River Bend, Nebraska
Nine years. Nine long ass years since Ryan Croft had taken a legit vacation outside the state of Nebraska. And even then, he wasn’t sure his last trip to the West Coast the summer before college really counted. He hadn’t enjoyed it one bit. Especially the part where he’d found Rosie curled up on another man’s lap.
Rubbing a hand around the back of his neck, he stared out the window of Cedar Street Brew. Who had he been kidding? Ryan & Rosie 4-ever. That kind of sticky sweet shit only existed on the WB in shows that were popular with the twelve to twenty age group.
Kind of like high school.
When Rosie’s favorite place had been on his lap.
“A good son would take his mother along, you know.” Dressed to the nines in a charcoal suit, Beatrice Croft waggled her eyebrows over the lid of her to-go cup. Her shiny red fingernails tapped against the glossy mocha cardboard, making Ryan smile.
“You can go back to Malibu anytime you want, Barbie. No need to wait on me for a ride.” Smirking, he lifted his own coffee cup and sipped. The warmth made him shiver and burrow deeper into his Hudson Contracting coat. Only two more days of freezing his butt off on the job site, then look out Tahoe. If all he accomplished was drinking beer, soaking in the hot tub, and hitting the slopes a time or two, he’d come back to Nebraska a happy man.
“Well, if you won’t let me tag along, at least do me a favor and drive over to Sweetgrass.”
“Sweetgrass?” What the hell was that? Some feel-good, family tourist attraction? Didn’t sound up to par with his bachelor adventure.
“It’s the little town your cousin Janine recently moved to, remember? I told you last week.” His mother narrowed her eyes. “Son-of-mine, you need a vacation more than I realized.”
Yep, and for more reasons than he’d ever say out loud. Those kinds of wishy-washy feelings didn’t really match the scars on his hands or the scruffy beard on his face.
“As much as I’d like to see Janine, I’m not really interested in spending my time off stuck in a car.” Crap, that sounded selfish as hell, didn’t it?
“It’s forty-five minutes, Ryan. Suck it up and do the right thing.” Rewrapping her scarf, Beatrice stood, lips pressed into a tight smile. “And please don’t forget to shave before you go. You’re starting to look like Grizzly Adams.”
“Ha!” Knees spread wide, he leaned back in the chair and chuckled, rubbing his hand over the thicker than usual stubble. “Ladies love the facial hair, Ma. Haven’t you heard?”
“I’m going to pretend I have no idea what you’re talking about and be on my way.” His mother winked and dropped her hand to his shoulder, pausing on her way to the door. “You need to refuel, honey. Nothing does that better than spending time with people you care about.”
Probably. But right now, he needed to kick back with the boys and figure out what the hell he was going to do with his life. “A few beers will do just fine.”
“Oh, you.” Playful fingers reached for his cheek. “Just trust me on this, okay? Mother’s intuition.”
He ducked away from the childish gesture and rolled his eyes. “Don’t start with the maternal juju.”
“Don’t mock the gods, Ryan. It’s bad karma.”
Uh huh. Too bad that threat had stopped working a long time ago. These days, the only thing he believed in was hard work and making stuff happen on his own. Fate was the fantasy of lazy people. Ryan wasn’t an egotistical guy, but lazy wasn’t something he’d ever call himself.
“On that note, I have to get to work.” Standing, he draped an arm around his mother’s shoulders and gave her a quick hug. “I’ll see what I can do about making time for Janine, but I’m not promising anything. My agenda’s already pretty tight.”
“You’ve penned in that much beer?” Another knowing smile. “I’ll be sure to text you her address and phone number. Maybe I’ll even give her a heads-up that you’ll be in the area.”
“Mom, seriously.” He closed his eyes and groaned. Twenty-seven-years-old and still guilt-tripped like a preteen. “What’s the name of this town again? Mary Jane something or other?”
Sweetgrass. Sounded like an old Western town with tumbleweeds and dirt. Lots and lots of dry, boring dirt.
“Like I said, I’ll see what I can do.” He walked his mother to the door and watched her hurry through the flurry of snowflakes to her car.
She paused before getting in and something about her too hopeful expression when she looked back made him curious.
“What aren’t you telling me?” he called after her, his breath puffing out in a misty cloud before him.
“It’s just a feeling I have. That’s all.”
Mmm-hmm. He didn’t believe that for a second, but even if it happened to be true, there was no way he’d restructure his vacation because of some feeling. He and feelings had parted ways a long time ago.
Nine years, to be exact.
“Nope. Not doing it. Final answer.”
Rosemary Shaw crossed one knee over the other and passed her boss an amused smirk. “No really isn’t an option here, Blake.”
“It is if I say it is.” Arching a perfectly manscaped eyebrow, Blake Reed did his best to challenge her. A pointless attempt, of course, because this battle, like so many before, was one he wouldn’t win.
Undeterred, she adjusted her tunic over her leggings and laid out the undeniable facts. “Publicity like this is the stuff superstars dream of. In fact, I wouldn’t be doing my job as your PR agent if I let you keep The Angel Alliance low-key.”
Blake scoffed and gestured around his huge office, decked out in floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcases and massive leather furniture. Just one of the many larger than life rooms in his illustrious mountain-view mansion. “I’m already living the dream, Rose. I don’t need the notoriety.”
He was right. He’d already captured the hearts of America—heck, the world—on the big screen. Add in finding the love of his life and he had everything he could possibly want. But this wasn’t about him.
“You’re funding a project that’s going to change the lives of hundreds of families, Blake. Knowing you’re the mastermind behind it all only adds to how special it is. You’re too humble to see it, but this is huge.”
Blake gave his head a sharp shake. “I’ve already given you the go ahead to talk about the foundation all you want. Just don’t flaunt my name with it.”
Silly, silly man. “It’s no secret who signs my paycheck. I may not say your name, but people will know. They always do.”
He narrowed his eyes and worked his mouth as he stared from across the monstrous desk. “Then we’ll have someone else report to the media. I refuse to drag Angel into this, and that’s exactly what’ll happen if people find out I’m financing this foundation.”
“You named it after her, Blake! How can you possibly keep her out of it? And does Penelope know about this? I’m starting to wonder if you’ve even told her.”
Clearing his throat, he spun toward the bank of windows overlooking the Sierra Nevadas. “Of course, I have. I wouldn’t make a decision like this without her. Angel’s her daughter, after all.”
Rose’s smile stretched wide. “Well, color me surprised, Mr. Reed.”
“Oh, come on, Rose. There’s no way I could keep these details from her, even if I wanted to. You know Penelope.”
Sure did. Well enough to know that it would only take one short, persuasive conversation with the woman for Blake to change his mind about the anonymity. There wasn’t a single thing he’d deny her and rightfully so. Penelope was exactly what Blake needed in his life.
“I’ll give you some time to rethink your decision, then,” Rose said, smoothing down her top as she stood.
Blake wheeled back around, a stern frown on his movie-star handsome face. “You leave her out of this, Rosemary.”
“Ooooh.” Rosemary mocked his tough guy expression, then gathered her coat and the oversized canvas bag she used instead of a briefcase. “Such a big, scary threat.”
Her boss shook his head, the look on his handsome face a cross between baffled, amused, and annoyed. “One of these days you’ll take me seriously.”
“And one of these days you’ll stop giving me a hard time when we both know I’m right. Which is pretty much always.” She winked before she turned for the door. “At least I haven’t set Janine loose on you yet. You should actually thank me for that, by the way. From our staffing this morning, it’s obvious she’s unaware of your plans to keep your name hush-hush. I’m not entirely sure how you’ve pulled that off, unless you’ve been lying to her. If that’s the case, I’ll be sure to say an extra prayer for you tonight.”
Behind her, Blake snorted. “Janine doesn’t need to know everything about me, just like the public doesn’t.”
A rich, thoroughly entertained laugh rolled up from her belly and she glanced back with a grin. “You’re delusional, but I’ll let it pass since I’m so proud of what you’re doing.”
“It’s not that big a deal. Really.”
“Ah, but it is, and soon the entire world will know.”