they had nothing in common, that her eyes would probably glaze over in boredom after two minutes’ conversation with him.

Now, though, he actually had a reason to go over there. If there was even a chance he could do something for Claire, something that would make her happy, he wasn’t going to pass it up. Jenna would probably think he was crazy—or maybe just pathetic—but he didn’t care. He was determined to make this trip different from the others, to make a connection with his daughter before it was too late.

And Jenna Landry might just be the key to that.

***

“It’s a conspiracy,” Jenna informed her mother.

She held the phone between her shoulder and ear as she bore down with the scraper, finding a simple, visceral satisfaction in peeling away the old paint and revealing the maple wood beneath. Maybe instead of repainting her aunt’s kitchen cabinets she’d sand and stain them, instead.

“Inviting you to Sunday dinner is a conspiracy?”

Jenna grinned at the acerbic note in Irene Landry’s voice. “You bet it is. First Hannah asks me to teach at her summer camp, then aunt Beth asks me to house sit. And now you with the home-cooked meals? You’re trying to get me to move back to Iowa. Admit it.”

She was joking, of course, but as she said the words she realized she was feeling a little defensive about being home. Because the truth was, it felt good to be back. Not good enough to stay once the summer was over, but good. So she was doing a little preemptive communication, in case her mom had any notion that she could be persuaded to stay.

“Don’t be silly. I couldn’t care less whether you move back to Iowa.”

“Very convincing, Mom.”

“Your father and sister are the ones who are all excited to have you home.”

“Uh huh.”

“So are you coming Sunday, or not?”

“Will there be corn?”

“Enough to feed a small army.”

“Then I’ll be there.”

They chatted a few more minutes before saying goodbye, and then Jenna turned her full attention to the cabinets. Aunt Beth had mentioned a few home improvement projects she could tackle over the summer—only if she felt like it, of course—and Jenna was surprised at how much fun she was having.

She smiled suddenly, thinking of the cabinets in her parents’ kitchen. They’d let their daughters be in charge of painting them when Jenna was fifteen.

Jenna, the oldest, had voted for purple. Allison, three years younger, had insisted on yellow. Megan was eight years old and the baby of the family, and she’d begged for pink. There were twelve cabinet doors altogether, which divided nicely into four apiece, so they’d agreed to compromise.

Irene’s mouth twitched a little when she bought the paint her girls picked out, and it twitched even more when Joe Landry caught his first glimpse of the kitchen after his daughters had finished with it.

“Jake and I are doing the living room,” was all he’d said. Jake was Jenna’s twin brother and the only boy in the family, and he and Joe had done the living room in a manly hunter green.

Irene had finally repainted the cabinets a few years ago. But she’d left the knobs pink, purple, and yellow.

The farm had been flourishing for several years now, and the house looked great these days. Growing up, though, it had felt like the Landry home was perpetually falling apart. Shingles off the roof, paint peeling, plumbing and wiring needing repair. There was always work to be done, as if there wasn’t enough to do out in the fields to keep the farm going.

Jenna had loved and hated that work, just as she’d loved and hated the farm itself.

Her feelings for her family hadn’t been so complicated. For them, she’d felt only love. But as much as she adored her parents and siblings, she’d itched to leave home from the time she was thirteen. And when the band she’d started with some high school friends started to take off, she hadn’t hesitated. She’d been out the door a few days after her eighteenth birthday.

Now, twelve years later, she was back in Iowa again.

Not that she was living here, of course. This was just temporary. Her teaching job was over in August, and then the Mollies were getting back together for a reunion tour. That would last a couple of months and then she was off to L.A. for a new gig—music supervisor for an indie movie.

Her doorbell rang. Jenna set down her scraper and rinsed her hands, glad to be finished for the night. It was time to dig into a large pizza with sausage and mushrooms and black olives.

She dried her hands quickly and went to the front door.

“Am I glad to see—”

The words died on her lips, and she found herself blinking up at her handsome next door neighbor instead of the pizza guy.

“Oh,” she said in surprise. “Hello.”

He was even more gorgeous up close, in the understated way that had appealed to her when she’d first seen him a few weeks ago.

His brown hair was cut conservatively short, and his eyes were the same shade of warm mahogany. Straight nose, firm jaw, nice cheekbones. He had a nice mouth, too. She bet he had a great smile, even though his expression, the few times she’d seen him, had always been serious.

In the music business, a man that good-looking would a) be aware of it and b) use the fact to his advantage whenever possible. But you could tell by the way he held himself that this man wasn’t conscious of his appearance at all.

Jenna, on the other hand, was very conscious that she was wearing old sweatpants, a faded Ramones tee shirt, and no makeup, with her hair tangled and wild beneath her faded blue bandana. In the occasional fantasy she’d entertained about her neighbor, she’d been wearing something a lot sexier.

“Hello,” he said. Unlike her, he looked like a grownup in khaki pants and a button down shirt. “I’m your neighbor. From next door,” he added, waving a hand towards his beautiful white clapboard house.

“Sure, of course. I’ve seen you around.”

Ogled him would be more accurate. Like the day she spent half an hour watching him out the window while he mowed his lawn. She hoped he might take off his tee-shirt in the ninety degree heat, but her wish hadn’t been granted.

Right now he was looking a little uncomfortable. Maybe he’d come to tell her the weekend jam sessions were too loud, even though she was keeping things unplugged.

“It’s the music, isn’t it?” she said contritely. “I’m so sorry. We’ve been playing acoustic but if it’s too loud I can…”

He was shaking his head. “No, your music is fine. That’s not why I’m here. My name is Michael, by the way. Michael Stone. And…okay, I’m just going to come out with it.”

He took a deep breath. “My daughter Claire is here for a visit. She lives with her grandparents and I don’t get to see her as much as I’d like. She’s fourteen and hates my guts, and the closest thing we’ve had to a civil conversation in two years was just now, when she recognized you. Apparently you’re a member of one of her favorite bands.”

He took another breath. “And that’s why I’m here. I’m pretty much throwing myself on your mercy, Ms. Landry. I’m hoping you’ll come to my house for dinner tonight and make me look like father of the year.”

If he’d planned it out deliberately, he couldn’t have said anything that would have melted her more. What woman wouldn’t be a sucker for a dad trying to improve his relationship with his teenage daughter?

“Call me Jenna. And of course I’ll come over.”

He looked surprised. “You will?”

She smiled up at him. “You expected a harder sell?”

“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “Coming here was impulsive, and I’m not usually impulsive. I didn’t know what to expect. But I thought you might have plans.”

His brown eyes warmed a little as he looked at her, and Jenna felt a tingle at the base of her spine.

“My only plan involved a pizza, which I will now call and cancel. I’d love to come to your house for dinner. But your daughter knows I’m not in a band anymore, right? I don’t want to meet Claire under false pretenses of fame and glory.”

He shook his head. “She told me your band broke up a few years ago. She did say something about a reunion tour this fall. I think she’ll probably ask you about that.”

Jenna laughed. “Her and everyone else. Give me a few minutes to change, okay? I’ve been doing some painting and I’m not exactly presentable.”

His eyes traveled down her body and back up to her face. “I think you’re very presentable,” he said, and she could tell it was the second impulsive thing he’d done today, because he looked a little self-conscious after he said it.

She felt a sudden rush of awareness, like an electric surge. It was so strong and so unexpected that she almost took a step back.

“Okay, then,” she said after a moment. “I’ll be over in, say, half an hour? Will that work for you?”

“That’s perfect,” he said. “We’re having salmon, if that’s all right.”

“Perfect,” she said, echoing him.

“Well…great. We’ll see you in half an hour.”

Jenna leaned against the doorframe and watched him cross the lawns between their houses. When she realized she was staring, she closed the door firmly and went upstairs to shower.

A few minutes later she was scrubbing paint flecks off her skin under the spray of hot water. She pictured Michael’s serious face and warm brown eyes, and the way his loose-limbed body had filled her doorway. She remembered his gaze moving over her, and the way her body had responded.

She hadn’t felt that zing in a long time. It had been a while since she’d even felt like flirting with anyone.

But why now? Why him? Michael was nothing like the bad boy type she’d always gone for in the past.

He struck her as the responsible type. Stable and mature. He looked so serious—and she knew from her neighbor on the other side that he was a doctor.

She’d turned thirty a few months ago, a milestone she hadn’t wrapped her mind around yet. Was her attraction to her conservative-looking neighbor a sign of things to come? Was this the final death knell of her old wild self, the girl who’d left home to start a rock band?

Jenna stepped out of the shower and toweled herself dry. She smoothed lotion onto her skin and stood at the counter to apply her makeup.

She’d always sworn she’d never lose her edge, never turn boring or conventional or tame. Look at Tina Turner, still rocking the house at seventy. If Tina could stay wild then so could she.

But looking at herself now, she acknowledged that she wasn’t the person she’d been at eighteen…or even twenty-five. Five years ago, for instance, she would have gone for dead pale skin and lips, and exaggerated her eyes with thick black liner. Now she was putting on mascara and lip gloss and not much else.

She couldn’t pin down the exact moment in time she’d changed her look. It had been a gradual thing.

There’d been other changes, too. She’d quit smoking almost three years ago, and to help deal with the nicotine cravings she’d started jogging. Now she actually enjoyed getting up early to run before breakfast. A far cry from her days in the band, when the Mollies would stay up till dawn and sleep till late afternoon, in time to get ready for that night’s show.

She didn’t go out to the clubs as much, either. She’d settled in Chicago after the Mollies called it quits, working as a studio musician and enrolling in a degree program for music education. Between work and classes something had to give—and that turned out to be her night life.

Then a few things happened. The Mollies made plans for a reunion tour, she got the job offer from L.A., and an old friend asked her if she’d be interested in teaching music that summer in Willow Springs, Iowa.

The lease was up on her Chicago apartment. Aunt Beth and Uncle Sean were travelling until fall, and when they offered her their house for a couple of months, the timing had seemed too perfect to pass up.

So here she was.

Coming back to Iowa made the other changes in her life stand out in sharp relief. When she was living in Chicago, giving up cigarettes and a few nights out hadn’t seemed like such a big deal. But here in the town where she’d grown up, it felt like the old Jenna had slipped away when she wasn’t even looking, replaced by a woman she wasn’t sure she wanted to become.

A woman who got up early to go running. A woman who spent her days teaching and her nights working on home improvement projects. A woman who found herself attracted to her next door neighbor, who was conventional and serious instead of wild and reckless.

A woman who was losing her edge.

No, she told herself, pulling on a pair of jeans and her CBGBs tee shirt. The fact that she’d made a few changes in her life didn’t mean she was losing her edge.

She was attracted to Michael because he was hot, not because he seemed mature and responsible. And she wasn’t going to act on her feelings. She hardly ever saw him, for one thing—he seemed to work a pretty intense schedule. And she was only here for the summer. Nothing, and especially not a man, would keep her in Iowa any longer than that.

Jenna had only two rules when it came to the opposite sex. Don’t let them change you, and don’t let them tie you down. She’d almost let a guy change her, once—before she found out the hard way that he wasn’t worth it.

It was a mistake she had no intention of repeating.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Abigail Strom