Mercedes Stone has no time for men. Between caring for her sick grandmother, running her own business and volunteering at her family's women's shelter she barely has time for herself. So dating a man as complicated as Scott Pataki is definitely out of the question.
That doesn't mean she'll turn her back on Scott's pregnant teenage sister. Even if helping her does put Mercedes dangerously close to the temptation that is Scott. It's not just the killer abs and dimples that make him so irresistible. It's the man she sees when his guard is down. If only she could help him realize the importance of family. And remind herself that his family doesn't include her.
"Author Amy Knupp has captured this reader’s heart with her emotional and heartfelt novels. Her characters make you feel like a close friend and her small-town charming cast makes the reader want to visit. You won’t go wrong if you read Island Haven. I am certain you will want to read more from this outstanding author."
--Cataromance, 4 stars
"Nicely drawn characters placed into realistic situations make for a refreshing read, as Scott's inability to commit and Mercedes' insecurity both ring true."
--Alexandra Kay, RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
Scott knew who was at the door before he answered it. And yet he opened it anyway. "You get an A+ for persistence."
"We brought lunch." Mercedes held out a large paper sack that smelled of Mexican food and said Ruiz's on the side.
Food wasn't going to sway him. He was about to tell them that when Mercedes pushed past him into the living room.
"Mind if we invade your kitchen?" She was too cheerful as she stood distractingly close.
"Yes. I do." The kitchen wasn't fit for any visitor, let alone this woman who, he would bet, groomed her kitchen as well as she groomed herself. Say whatever else you wanted to about her, but she did make herself pretty and smelled nice to boot. Like...springtime. He couldn't say what that meant, exactly, except the scent took him back years, to a time when life was easier. Lighter. He scowled at the thought.
"Here's fine, then." Mercedes shared a conspiratorial look with the teenager and helped herself to the couch and coffee table.
She must have found her stubborn, pushy mojo overnight. Wasn't he lucky?
She'd dressed casual today, wearing short jean shorts and a white tank with the women's shelter logo on it instead of the preppy tailored clothes she'd had on yesterday. She was average height with nicer-than-average curves he couldn't help noticing in spite of himself. Her dark wavy hair was everywhere, though she'd tried to control it by pulling the front parts back in a clip. Her calculating smile at Gemma highlighted prominent cheekbones and drew his attention to her glossy lips.
If she wasn't so bent on steamrolling him about being this girl's knight in shining armor, he might have given thought to getting to know her on a more personal level. Short-term, of course.
"We got a baker's dozen plus chips and salsa. There's plenty for you," she said.
"I'm not hungry," he lied. "But don't let that stop you."
They missed the sarcasm completely...or didn't care that they weren't welcome. Gemma, lacking the awful eye make-up today, curled up on the near end of the couch, tucking her feet under her, and Mercedes bent over the bag to unload it, giving him a shot of cleavage she hadn't been sporting the day before. When she straightened and held out some food to him, she caught him getting an eyeful. She quickly darted her glance away, looking slightly disconcerted. Nervous.
"I'm starving." Gemma tossed a piece of fish that had fallen out of her tortilla into her mouth. "So." She leaned forward, chewing then licking sauce off her finger. "About your spare bedroom..."
"I never said I have a spare bedroom."
"Do you?" Gemma asked.
He had to admit a little admiration for her guts and directness. He leaned against the wall, realizing these two had every intention of drawing things out. "Yes."
"I can give you two hundred dollars if you let me stay here till you leave. Plus I'll clean. You're going to need that before you move out." She shot a concerned look around her as she raised her food to take another bite.
"Where'd you get two hundred dollars?" he asked.
"I brought it with me."
"And yet you took my money for a bus ticket?"
"I gave it back."
He couldn't argue with that. "I thought Mercedes had come to your rescue."
Mercedes became absorbed in dipping a chip in salsa.
"That's not going to work out," Gemma said.
"She's allergic to my cats," Mercedes said as if she felt guilty. "Poor girl ended up sleeping outside on one of the loungers for half the night."
"I've slept in much worse places, trust me." Gemma brushed her shoulder-length hair behind her ear, a dangly bracelet jingling with the movement.
Both women watched him expectantly. He could feel their gazes burning into him.
What was his hang-up, really? What did he care who slept in the other room, as long as they didn't bug him? The rent money couldn't hurt. And yet...this wasn't someone off the streets with no ties to him.
"You're a minor," he said stubbornly.
"Technicality. I'll be eighteen soon. The first of August. I'm going to be a mom, Scott. I can take care of myself."
Scott pushed himself off the wall in disbelief. "Are you planning to keep this baby?"
Gemma returned his stare with a stubborn one of her own. "I am. Yes."
"Gemma needs a place to stay temporarily," Mercedes said in a rush, as if she sensed he was about to voice what a stupid idea keeping a baby was for a seventeen year old. "While she looks for a job. Gets her future figured out. The baby is a few months down the road. You'll be long gone."
"I'm not a babysitter. For a baby or a teenager."
"We're not asking you to be." Mercedes had stopped eating after one taco. "She's been on her own for years for all intents. Gemma doesn't need you to take care of her."
Something about the way Mercedes looked at him said they expected too much of him. Hell, expecting anything of him was too much. They had no clue how just being in the same room with this girl, this part of his dad's other family, ripped him up inside.
Scott took a long look at Gemma, defiantly ignoring Mercedes' stare. He was still boggled by how similar Gemma's eyes were to his father's. The narrowness, the oval shape. The light hazel color. He dropped his gaze to her nose and lips. The nose was nothing like his father's – delicate and thin where his overwhelmed his face. And the lips...her upper one was fuller than the lower and had a distinctive bow to it. Not a single hint of Dale in her mouth – and Scott found himself fixated on that fact. Wondering for the first time about the woman who had lured his dad away from his happy family. Were these that woman's lips, her nose? Was it the dip at the top of her mouth that had caught his father's attention? Some other physical characteristic?
Scott stormed into the kitchen without a word. He leaned over the dirty dish-filled sink, arms propped on the counter, and worked to get the anger under control. Damn, he hated feeling like this. Seemed like he spent more time worked up than not anymore.
It took him several seconds to focus on breathing evenly before he realized he wasn't alone. He straightened quickly and turned the faucet on without a glance at the doorway. Pulled the last clean glass down from the cabinet and filled it with water. When he'd downed the full glass, he set it on the counter and finally looked.
Mercedes, of course.
Mercedes had frozen as soon as she'd hit the kitchen and seen Scott leaning on the sink looking...vulnerable. Not so tough. She didn't want to sympathize with him for any reason but that glimpse of a different side of him had caught her off guard.
"Where are my manners?" Scott said sarcastically. "I forgot to offer you a drink."
She eyed the bottle of whiskey he'd left, uncapped, on the counter. It was more than half gone and she wondered just how long it'd taken him to work through that much hard liquor.
"I had water in mind," he said, "but I can pour you a shot or even a full glass if you want."
She opened her mouth to respond then bit down on it, reminding herself he was going out of his way to irritate her. Any trace of sympathy she'd experienced not two minutes ago was long gone. "I'm fine but Gemma needs to drink a lot."
"Thought you said she doesn't need anyone to take care of her."
The anger underlining his words was subtle but very much there. Something had set him off in the living room. She had no idea what. It certainly wasn't going to deter her.
"She's got a lot on her mind, if you hadn't noticed."
"Don't we all." He walked over to the refrigerator and took out a mini can of vegetable juice. He tossed it to Mercedes and she managed to catch it with both hands. "Give her that. You've decided I'm the scum of the earth, haven't you?"
"You've worked hard to make me believe that," she said, walking closer to him. "I'm not sure I understand why."
"Here's what you don't understand. The reason I'm not lining up to be best friends or even roomies with that girl in there..." He braced one hand on the counter and narrowed his eyes. Eyes full of something more than just anger. "I have a problem with the fact that my dad fathered her while he was married, theoretically happily, to my mother. I can't so much as look at her without all of...that coming back."
He turned away, seeming to regret revealing that little bit.
"I'm sorry, Scott," she said gently as she tried to imagine what that discovery must have done to him. "How old were you when you found out?"
"Does it matter?" he snapped.
"I guess not," she conceded. "It'd pretty much suck at any age."
He met her gaze again, sizing up her sincerity. "It's ancient history."
She studied him closely, realizing there was more to him than his gruff, irritable surface. Layers more. "Maybe not so ancient to you?" she asked.
In response, he reached around her and scooted the whiskey bottle closer. He stiffened when she touched his forearm.
"Gemma's a victim just as much as you are, you know. She had no control over...anything. Your dad hurt her, too. She hasn't heard from him in more than three years."
His jaw tightened as he considered that. Seconds passed. A minute and more. She was about to turn and leave him alone when he moved. He held out his hand and nodded toward the veggie juice. Mercedes handed it back to him, expecting him to blow up and yell at them to leave.
Scott stared blankly at the can for a few moments, then walked past her, into the living room.
Curious, Mercedes leaned against the doorjamb between the two rooms and watched as Scott sat down next to Gemma, who was still shoveling food in her mouth as if unsure when she'd get to eat again, and handed the juice to her.
"Thanks, I think," Gemma said, sounding surprised. She took the can and read the label. "Is this stuff really drinkable?"
"It's healthy for the baby."
Looking unsure, she popped the top open. Smelled it, frowned and took a sip. She didn't bother to hide a shudder, making Mercedes stifle a grin. "That crap is vile."
"Maybe it's not for everyone," Scott said, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his thighs. "Cleaning this place is a big task."
Gemma watched him, the look on her face mirroring Mercedes' curiosity.
"I've seen worse," Gemma said carefully.
"You've got a month," Scott said, not looking at his half-sister. "Keep the place clean for me and hold on to your money."
"You've got a deal."
The teen played it cool, but Mercedes could see her eyes spark with relief from here.
A full month. They could work with that. Gemma could get a job and start searching for a place to stay more permanently. Begin figuring out how to provide for her baby.
"I'm not agreeing to be your babysitter or your friend," Scott said, scowling to offset Gemma's grin. "I'm not home much."
He addressed Mercedes. "I work twenty-four hour shifts. She'll be alone a lot."
"I'll be around to help her." Mercedes pushed off the doorjamb and walked to the coffee table. "I'm not going to desert her."
"You stay out of my business and I'll stay out of yours," Scott said, turning back to Gemma.
"Where's my room?"
He leaned back, defeated in his quest to scare her away. "The room on the right of the hall."
Gemma tried to keep her poise as she passed Mercedes.
As soon as Gemma was gone, Mercedes lowered herself to the edge of the couch, keeping a good distance between herself and Scott. "Thank you," she said, fiddling with a silver band on her little finger. "I take back all the nasty thoughts I had about you."
Scott opened his mouth to say something and stopped. Looked sideways at her in surprise. Then he actually smiled.
The guy had killer dimples.
Mercedes had a thing for dimples.
Luckily, his grin slipped away before she could blink and he said, "I'm going to regret this."
It wasn't hard to remember why dimples weren't everything.
He opened his eyes at the same time the porch door flew open. Mercedes rushed into his line of vision and stood at the edge of the pool, hands on her hips, rain pelting her. She raised one hand, palm up, as if to question what in the world he was doing. Or maybe when he'd lost his mind. He didn't respond.
She looked toward the house, then turned back toward him and stared for another three seconds. Then she crossed the ten feet or so to the patio table, took her phone and his keys out of her pockets, stuck them under the table out of the rain. When she straightened, she peeled her now-wet jeans down her legs, folded them in quarters and placed them on top of her phone. The alternate-reality feel of the moment intensified as, her back still to him, she unbuttoned her shirt, slid it off and threw it on top of the pile.
The image of her when she finally faced him was burned into his memory permanently. The curves of her breasts were partially covered by ivory and black lace. Her body narrowed at her waist, then curved out again into sexy, feminine hips. Skimpily cut panties matched her bra. Her breasts rose with her arms as she unclasped whatever was securing her hair and let her long mane come cascading down over her shoulders.
An hour ago, he'd felt dead but now his body had a faint glimmer of life. Very faint. That said a lot about how messed up in the head he was because that body of hers warranted full-out flames.
Mercedes walked to the side of the pool and jumped in without hesitation. Perfect time to close his eyes and shut out the world again. Prevent her questions or at least postpone them.
She let him get away with it. He felt her swimming around him, skimming along the bottom beneath him, pausing at the side of the pool to rest.
As the rain slowed to a sprinkle, he started to come out of the numbness he'd managed to attain by swimming. He took in a slow, deep breath and pushed himself to the bottom of the pool, letting the silence and the isolation wash over him. He sat there until his lungs were empty, then pushed off to the surface.
Mercedes was at the edge of the pool, her elbows hitched on the concrete deck, her back to him. Steeling himself, he joined her, standing on the ledge that ran around the perimeter about four feet down. She glanced at him but didn't say anything. They rested there for several minutes watching the raindrops splatter in the puddles. Scott continued to fight off images of Elliot Gilbert.
"It was a peanut," he said eventually.
Mercedes turned her attention to him expectantly.
"Smaller than my little fingernail. One chocolate-covered peanut that the little guy didn't even like." His voice was rough, raw. "An undiagnosed peanut allergy." He heard Mercedes suck in air and expel it loudly.
"I asked what he'd eaten when we arrived on the scene. All his mom could tell me in her hysterical state was that he'd had chocolate. No known food allergies. It wasn't until later, much later, that they figured out the culprit."
He closed his eyes, tried to let the sound of the gentle rain soothe him but there was no comfort.
"Not that it mattered what it was. Knowing that wouldn't have changed anything Rafe and I did. It wouldn't have reversed the outcome."
Mercedes moved her arm toward him and touched his. Squeezed his upper arm and didn't take her hand away. For some reason, that little gesture gave him the strength to continue.
"Brad was on duty, too. Any other time, he would've been there on the call with us, but by random bad luck, the engine had another call at the same time we did. He wasn't there when his boy..."
The lump in his throat pulsed painfully and he fought the emotion threatening to drown him.
"That's terrible, Scott. I'm so sorry."
"I don't know how I'll ever look Brad in the face."
"He of all people should understand. He faces the same kinds of things himself, right?"
Scott didn't answer. There was no "same kinds of things" for losing your child. He couldn't really begin to imagine what Brad and his wife were going through right now, although hearing them from the hallway in the minutes after the doctor had called the boy's death gave him a sample of the soul-deep pain.
"I don't know how you do the job you do," Mercedes said quietly. "You guys are heroes, Scott. Think about the lives you save."
Greg Wolf, the newlywed and father-to-be, came to mind but Scott pushed him away. No life they'd managed to rescue canceled out the one they hadn't saved last night.
"Nineteen more days," he said, more to himself than her. "Six more shifts. I don't know if I can do it."
"You have to. You don't want to let that one be your last shift, the one that stays with you."
He considered that. Nodded vaguely. Then his thoughts returned to Elliott. "He was still conscious when we got there," he said hoarsely. "His mom called nine-one-one pretty quickly. I got the IV in on the first try, pushed epinephrine through his little body. Rafe got the oxygen going right away. We might as well have been putting water through him for all the effect it had." He shook his head helplessly.
Scott recited every procedure he and Rafe had done. The results – or lack thereof – of each. He remembered every detail like some kind of hypersensitive memory had kicked in. Forgetting Mercedes was there, he poured it all out.
"The second ambulance got there as we were loading him in the back. One of the other guys drove our rig to the hospital while Rafe and I kept working on Elliott in the back." He'd actually been kneeling on the gurney, still trying to get a heartbeat, as Rafe wheeled them into the emergency department.
"There was nothing else you could have done," Mercedes said when he stopped talking.
He finally looked at her straight on. "That's what makes it so damn hard to swallow."
Scott pulled himself out of the pool with his arms and sat on the side, his legs dangling in the water. He leaned on his hands behind him and angled his face to the darkening sky. The light sprinkle of rain intensified at that moment and he let the drops wash over him, as if it could cleanse him. The wind had picked up and the rain was now cooler than the water in the pool.
He pulled the night air into his lungs, relishing the crispness of it. As the minutes passed, he began to feel marginally better. Less heavy-hearted. Deep, even breaths became almost therapeutic, as had, apparently, pouring it all out, putting it out to the universe.
Mercedes had been stock still for ages. Now she moved sideways in the pool, so she was directly in front of him. She lifted her arms to his thighs, just above his knees, and braced herself there instead of on the pool wall. Her touch seemed to center him.
Maybe he could get through this night. Maybe, eventually, he could let himself sleep.
The sky was almost entirely dark now and the heavy clouds covered the moon. When he looked down at her, black lace commanded his attention. He could make out the tops of her breasts spilling out of her soaked bra.
He slid back into the pool, slipped his arms around Mercedes to keep her close and allowed himself to let the woman awaken something inside of him besides pain.
Mercedes wound her arms around Scott's neck, as she'd been longing to do ever since she'd found him in his car. He braced his feet on the underwater ledge, knees bent, creating room for her between his legs.
She'd been struggling for the right things to say for the past hour. She reached out with her eyes instead, attempting to convey her concern for him, her empathy for the tragedy he'd been through, without words.
They were so close their breaths mingled. Scott's gaze lowered to her lips and the energy between them heated in a single heartbeat. She inhaled shakily, shallowly, drawn to him. Fighting it. It wasn't the right time....
He moved the final inch, pressing his lips to hers, tightening his arms and kissing her with so much urgency and pent up need she didn't care if it was the right time. Didn't care if she breathed. As long as he didn't stop.
They had to stop.
"Scott," she managed to get out. "No."
It took him several seconds to break the contact, and she had just as hard of a time allowing the cool air to come between them. He didn't loosen his grip on her at all.
"This isn't right. Not now," she whispered. "Not after what you've been through--"
"Shh. Mercedes." His voice was a low, sexy growl that made her shiver. He trailed his knuckles gently along her jaw from her ear to her chin. "Please. I don't want to think anymore."
She managed to look into his eyes for a good second and a half before giving him what he needed, what she wanted. Closing the space between them, she gave into the need that pulsed through her. Tried to kiss his pain away.
Scott held her with both arms, pulling her body flush against his, letting her feel the physical effect she had on him. His tongue demanded entry into her mouth. She matched his desire wholeheartedly, answering the moan that came from deep in his throat with needy sounds of her own.
As he kissed her, he slid his hands lower, ran them over her rear, on top of her underwear. She ached to have him slide them beneath the material, to touch her everywhere. One hand trailed along the back of her thighs to where they met. Dipped between her legs. He gently lifted her legs, one at a time, and hooked them over his so she straddled him. The shift not only made it easier for her to hold on, it fit their bodies together intimately, with nothing but cotton and lace between them.
His fingers inched under her panties and kneaded her bare skin as he continued to devour her mouth with his. He slid his fingers lower, forward, to the most intimate part of her, teased her opening. She angled into his hand, aching for him. Gasped when his finger entered her. Sought more of his heat and friction, throwing her head back and arching toward him.
He kissed her neck, ran his tongue along the length of it. Continued to tease her body with his fingers, withdrawing till she nearly begged, refilling her, sending fire to every nerve ending at her core. Her climax came quickly. Falling, shattering to pieces around him. She tried to catch her breath, curling into his arms. He drew her chin up so he could kiss her again.
Before she could regain any semblance of mental functioning, Scott broke the contact of their lips, angling his head to the side. "Do you hear that?" he whispered into her ear.
"What?" She kissed the side of his neck. "What's wrong?"
"That," he said, increasing the space between them.
It took her several seconds to register what he was talking about, but when she did, she snapped out of her lust-induced trance instantly. "My phone. Gram."
How long had she been out here? What was she thinking, completely forgetting about her grandma?
Scratch that question. She hadn't been thinking at all. Hot shame burned her cheeks and her conscience.
She untangled her body from his and popped out of the pool, jogging around it toward the table. The ringtone stopped just before she uncovered her phone. As soon as she did, the display confirmed what she'd been afraid of.
"I need to go," she said, guilt washing through her and making it impossible to think.
She was in nothing but her underwear and bra. Soaked. And Gram needed her.
*Both excerpts are unedited versions so may differ slightly from the final book.