BEAR

I fucked up.

It was a fact I could never deny.

My life had been a never-ending string of bad decisions and complications. Molly was just the latest—but not the greatest by any means.

The only thing I did right was marry the love of my life, Jackie. She was the most beautiful thing in the world and sweeter than any honey a bee could make.

When we found out we were going to have our second baby, we were over the moon excited. That was where my fucked-up journey began. Jackie didn’t make it through childbirth; she hemorrhaged, and the doctors couldn’t stop the bleeding.

Losing her altered me forever.

Not only was she taken from me too soon, I had a newborn baby boy to raise, along with a one-year-old daughter. I knew a little about kids, having two younger sisters, but I wasn’t ready to do it alone.

Most of their life I was absent, in and out of jail for petty charges—things like stealing cars and being in possession of stolen property. My crimes never hurt anyone, except for my kids. They paid the price by not having me around and being left in the hands of my sisters.

It took me years to clean up my act.

Hell, decades, if I was being honest. Eventually, I pulled my head out of my ass and surrounded myself with true friends. City, Tank, and Frisco became my family, pulling me off the path of self-destruction.

If Jackie had made it…everything would’ve been different. We would’ve been a family, I would’ve stayed clean, and I wouldn’t have been here with freakin’ Molly.

I swatted her hand away when she reached for me. “Molly, doll, I appreciate the pussy, but you know this is nothing more than a simple fuck. Yeah?” I was bent over, pulling on my boots. If I put my ass on the bed, she would try to touch me again—and that shit was not happening. “So let’s not make this a habit.”

Pulling the sheet over her tits, she glared at me. “Bear,” she whispered in a gravelly, smoked-too-long tone.

I cut her off, nipping that shit before she started with her bullshit tears to guilt me into giving her my cock once more. “Nope. I never had planned for anything more than what this was—a dirty, sweaty fuckfest.”

“You’re a bigger asshole than I thought, Bear.” She crouched against the headboard with her arms crossed.

“Babe.” I laughed at the stupidity of the situation. “When I said ‘Wanna fuck?’ I wasn’t asking you to be my ol’ lady. A fuck is a fuck—cock, cunt, and hopefully an orgasm or two. It doesn’t make you mine.”

She scooted forward and let the sheet drop from her chest. “I didn’t even get one, you bastard,” she seethed.

I didn’t even bother glancing down at her tits, even though she wanted me to look. “Your greedy cunt latched on to me three times, sweetheart. Don’t give me shit that you didn’t come. You moaned my name like a bitch in heat every time too.”

“Get the fuck out!” she yelled as I yanked the shirt over my head.

Using the palm of my hand, I smoothed down my shirt and smiled. “Thought you’d never ask.” I waved on my way out, leaving the door open before I headed down the hallway.

She cursed me something awful, and it sounded like something out of a horror movie, but I kept on walking and paid her no mind.

When I walked outside and the wind blew, I caught a whiff of her cheap perfume mingled with cigarettes and sex. Usually, the stench of my sexual exploits didn’t bother me, but for some reason, this time was different.

I’d been thinking a lot about Jackie lately. All the things I’d lost the day she left me. I hadn’t opened my heart to anyone since then. People in love surrounded me, and it gutted me—knowing I missed that in my life.

Even though I’d had an ol’ lady or two in the last twenty-something years, they didn’t compare to Jackie. I was sure I’d never given them a chance, but it was hard for them to overshadow the perfection of my wife in my memories.

My phone beeped as I was about to climb onto my bike.

Tank: Get your dick out of her and come to the Cowboy.

I wanted to go home and wash away her scent, but Tank came before ridding myself of Molly’s stench.

Me: On my way—be there in 10.

When he asked for a favor, I didn’t question him. If Tank wanted me to drive into hell with him at four a.m., I’d show up to fuck shit up with him in a heartbeat.

***

When I walked through the doors of the Neon Cowboy, Tank was seated at our usual table and surrounded by the crew—Frisco, City, Morgan, Thomas, James, Mike, Anthony, and Sam.

They were deep in conversation from the looks of it, leaning across the table in close formation. I didn’t even need to hear a word to know that something major was going on.

“Yo,” City called out when I was only a few feet away. “Sit your ass down, we have a lot to talk about.”

Joseph “City” Gallo had been the other part of our trio. Tank, City, and I had grown close over the years and become more like brothers than just friends. City was younger by ten years, but he was wise beyond his years. When he flashed his perfectly straight, toothy smile, people responded. It didn’t hurt that he had a pretty-boy face either.

I pulled out the chair, turning it backward and straddling it. “What’s up?”

“It’s Johnny,” Morgan replied with his hand in a tight fist on top of the table. “I’m going to kill him if I ever find him.” He slammed his fist down on the table, making all the drinks bounce and come down with a loud clatter. Morgan looked frazzled. His dark brown hair was all over the place and hanging into eyes.

I’d never liked that prick, Johnny. Since the day I met him at Race’s track, there’d just been something about him that seemed off. Race raved about how helpful he was, but I just had a feeling about him. After Race bought the track from him, she hired him to stay on and help her get everything up and running in tip-top shape. He quickly cozied up to Fran, Morgan’s mom, and the rest was history.

“He stole fifty thousand from the track’s account and disappeared.” Tank placed his hand on Morgan’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze.

I was surprised by his balls but not shocked by the audacity. “When?”

“When he didn’t show up at work today, Race knew something was fishy. Then the bank called because some checks she wrote bounced.”

“Terrible,” I muttered and shook my head. This wasn’t the time for an “I told ya so.”

“We’re working this one off the books,” Thomas told me with a raised eyebrow. “I’m sure you have no problem with that.”

As the owner of ALFA PI, Thomas was my boss. He was also City’s brother and ex-DEA. Thomas was the first person in decades who gave me a chance at real employment. I’d finally felt like I’d found a home with him and the guys.

“None,” I said firmly. “But if I find him, I get to beat his ass first.”

“He’s all yours, buddy,” James said before he looked around the table. “We’re going to gather information and try to find a few leads, then we’ll plan our attack.” James, the co-owner of ALFA PI, liked to go rogue—that was what I loved most about these guys. No one wanted to call the cops or pussyfoot around a problem. Johnny was going to wish he had never been born by the time we were through with him.

Thomas leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “I know tomorrow is Saturday, but we need everyone at the office and working on this.”

I grabbed the pitcher of beer and poured myself a glass. Molly was still lingering in my mouth, and it wasn’t pleasant. She was like a bad pill, and her aftertaste was stuck in the back of my throat. “I got nothing else to do.”

“I’ll be there too,” Sam finally piped up in the conversation. “I’m always there when you guys need me.”

Sam had changed since I’d first met him. He was still a cocky fucker at times, but I’d learned to deal with it. In the past, there wasn’t a day I didn’t want to punch him in the face, but he’d grown on me. He’d grown up a lot, and he’d always had our backs. Tough fucker even took a bullet without whining like a little bitch. I even dared to say he’d earned my respect—which wasn’t easy to do, especially after you’d already been classified as a shithead.

City glanced at his watch. “I know it’s late, but let’s be there by noon. We don’t want to give this guy too much time to get very far.”

“There isn’t a place in the world he could hide from us for long, brother,” Mike said, rubbing his chin with the biggest smile on his face.

Mike was an interesting character. When he wasn’t piercing people, he had spent time in the ring. He’d become a UFC champion before finding the love of his life and retiring. Or as I said…becoming pussy-whipped and quitting.

“How’s Fran?”

“She’s devastated and pissed off. My mom is downright scary when she’s mad. Johnny better hope you find him first and not my mother,” Morgan replied and grimaced. “We can’t let her get involved. She’s going to try, but it’s a no-go, fellas.”

“Understood,” James replied.

“I have no problem telling her to butt out,” I said and shrugged. “Want me to handle her?”

Morgan’s blue eyes sliced to mine. “You will not handle my mother.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Kid, you don’t have to worry about me. I’m just sayin’ she and I are equals. She’d listen to me.”

“Bear,” Tank whispered at my side and elbowed me in the ribs.

“What? I’d never touch the woman. Jesus. What the fuck do you guys think I am?”

“Seriously,” Morgan said through gritted teeth. “You can never keep your shit in your pants. You’re getting nowhere near my mom, Bear. Don’t even think about helping.

I laughed it off, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it bothered me a little. Fran was a fine piece of ass, but never had I thought about bangin’ her silly. Wait. That was a lie. I did imagine it…more than once. I’d just never act on it.

“I’m a perfect gentleman,” I told the table, and they all burst into laughter. “Bros before hoes.” I shrugged.

“Dude.” Morgan dragged his hand through his already messy hair, and he was struggling to stay in his seat.

I shook my head and set shit straight. “I’m referring to anything with a pussy, my friend. You guys—” I glanced around the table “—always come first.”

Morgan continued to mumble under his breath, but he dropped the bullshit. Everyone agreed we’d meet at ALFA PI at noon, and then they slowly disappeared until there was only Tank and me left.

“Another?” I asked and grabbed the pitcher that was almost empty.

“I’m good.” He waved me off. “You better watch what you say about Fran around Morgan.”

“Come on,” I groaned before I topped off my glass. “You know me better than that.”

He glared at me when he stood up, hovering over me. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, Bear. She’s off-limits. Got it?”

I threw my hands up in the air and pushed back from the table with the pitcher still in my hand. “Fuckin’ A. I’m not tapping that shit, Tank. Get the fuck off my back already.”

“I’ve seen the way you look at her, dumb fuck. You’re lucky Morgan hasn’t caught on.”

I slammed the pitcher against the table and narrowed my eyes. “Shut the fuck up already about this shit. I’m not going to fuck Fran.”

“Uh-huh,” Tank muttered before he left too.

Fuckers.

I might be an asshole, but I had morals. Didn’t I?

BEAR

Thomas tapped a stack of papers against the conference table, peering around the room. “Good, everyone’s here. What do we have on Johnny?”

We had been at it for three hours—making phone calls, tracking down leads, monitoring his digital footprint, and any other information we could get our hands on about John McDougal.

“McDougal isn’t his real name,” Sam spoke first and pushed a sheet of paper toward Thomas. “It’s O’Sullivan, and he could be using either name.”

“What about his cell phone?” James asked.

“It’s been turned off,” Morgan told us as he rubbed his temples.

“Have your buddy keep on it in case he turns it back on. We just need a few seconds to find his location,” James replied like we were all new to the game.

“Already done,” Morgan said.

“Bank accounts?” Thomas asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Empty,” I told him.

Thomas tapped his pen against the table and leaned back in the chair. “Can someone interview Fran and see what she knows about Johnny? She may think a detail isn’t important, but it might give us a lead.”

Morgan dragged his fingers down his face. “I’ll do it.”

“I got it,” I told him because his mom might not open up as much to him as she would to someone else…someone like me.

Everyone at the table turned to me with weird looks on their faces. “What?”

“You want to do it?” Morgan stared at me with narrowed eyes.

“Well, yeah.” I shrugged.

“Why?”

“She may not tell you everything you need to know. Parents don’t like to be as open with their kids as they would be with a friend.”

He gawked at me. “You’re my mom’s friend?”

I hid my snarl and talked to cover up my annoyance. “I’m your friend, asshole, and by extension, your mother’s too.”

“Fine,” Thomas interrupted before Morgan could say something else. “Bear will interview Fran.”

Morgan’s glare didn’t leave me as the meeting continued. I ignored the stink eye he gave me and listened to everything I could about Johnny. He was a slippery motherfucker. He hid in plain sight, underneath our noses, and we were never the wiser. I knew every man around this table felt like me—a complete fool.

“Where’s the last place he used his credit card?” Frisco asked, making a new bullet point on his fancy legal pad.

Kids. They wrote stupid shit down or put it in their notes in their fancy-ass cell phones. I only wrote down the most important information.

I was old-school and used my memory with most shit. I didn’t have time to flip through pages when I was working a case or trying to track someone down. I swear technology had dumbed them down about ten pegs in the evolutionary chain.

“Yesterday, just outside of Gainesville,” Sam answered.

“Morgan?” James called out.

I glanced out of the corner of my eye and realized he was still staring at me. “Morgan,” I said, finally turning to look at him with a serious face.

“What?” Morgan replied, his eyes growing narrower.

“Are you listening or giving Bear the evil eye over there?” James laughed, and I couldn’t help but join in.

Morgan’s face didn’t change. “I think someone else should interview my mom.”

Thomas cleared his throat before speaking. “It’s already decided. Bear will do it.”

“Come on, kid,” I said with a smile on my face. “I promise to be a complete gentleman. You’re like family to me.”

His upper lip snarled, and I was about to say “Down, boy” when his face finally softened a bit. “Fine, Bear. I’m trusting you with this.”

I nodded, and guilt gnawed at me because I did want Fran. I’d always pictured her naked underneath that tracksuit. She was an enigma to me. I could tell she had a smokin’ body, but for some reason, she wanted to hide it like she was a Golden Girl. I didn’t know what happened to some women when they matured; they felt the need to hide what they had when they should have been showing it to the world.

“Bear, can you meet with her tonight?” James asked.

“On it,” I said as I nodded, trying to hide my excitement. “Let me go call her now.” I stood and excused myself, feeling Morgan’s eyes on me as I walked out of the room and closed the door quietly.

Instead of calling her from my cell phone, I decided to use the office line so it was more official. I sat for a moment and collected my thoughts before I dialed her number that I had scribbled on a tiny scrap of paper I’d hidden underneath my desk calendar.

It rang twice before Fran picked up. “Hello.”

“Hey, Fran.” I cleared my throat, suddenly feeling nervous. “It’s Bear.”

“Hey, hot stuff.” Her voice was cheerful under the circumstances. “I thought you were Morgan.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, sweetheart.”

She giggled softly. “You’re never a disappointment, Bear.”

“I wanted to know if we could sit down tonight and talk about Johnny.”

“That fucker. I have a lot to say. Come by tonight, and I’ll cook you dinner.”

“Franny, you don’t have to do that. It’s too much work. Why don’t you meet me at the bar for a drink?”

“Nope,” she said quickly. “I feel like cooking. It keeps my mind busy. Be here at six.”

She hung up the phone before I could answer, and I was left staring at the phone, shocked. It’d been ages since anyone had cooked me a meal. I couldn’t show up empty-handed. I knew the guys thought I was an animal, but there was a time when I’d had manners.

I stalked back into the room, keeping my eyes down and away from Morgan as I took my seat. The guys were talking more about Johnny and where his next move would be. There was very little we knew about the man, but I figured in the next twenty-four hours we’d have a clearer picture of who the pissant really was.

“Did you get in touch with Aunt Fran?” Thomas asked from the head of the table.

Fuck. Franny was related to almost everyone at the table and so far off-limits that I might as well not even have a dick. To put a beautiful morsel like that in front of me, dangling her like a piece of meat, and not to allow me to touch her was just plain cruel. “Yeah. I’m meeting her at six to talk about Johnny.”

Morgan’s eyebrow rose. “At the bar?”

“No.” I shook my head while I crossed my arms. “She wanted me to come to her place.”

“Uh-huh. Maybe I’ll drop by.” Morgan mimicked me and crossed his arms.

I turned to face him. “Let’s get one thing straight, kid. Your mom isn’t going to want to talk in front of you. Keep your ass away.”

He leaned forward and invaded my space. “Why wouldn’t she talk in front of me? She tells me everything.”

“Has she called you to tell you everything she knows?”

His lips twisted. “No.”

“That’s my point. She’s embarrassed she didn’t realize he was a lying scumbag. Let me talk with Fran. She’ll be more comfortable.”

He exhaled loudly before leaning back in his chair. “Fine. Don’t get too comfortable.”

“Oh, shut up already. We’ve known each other for years. Have a little trust, will ya?”

“That’s the problem, Bear. I know too much about you.”

He did too. He’d been around for far too many escapades and antics than I’d like to admit. But Morgan didn’t know the real me. No one did. I shut him away a long time ago, putting up a steel fortress around my heart to protect myself. They all saw the wild, careless me but not the real man underneath.

I paid his comment no attention and turned back to the conversation at hand. “Let’s go over the information one more time so it’s fresh in my head.”

After another rundown of the information we had on Johnny, the conference room started to look more like a war room. Phones were ringing off the hook, people were jotting down notes, and we used the whiteboard to draw connections to important leads we needed to follow up on to catch the thieving bastard.

By the time I walked out of the office, I had just enough time to head to the little Italian bakery to grab some dessert. Fran probably worked her ass off on the meal, and it was the least I could do—plus, I wanted to make her smile.

BEAR

I pushed the empty plate away and rubbed my belly. “That was so damn good, Franny. I don’t remember the last time I had a meal this great.”

She beamed at me with the biggest smile. I couldn’t recall when I’d seen her so happy. “I like spoiling you.” The woman could cook like any of those fancy-ass chefs on the television. She didn’t just make a dinner, she made an entire meal. Course after course, she carried out of the kitchen, dishing it out onto my plate before I could protest.

“Spoil me anytime, babe.” I caught myself and didn’t say anything else because I was already verging on flirting, and Morgan would have my balls.

“Cooking relaxes me, but you know I’m really no good at it. Right? I mean, I’m no Maria.”

“Well, you must really be stressed.” I glanced around the table filled with dish after dish of different foods. “As for being a good cook, I don’t remember the last home-cooked meal I ate, so it tasted delicious.”

She burst into a fit of laughter. “No one likes my cooking, not even Morgan. Want a drink?” She stood quickly and headed to the tiny cabinet against the wall. “I need something strong to get through this.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling guilty about putting her out. “We could do this another time.”

“Sit down,” she commanded me without a thought. “I want you here. I need to talk about it. Alcohol helps. Want one or not?” Her bossiness was definitely a turn-on.

“Yeah, I’ll take a gin and tonic.”

Her dark, shoulder-length hair parted as she reached into the cabinet and grabbed three bottles. The tiniest patch of exposed skin on the back of her neck peeked out, and my cock started to stir. Off-limits, Cujo. Don’t even think about it.

“Ice?” she asked with her back to me.

“Two cubes, please.” My eyes traveled down her body, focusing on her ass and trying to see the outline through the flimsy material of her blue tracksuit. Why couldn’t the woman wear jeans like other people? Her outfit did nothing for her body and made it so hard for my imagination to run wild. I couldn’t even tell if she had on panties, but in my mind I pictured her without.

She set the drink down in front of me and caught me off guard. “Are you feeling okay? You look flushed.”

I chuckled softly and hoped she hadn’t caught me staring at her ass. “I’m fine. Just a bit warm,” I lied my ass off.

“Want me to turn on the air?” she asked and started to move her track jacket away from her skin. “It is a bit warm in here.” She stood quickly, removing her jacket and placing it on the chair before heading to the hallway.

My eyes zoomed in on her chest instantly. The white T-shirt was partially see-through, and all I could focus on was the outline of her black lace bra. Why did it have to be black? It didn’t match the tracksuit. I highly doubted that the ladies in the Golden Girls wore black lingerie underneath their clothing.

“You should feel better soon. I turned it down a bit.” She sat, moving the umbrella around in her pink drink. “Sex on the Beach,” she said innocently.

I started to choke on my drink at the mention. “What?” I asked in a strangled voice.

“My drink. It’s a Sex on the Beach.”

My mouth formed an “O” before I started to cough again. All of a sudden, I pictured Fran running around in the sand with beads of water dripping off her while she was clad in a string bikini. What the fuck was wrong with me?

“Where do you want to start?” she asked before bringing the drink to her lips and staring at me over the rim.

What I wanted to say and what I needed to say were so opposite, but I went with work. “So today we learned that McDougal isn’t Johnny’s real name. It’s O’Sullivan. Other than that, we don’t have a ton to go on, but you may be able to give us some clues.”

“O’Sullivan?” she asked, setting down her drink on the table in slow motion. “I’ve heard the name before.”

“You have?”

“Yeah. His cousin who always called was named O’Sullivan.”

“Do you remember the cousin’s first name?”

“Kate.”

I pulled out the tiny tablet I’d stuck in my back pocket before I walked out of ALFA and started to jot down notes. This was one time I wanted to actually write shit down. I needed to go back to the office with a full report. Plus, I’d figured Fran would distract me and I’d probably forget half the shit she’d told me by the time I walked out the door.

“Do you know where she lives?”

“Somewhere in New York.”

“Anything else about Kate?” She couldn’t have had any more of a plain name. It would be like finding a needle in a haystack in the entire state of New York.

“She’s a hairdresser or some shit in the Bronx.”

That narrowed it down a lot. Couldn’t be too many Kate O’Sullivans doing hair in the Bronx. “I’ll start checking her out as soon as possible.”

“Now that I think of it…” She placed her face in her hands. “Oh God,” she wailed softly. “I’m a fool.”

I reached out and pulled her hands away from her face. “Don’t feel like a fool, babe. Just tell me.”

She sighed before dragging her dark brown eyes to mine. “He always said I love you to her before they got off the phone. I didn’t think anything of it. But he claimed they were cousins. How many cousins do you know who say that every time they talk?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged.

“I bet she’s his wife or some shit. That’s just how my luck is.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe it was his cousin.”

She gave me a “don’t be an idiot” look. “Let’s be real here, Bear. He used me to get comfortable and stay under the radar at work.”

“Now you listen to me, Ms. DeLuca, manipulators know just what to say and how to act to get their way. There’s nothing you could’ve done to change things. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

“Maybe.” She shook her head. “Or I’m just a fool.”

“Didn’t he work at the track for years?”

“He owned it, and Race bought it from him.”

I knew that, but it had slipped my mind. Something wasn’t adding up. Why would a man sell a track and then steal from the very person he’d already had a windfall from… It didn’t make sense.

“It’s highly unlikely that she’s his wife, Fran. Maybe she’s his sister. If he lived down here for years, running a business, someone would’ve known about Kate. A man can only hide a wife for so long.”

“True,” she said in a soft voice and twisted her fingers together on top of the table. “She knew we were a couple. I actually spoke to her on the phone a few times.”

I placed my hands over hers. “If that was you on the other end, would you want to talk to the woman sleeping with your husband?”

“I’d track that bitch down and kick her ass.”

“Exactly.” I laughed loudly. “So she’s probably not his wife, but she’s definitely a lead. Did Johnny act any differently lately?”

“He seemed more paranoid than normal.” She stirred her drink, staring at the liquid swirling around the ice cubes. “He’d look out the windows a few times, double-check locks, and shit like that, but I thought he was just being cautious.”

“Did Johnny gamble?”

She shook her head, and her hair skimmed across her shoulder, glistening in the light. “Not that I knew of.”

“Who else do you remember him talking to? We’re trying to get an accurate picture of who he is and who his associates were.”

“Hmm.” She paused and chewed on the inside of her lip. “He’d get texts all the time from someone named Trout, but I don’t know if it’s a nickname or a last name. I heard him reminisce about an old friend named Sawyer too. I’m sorry,” she said and rubbed her forehead with her delicate fingers. “I guess I didn’t know as much about him as I thought.”

“Some people are just guarded, Fran. Usually, it’s just out of habit, but sometimes, like with Johnny, there are other reasons why someone doesn’t open up about who they really are.” I took a large swig of gin, but I kept my eyes trained on her.

“You’re kind of like him, Bear. You’re very private. I don’t even know your real name.”

My hand stilled with the glass still pressed against my lips. I never hid my name, but I also never told people openly. My closest friends knew it, and my family, but years ago I stopped answering to it. I set down the gin and licked my lips, taking a moment to debate telling her. When I looked across the table at her sad smile, I couldn’t stop myself from answering. “It’s Murray.”

Her smile widened, like I’d let her in on a very private secret. “I like that name. It suits you.” Even though I cringed, she whispered, “Murray.”

Usually, hearing my name would bring back too many memories, but coming from her mouth, it sounded as sweet as the most beautiful song. “That’s me.” I played it off like an idiot.

She placed her hand on my forearm and stroked my skin, sending chills skidding up my arm. “Do you mind if I call you that? Bear is cute, but Murray is more…manly.”

 “Cook for me again, and you can call me whatever you want.” I smiled at her, relishing the feel of her skin against mine.

“Shit. I forgot about your beautiful dessert. Let me grab it.” When she removed her hand and stood, I instantly missed the connection.

She disappeared into the kitchen, leaving me alone in the dining room. “What the fuck am I doing?” I whispered and glanced toward the ceiling. Closing my eyes for a moment, I took a deep breath and told myself, Fran is off-limits, asshole.

“You okay?” she asked, catching me off guard.

I peered over at her as she stood in the doorway, holding a tray of freshly made cannoli. “I couldn’t be better. Good food and great company, but I wish I were here under different circumstances.”

She placed two powdered-sugar-covered, chocolate-dipped cannoli on my plate. “Well, let’s talk about other things besides Johnny. Ever have any kids?”

I tried to hold back my cringe. My life was something I didn’t discuss with many. “I have two,” I told her, which was surprisingly easy.

She sat down and placed one cannoli on her dish before setting the napkin in her lap. “How old?”

“Ret’s around thirty now, and Janice is just a year older.”

“Do they live around here?”

“Last I heard, he lived somewhere in Texas.” I took the largest bite of the cannoli, hoping my mouth would be too full to answer any more questions. “And she lives nearby.”

“Jesus, I couldn’t imagine my kid living so far away. He’s my only baby and has been my life since my marriage ended.”

“How long ago was that?” I asked with a mouth full of ricotta filling sticking to the roof of my mouth like wallpaper paste.

“He left right around the time Morgan graduated from high school, but the marriage was over long before that.” She mindlessly traced the chocolate on the tip of the cannoli tube, and my mind went into overdrive.

It was like something out of a wet dream. Fran’s tongue moved slowly across the dried chocolate, the pink beautifully contrasting with the darkness of the treat. Her eyes closed, savoring the taste, and for a brief moment, I pictured my cock in her hand with her making the same motion. When she let out a tiny moan, I almost fell off my chair.

“Anyway,” she said before biting off the end and ending my fantasy. “Ray was a piece of shit. He’s never had any contact with Morgan since that day. He served me with papers, and I haven’t seen him since.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Eh.” She waved her hand. “It was years ago and the best thing that ever could’ve happened. He was an asshole, straight up. Murray, what about your wife?”

“My wife, Jackie,” I said and felt a pang of sadness. I rarely said her name anymore because it was still an open wound that hadn’t fully healed. “She died during childbirth.”

Her hand flew to her mouth, and her eyes widened. “I’m so sorry.” When she dropped her arm, her hand found the same spot on my forearm, stroking me gently. “I can’t imagine how hard that must’ve been.”

“Even though it’s been almost three decades, the pain is still like yesterday.”

“It’s different when someone is taken from you. I can’t imagine what you went through with a newborn baby and dealing with the loss of your wife.”

“I didn’t deal well. I was a shitty father, Fran.”

She gripped my arm tighter, the bite of her fingernails grounding me. “Men aren’t meant to raise babies alone.”

“Maybe,” I whispered, pushing the cannoli around my dish. “I could’ve been a better father. Instead, I got involved with the wrong crowd, drank too much, and left Ret in the care of my sisters. I couldn’t look at his cute little face every day. He was a constant reminder of what I’d lost.”

“You can’t correct the past, but you can try to make amends for the future.” She patted my arm softly. “Do you talk to him now?”

“We talk, but I wish he were closer.” I shrugged.

She smiled sweetly at me with the softest brown eyes. “Well, why don’t you convince him to come here? Who doesn’t love Florida?”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled before shoving the rest of the half-eaten cannoli in my mouth.

“Time is something you can never get back. At our age, it’s the most precious thing we have, Murray.”

“Fran.” Pieces of the cannoli fell from my lips, and I scooped them into my hand and dropped them on the plate. “I love when you say my name, but when we’re not alone, can you call me Bear?”

She winked playfully. “Sure. I know you have an image to maintain.”

I couldn’t hide my smile. “Something like that.”

“So…” She dragged her drink in front of her and settled back into her chair. “That makes you about how old? Fifty?”

“Somewhere around there.” I winked. “How about you?”

“About the same.”

I dabbed at the powdered sugar that I was sure had fallen into my beard with each bite. “I didn’t think I’d ever live to see the big five-oh.”

Fran licked her finger and scooted forward. “Let me get that.” She raised her hand, and I nodded.

My body froze the closer she came with her arm outstretched, running her fingers through my beard. Each hair that moved sent tiny prickles through my system. “There,” she said and stroked my face before pulling her hand away.

“Thanks.” No one had cleaned my face since Jackie. The small gesture made my heart ache with sadness. “It’s getting late. Let’s finish up about Johnny so you can get some rest.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, and I could tell my response wasn’t what she expected.

I didn’t veer off course for the rest of my visit. We only talked about Johnny and the track. After an hour of jotting down notes, I thanked her for the dinner and made my way to the door.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay a little longer?”

I let out a fake yawn. “I need to get to bed. Thank you for a lovely meal and even better company, Fran.” I leaned forward and kissed her soft, round cheek. “I had a good time tonight.”

She placed her palm flat against my chest, and I could feel her warmth through my T-shirt. “It was nice to cook for someone who actually likes to eat what I make.”

“Whenever you need company, just call.” The words just came out of my mouth without a filter. If Morgan were here, he’d punch me right in the back of the head for coming on to his mom.

“I may just take you up on that offer.” She smiled and backed away through the door. “Have a safe trip home, Murray.”

I had started to jog down the driveway, but I stopped when I heard my name. I turned, smiled at her, and waved. “Sweet dreams, Franny.”

I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off my face as I pushed my bike down her driveway to avoid pissing off her neighbors. I kept my eyes on her in the side mirror, watching her watch me from the doorway.

Don’t look back.

I was in so much trouble at this point, I’d let Morgan get in a free shot or two without even defending myself. I broke the guy code. He was my buddy and coworker, but Fran… She was a real woman who made me feel something for the first time in as long as I could remember.

PREORDER TODAY AT THE FOLLOWING RETAILERS