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This Heart of Mine: A New Whiskey Creek Novel

It was the first time she’d seen her son since the day she gave birth to him. Phoenix Fuller had spent an eternity waiting for this moment. She’d counted every single breath, it seemed, for sixteen years, waiting to lay eyes on Jacob again.

But as anxious as she was, she’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry, or try to hug him, or do anything else that might make a teenage boy feel uncomfortable. She was a stranger to him. Although she hoped to change that now that she was back in town, she couldn’t come on too strong or he’d likely shut her out—even if his father didn’t make sure he kept her at arm’s length. She had to be an embarrassment to both of them. They were all from the same small town; it wasn’t as if they could hide the fact that she’d spent Jacob’s entire life in prison.

Her heart leaped into her throat as she watched Jacob and his father, Riley Stinson, get out of a large Ford pickup and stride toward the entrance of the restaurant.

God, her son was tall, she thought, hungrily devouring the sight of him. How he’d gotten so big, she had no idea. She barely topped five feet. Even at thirty-five, she could be mistaken for a much younger person when she wasn’t wearing makeup and had her hair pulled back. But Jacob took after his father in size and shape, had the same broad shoulders, narrow hips and long legs.

“Excuse me. Your table’s ready whenever you are.”

Phoenixwouldn’t have heard the hostess if the woman hadn’t touched her arm when she spoke.

It required real effort, but she dragged her gaze away from the window in order to respond. “Thank you. The rest of my party will be here in a second.”

“That’s fine. Just let me know when you’re ready.” With a polite smile, the young woman seated a couple standing nearby.

Once again, Phoenix’s eyes were riveted on her son. Only this time, she felt such a surge of emotion she almost darted into the bathroom. She could not break down.

Please, God, don’t let me cry. He won’t come within ten feet of me if I do.

But the harder she tried to hold back her tears, the more overwhelmed she became. In a panic, she slipped around the corner, into the small alcove by the bathrooms, and leaned her head against the wall.

Breathe. Don’t blow this.

The bell over the door jingled, telling her that Riley and Jacob had stepped inside. She imagined them looking around, maybe getting annoyed when they didn’t find her. But she was frozen in place. She absolutely could. Not. Move.

“Hey,” she heard the hostess say with a familiarity that hadn’t been present in her greeting to Phoenix. “We’re busy this morning, like we are every Saturday. But if you can wait for a few minutes, I’ll get you a table.”

“We’re actually meeting someone who should be here.”

That had to be Riley, but Phoenix couldn’t say she recognized his voice. Her memories of him were vivid. But they’d both been so young, and he’d changed a great deal. No longer the skinny teenager she’d known in high school, he was a man with plenty of hard muscle on his solid frame, a man in his prime, and that had been more than apparent as she’d watched him walk, shoulder to shoulder, with their son a few seconds earlier.

“Who are you here to meet?” the hostess asked.

“Name’s Phoenix Fuller,” came his response.

“What does she look like?”

“I’m not sure these days,” he said, and Phoenix winced. Her shoulder-length dark hair wasn’t bad. It was thick, probably her best asset. Her hazel eyes weren’t unattractive, either. She didn’t feel she was ugly. But the scars on her face would be new to him. She hadn’t had those when she went to prison.

“She wasn’t very tall,” he added, as if that might be the only detail still applicable.

“There was a woman who said she was expecting two more to join her,” the hostess said. “But I don’t know where she went...”

Determined not to miss this opportunity after waiting so long for it, Phoenix curved her fingernails into her palms, took a deep breath and stepped around the corner. “Sorry I...I had to wash my hands.”

The frown that appeared on Riley’s face brought heat to her cheeks. He wasn’t happy to be in her presence. No doubt he’d spent the past seventeen years hoping he’d never have to see her again, especially since her release date had been extended twice beyond her original sentence.

But she’d known this first meeting would be difficult. Squaring her shoulders, she ignored his disapproval and turned to Jacob. “Hello, I’m your mother.”

She’d practiced saying those words so many times and still almost choked up. Only by sheer will did she manage to retain control. “You can call me Phoenix, though, if that feels more natural to you. I don’t expect...” Her tongue seemed so thick and unwieldy, she could hardly speak. “I don’t expect you to do anything you don’t want to do, not when it comes to me.”

He seemed surprised she’d throw that out there right away, but she also thought she detected a slight lessening of the tension gripping his body. So she extended her hand. “It’s very nice to meet you. Thank you for coming. I hope this restaurant is okay. Just Like Mom’s was always a favorite of mine when I lived here so I hoped maybe...maybe it’d still be popular.”

Jacob glanced at his father before shaking her hand. “Hello,” he mumbled, but wouldn’t quite look her in the eye.

Telling herself that was normal, that a certain amount of reluctance was to be expected, she let go as soon as they touched. She didn’t want him to notice how badly she was trembling.

“Are you folks ready to sit down?” The hostess, who’d been distracted saying goodbye to some departing patrons, was now watching them with avid curiosity. She’d probably figured out that this was “the” Phoenix Fuller everyone had been talking about—the one who’d been convicted for running down a rival with her mother’s old Buick just before graduating from high school.

“Yes, please.” Supremely conscious of the two people trailing behind her, Phoenix followed the hostess across the restaurant to a corner booth.

Once they sat down, she leaned back as another woman came to bring them water.

“You can have anything you want,” she told Jacob as he opened the menu.

It was too soon to mention that. But she was nervous. And she’d worked so hard in the weeks before she was released to be able to provide this meal. She really wanted him to enjoy it.

“I like the Belgian waffle with the ice cream and strawberries.”

Grateful he’d chosen something rather celebratory and elaborate, she smiled. “Then you can have it.”

Belatedly, she realized that his father should have a say in the matter; it wasn’t a healthy meal and she held absolutely no power in Jacob’s life. So she appealed to Riley. “If that’s okay with your father.”

Once Riley had given his permission, she dropped her gaze. It was easier not to look at him. If she could’ve invited Jacob on his own, she would have. The emotions she felt where her son was concerned were poignant enough. Adding his father to the mix just complicated an already complicated situation.

“You can get whatever you’d like, too, of course,” she told Riley. “My treat.”

The second she got those words out, she felt her face burn even hotter. What a stupid thing to say! Riley was a successful building contractor. He didn’t need an ex-con to pay for his breakfast. And she knew that although she’d sent every dime she could spare to the support of her son, her contributions had been paltry compared to what he’d done for Jacob over the years. Riley probably found her offer to buy him breakfast laughable. But she’d meant to be generous. She was struggling so hard to get by that thirty dollars was a lot of money to her.

“The shrimp omelet’s good,” he said, and set his menu aside without really studying it.

The shrimp omelet and the Belgian waffle were the two most expensive meals on the menu, but Phoenix didn’t mind. She quickly calculated how much money she’d have left over and started looking for something under five dollars.

“I’m not very hungry,” she mused so they wouldn’t find it strange when she ordered light. “I think I’ll just have some toast and coffee.”

The minute she lowered her menu, she nearly raised it again to use as a shield. Both Riley and her son eyed her appraisingly, skeptically. Although she’d expected close scrutiny, it was still difficult to be examined like some kind of unusual—and not particularly welcome—bug. Not only that, but she was self-conscious about the scars on her face, didn’t want them to become a focal point.

“How long have you been home?” Riley asked, breaking a silence that was growing awkward.

She slid her menu to one side and folded her hands in her lap. “Three days.” She would have contacted him immediately, but it had taken some time to summon the nerve. He’d made it clear that he wished she’d settle anywhere but Whiskey Creek.


Copyright © 2015 by Brenda Novak, Inc.

This Heart of Mine: A New Whiskey Creek Novel
by by Brenda Novak

  • Genres: Fiction, Romance
  • Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 0778316726
  • ISBN-13: 9780778316725