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Worth the Fall(4)

By´╝ÜClaudia Connor

Tall, broad, dark hair on his head and his chest. Nice, and nice looking. Not that she had been looking, but she wasn’t blind. And the way he’d played with her son? Not once in Jack’s five years had his own father played with him like that.

And now he never would.

Abby climbed the wooden steps between waving sea oats as the smells drifted and merged: sunscreen, salty air, and rotting seaweed. She’d just set Charlie on his feet and pushed her bags well away from the spraying water when a screeching voice pierced her ears.

A tall redhead in a sparkling orange bikini stood behind her, eyes wide open just like her mouth.

“Oh. My. God.” The redhead gaped at her glittering top like she’d been peed on.

Her platinum-blond friend glanced up. “What?”

Big Red dabbed at her beaded suit. “That kid just sprayed me. Stupid,” she muttered.

Good grief. Jack had not sprayed her. The wind might have blown a slight misting in her direction. The way the woman had reacted, you’d think she’d melt. Doubtful.

Jack turned with the hose, nearly spraying the woman for real. “Mom, she said ‘stupid.’ ”

“Hi.” Gracie smiled up at the redhead. “I wike your baving suit. I have a Barbie wif an orange baving suit.”

Abby adjusted the hose in Jack’s hand, pointing it at his feet before the Wicked Witch of the East had a meltdown.

“Can’t you get wet?” Eyes round with wonder, Gracie gazed up at the tall woman studiously ignoring her. “Are you a mermaid?”

“She’s not a mermaid,” Annie whispered.

“She could be,” Gracie said. “You don’t know.”

Abby picked up her youngest and rinsed his little feet, then handed the hose to Annie.

“I told you we should have gone up a different way,” Blondie said. “This is ridiculous.”

Right. Children rinsing off sandy feet on the beach boardwalk. Insane. Abby took a calming breath and let it out. The best reaction is no reaction. At least that’s what her social worker had always said.

“My turn.” Gracie hopped from foot to foot like a jumping bean. “I need to winse. I’m not a mermaid.”

Matt scanned the balcony of the resort’s main restaurant, nestled between the high-rise condominiums, and absently took in the other guests: an elderly couple; a family of four; a large, boisterous party raising glasses of red wine. His table next to the white stone railing gave him a clear view of the pool below, and the happy sounds of families enjoying an evening swim reached him in bursts. All this against a backdrop of rustling palms, their trunks wrapped in twinkling lights, which were becoming more visible in the fading light of dusk.

“I need another drink,” Kimmi said. “Matt, get me a—”

“Excuse me.” Rob shot out a hand to a passing waiter and took care of it.

Matt continued sweeping the area out of habit until his eyes landed on a table a few yards away and stopped. The woman he hadn’t met on the beach and all four kids sat directly in his line of sight three tables away. They were all dressed for dinner—dry clothes instead of bathing suits, sandals instead of flip-flops.

“Did you see that one, Matt?”

Kimmi was talking movies. “No,” he answered absently.

They got their food, and he ate his steak and lobster as the conversation continued around him, but throughout dinner he kept one eye on Jack’s mother. She’d made the sign of the cross and led the kids in the Catholic dinner prayer, one he’d said at every meal eaten in his house since birth. She smiled a lot, laughed a lot, as she worked the table with calm efficiency. It was hard to look anywhere else.

“Well, I’d rather go to The Bouncer,” Kimmi was saying. “The guy on the radio said that’s where the beautiful people go. What do you think, Matt?”

“I don’t care.” Because he had no intention of going anywhere with Kimmi. She’d almost caused a brawl at the bar last night. Not surprising. That’s what happened when you rubbed yourself up against too many poles of testosterone. Rob would have to entertain them tonight. His cousin had dug this hole and he didn’t seem to mind being ass deep.

Matt tuned them out as the band played, the guitar and violin creating an inviting beat. A silky male voice carried the tune, luring guests to the makeshift dance area.

Jack’s mother had taken the kids down to the patio. Matt sipped his beer and watched. Built like a dancer, with small bones and long lines, she moved to the music with the same grace. Not a girl trying to attract attention but a woman who couldn’t help being sexy.

And she fascinated him.