NEVER SAY NEVER

WEST COAST HEA

Book 2:  NEVER SAY NEVER

Joe Kelly is back in town, despite the fact he swore never to return to the sleepy Central Valley community of Worthington, California–source of his greatest loss and heartbreak. He left home with two goals: to fulfill his dream of making movies and to forget about the woman who broke his heart when she chose his twin brother over him. The brother he loved…and hated.

Lisa Malden fell in love with Joe in seventh grade, but it was his twin brother, Patrick, who wooed her, who pursued her, who proposed to her when she found out she was pregnant. And he would have married her if his life hadn’t been cut short in a drunk driving accident.

Seventeen years later, single mom Lisa is worried that history might repeat itself. Her son is in trouble. Her life is at a crossroads. And her one conviction – that Patrick was the father of her son – has been brought into question. But can she trust Joe with the truth? The men in her life have always left. Why should this time be any different?

From Deb’s FIRST KISS Blog ©Loner Llama Press:

He stopped her. “One confession at a time. I owe you an apology.”

She looked up. “For what?”

“For being an ass the day of Patrick’s funeral. I was mad at the world, and I needed somebody to blame for what happened. I didn’t care who I hurt in the process. You. My dad. Hell, I probably said something nasty to my mother, too, but I don’t remember.” He glanced toward the door. “Don’t ask her, okay? I’m a Kelly. Humbling myself once a day is all I can take.”

Her lips curved upward but only for a moment. “Why are you bringing this up tonight, Joe?”

“Because ever since you picked me up at the airport I’ve felt like there was some ponderous weight between us. Patrick. The past. Our past. And, of course, my asinine behavior at the funeral. I was hoping if I apologized we might find a way to get past it.”

“Why? Because we’re going to be working together—well, in close proximity—for the next few weeks?”

Her tone sounded contentious. “Yes, partly.”

“Because you’re already bored and need a little romance to spice up your stay?”

Momentarily stunned speechless, he watched her tap the corner of the envelope to her lips. “Well, I hate to disappoint you, but it isn’t going to happen. I may be a small town girl who is too afraid of life to risk leaving Worthington, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have plans. I do. And you aren’t part of them.”

Too afraid of life to risk leaving Worthington? His words came back to haunt him. The night by the lake, after they’d made love, Joe had asked Lisa to go with him. She’d refused, and he’d accused her of being too afraid to take a chance on a bigger life outside of Worthington.

“I was eighteen and full of myself. I thought I had all the answers when, in fact, I didn’t even know what the questions were.”

He shook his head and made a gesture toward the bar where the sound of laughter filtered under the door. “You proved me wrong, didn’t you? You’ve met your goal of graduating from college. You have a lot of friends who think you’re fabulous, and your son has turned out great—despite a few little age-related glitches. You have a lot more to show for your life than I do.”

She set down the card and took a step closer. “How can you say that? You’re a successful filmmaker. You’re living your dream.”

“I left here convinced I was going to be the next Steven Spielberg. That didn’t happen.”

She smiled the way she would have if Brandon had said something self-effacing. “So neither of us has set the world on fire,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve decided there comes a time when you either embrace your life—flaws and all—or give up.”

She shook her head and a lock of golden-red hair escaped from her fancy updo and danced across her shoulders. He took her by the wrist and pulled her a step closer. There bodies weren’t quite touching, but he could reach her by leaning forward.

He moved slowly, giving her a chance to back away, but she didn’t. He put his mouth on hers. She didn’t respond right away, but after a heartbeat her mouth opened. At first, all he could taste was the tangy flavor of the wine she’d been drinking, then her tongue touched his and memories poured into his mind. Even after all these years, she still tasted like Lisa.

This, he realized, was what he’d wanted all night. All week. Ever since he’d walked out the doors of the airport and seen her standing beside her perky little car. He needed this. He needed her.

But Lisa apparently didn’t need him.

Stepping back, she held on to the table with one hand and used the other to touch her lips, as if making sure they were still there.

“I stole a kiss, not your lips,” Joe said, trying to lighten the moment.

She didn’t smile. “I can’t do this, Joe. Not now. Not until… There’s something you…” She didn’t finish the thought. “I’m sorry. I have to get back to my guests.”

With that, she walked out of the room.


Chapter 1

 

“Joe’s Place. Name your poison.”

Joe Kelly frowned. The youthful voice on the other end of the phone undoubtedly belonged to his nephew, Brandon, but what was a sixteen—or rather, recently turned seventeen-year-old doing behind a bar?

“Brandon? Is that you?”

“Uncle Joe.” The boy’s shout made Joe’s eardrum ring. “Are you at the airport? Mom just called all p.o.ed because she couldn’t find you.”

I missed Lisa? Damn.

Joe stacked his bags and gear in a pile to keep from tripping other passengers who were exiting the Modesto airport. He looked longingly toward the parking lot where a fleet of rental cars was neatly lined up.

“The plane was late leaving LAX. A huge downpour. In mid-May. Can you believe it? I told your grandmother I should rent a car instead of bothering Lisa.”

“Well, you know Grams,” Brandon said sagely.

Do I?

Joe wasn’t sure. Nothing in his thirty-five years of being Maureen Kelly’s son had prepared him for the bombshell she’d dropped when he’d called her on Mother’s Day. “Well, darlin’ boy, I’ve decided to sell the bar. And I’m getting married.”

Sell Joe’s Place? Joe had been too shocked to even register the other half of her announcement.

Joe’s Place was a fixture in Worthington, the small, agriculture-based community in central California where Joe had grown up. His parents had owned the combination bar and grill since before Joe and his twin brother Patrick were born, and he’d never thought they’d sell it—much as he’d wanted them to. The bar had become a huge point of contention when Patrick died in an alcohol-related traffic accident the summer after the twins’ high-school graduation. Joe had demanded his parents get rid of the place. His father had flatly refused.

Joe remembered their argument all too clearly. Many times since, he’d wished he could take back his hurtful words, but apologies didn’t come easy to the men in his family. And, now, with his father gone two years earlier from a heart attack, there’d be no reconciliation.

“The bar was your dad’s dream,” his mother had added when Joe failed to comment. “I kept it going after he died because everybody said not to rush into any big changes. But when Gunny asked me to marry him I thought why not? What’s keeping me here? Lisa graduates from college in a few weeks. Brandon only has one year of high school left. Everyone’s life is changing, but mine.”

“Marry?” Joe had managed to choke out.

“You know the bartender’s creed. It’s written on a sign above the bar: ‘Never say never.’ I never expected to stop mourning your dad, but the good thing about having cancer is that you get your priorities straight,” she’d said in a slightly defensive tone. “I’m tired of being alone.”

Maureen had been a widow for a little over a year when she’d discovered a lump in her breast. Surgery and aggressive treatment seemed to have eliminated the disease. Joe was grateful, but he hadn’t expected her recovery to lead to this. Because he hadn’t really “been there” for his mother, he didn’t know what to say, except, “Umm…congratulations.”

Later, after the shock had worn off, Joe had given her announcement some serious thought and realized he wanted to make a movie about the bar.

Just speaking the words seemed to trigger memories. His father dispensing wisdom to a host of regulars. His mother stirring a huge vat of chili. He and his brother doing their homework on top of cases of beer.

The bar had been the center of Joe’s universe for over half his life, but like every small-town watering hole he’d ever seen or heard about, it also served as a hub of social exchange, where one could take the pulse of the economy, trace the changes in societal mores and track the life—or death—of a community. Joe knew he couldn’t let Joe’s Place pass into other hands without documenting its history—the good and the bad.

He hadn’t mentioned this aspect of his visit to his mother when he called to tell her he was coming home. In all honesty, he wasn’t sure she’d approve, given his vocal antipathy toward the place. And he had no idea what to expect from the new owner since Maureen had been reluctant to share any details of the sale. “We’re still negotiating,” she’d told him.

Joe figured if he couldn’t get her to postpone the sale for a month or two, he’d at least have a few weeks to film on-site before escrow closed. If he needed to come back to pick up any extra footage, he couldn’t imagine why the new owner would object. Free publicity was free publicity, even if the movie flopped.

Documentaries were odd ducks. Some flew to mass distribution, some never got off the ground. Joe tried not to think that far ahead. At the moment, he just knew that he had to make this film. Which was why he’d brought a camera with him.

Bending down, Joe checked the locks on the silver case, which was about the size of a microwave oven. He’d shipped his tripod, portable mixing deck and laptop, which he would use to process raw footage. The hard-core post-production work would be done when he returned to L.A.

“So, is your mom coming back for me?” he asked, refocusing his attention on the present.

Lisa Malden, Brandon’s mother, was Joe’s “almost” sister-in-law. Unfortunately, Patrick had died before they could tie the knot.

She was part of the reason Joe didn’t come back to Worthington more often. It was never easy to look your living, breathing conscience in the face.

“Yeah,” Brandon said, “she was just pissed because she has so much to do before graduation.”

“That’s right. Mom mentioned that Lisa was graduating.”

“Next Saturday,” Brandon said. “’Bout time, huh?”

Lisa was the only person Joe had ever known who’d managed to drag out her college experience for nearly ten years. Although privately Joe had rolled his eyes every time his mother had mentioned Lisa’s newest major, he didn’t approve of the slightly deprecating tone he heard in Brandon’s question.

“Well, she beat me to a degree. I dropped out of film school my final year, you know.”

“So you could make movies and get rich and famous.”

“Not exactly.” Although that had been his intention at the time. Cocky, brash, certain he was the next Spielberg, Joe had let the small amount of fame that came from the release of his student film Dead Drunk lure him from the path he’d started on the first time he picked up a camera.

“Anyway, I’m here now, if she checks in with you,” he said, reluctant to discuss his mistakes with a young man he barely knew. He’d made plenty over the years. Both personal and professional.

“Cool,” the boy said. Brandon was a junior in high school. Joe wondered how these impending changes would affect his nephew. “Grams says you’re supposed to come here for dinner. Martin is going to watch the bar while we eat.”

Martin Franks. The seemingly ageless bartender who had been around for as long as Joe could remember. Maureen had told him Martin had stepped in to help run the place during her illness and recovery. Is he the mysterious buyer?

Joe had asked the buyer’s name, but his mother had answered, “I’d rather not say. I don’t want to jinx this.”

“Great. I’m starved. Is Gunny going to be there?”

Gunner Bjorgensen, his mother’s fiancé, was a man Maureen had first met in grief therapy. Since his wife had suffered from breast cancer, too, he’d been able to help Maureen negotiate some of the hurdles, both financial and emotional. Joe didn’t have anything against the man, but he was worried about the timing of Gunny’s proposal. Joe hoped she wouldn’t regret this decision.

A honking horn startled him out of his musings.

“That could be her, Brandon. I’m hanging up.”

“Wait. Did you remember my poster?”

Joe smiled. Brandon might sound grown up on the phone, but his interest in young starlets was that of a teen. “I got it.”

“Cool,” his nephew said.

Joe pocketed the cell phone then looked at his mountain of luggage. At first glance, one might think he was moving.

“Do you think this pilgrimage will let you set things right in your wayward past?” Modamu Davies, a composer who’d scored two of Joe’s movies, had asked him last night.

“I doubt it,” Joe had answered. “But Joe’s Place is where my passion for filmmaking began. One of the first things I ever shot was a checkers tournament. I can still picture those grizzled old coots—cigarette in one hand and glass of beer in the other—hunched over a table that had a backgammon board on one side and a checkerboard on the other. None of them knew how to play backgammon. They called it ‘that furin game.’”

Both men had laughed, then Joe added, “I know this movie idea sounds crazy.”

“Particularly given the fact that you’ve avoided Worthington for so many years,” Mo had interjected.

“And highly unprofitable,” Joe had finished, ignoring the all-too-true comment. “But, at least I won’t look back some day and wish I’d made the effort.”

“Traveling down memory lane can get you in trouble, my friend,” Mo had warned. “Every director I know is a control freak who spends days upon days playing with color, lighting, background and sound because this medium gives him the illusion of control.

“If you return to the source of your neurosis, you might fix what made you crazy in the first place and then where would you be?”

“Sane? Healthy? Gainfully employed?”

Mo, being a true friend, hadn’t mentioned Joe’s recent string of bad movies, but Joe was a realist. His first film had garnered awards and been picked up for distribution by a major player. For a short time, he’d been Hollywood’s golden boy. Unfortunately, his next two productions—neither scripts of his choosing—had reviewed well but hadn’t done much at the box office. His contract hadn’t been renewed, so he’d started his own production company, where he learned the pitfalls of business, the cutthroat nature of competition, and, above all else, humility.

Returning to the present, he hoisted the strap of his garment bag over one shoulder, picked up his camera case and grabbed the handle of his rolling suitcase. The pneumatic doors opened as he approached. The parking lot was tiny by L.A. standards but pretty much filled.

Lisa, behind the wheel of a sunshine-yellow convertible VW Bug, had pulled to a stop in the loading zone and was arguing with a woman in a black uniform.

He paused. Although just six months younger than Joe, she looked twenty something. Her long, auburn hair was pulled through the back of a white baseball cap. Joe couldn’t read the logo above the brim, but the symbol was hot pink, which matched her tank top. Over that she wore an unbuttoned white shirt with the sleeves rolled up almost to her elbows.

She pointed animatedly at her watch then nodded toward the terminal. He knew the moment she spotted him because she rose up on one knee and waved, her other hand resting on the neon-pink faux-fur steering-wheel cover.

He couldn’t see her eyes because of the tortoise-shell sunglasses she was wearing. But her smile was all Lisa. A sudden lifting sensation in his chest made him miss a step. He honestly couldn’t tell if that was something good…or bad.

* * *

“See?” Lisa said to the parking matron who’d tried to make her leave the curbside loading zone, even though she’d only just arrived. For the second time. “There he is.”

The woman, who was probably ten or fifteen years older than Lisa, stared slack-jawed at the smiling man walking toward them. “Some things never change,” Lisa murmured under her breath. “That infamous Kelly charm still works.”

The security guard smiled back at Joe before strolling off.

Lisa took a deep breath and wiped her hands on her denim skirt. She hated the nervous flutter in her chest.

Stop it. He’s still Joe. Nothing’s changed.

Liar. The silent taunt made her throat clutch.

He’s Patrick’s twin brother. My son’s uncle. My boss’s son. An old friend.

And, now…. Her shoulders straightened. His sudden decision to visit made him the wild card that could ruin her plans.

What if he shoots down my idea of buying the bar?

She’d rehearsed her spiel on the way to the airport, only to be disappointed when she’d found out his flight had been delayed. With graduation looming and a wedding to help plan, she had no time for late planes.

She hopped out and walked to the front of the car to open the trunk. Thankfully, Modesto’s airport was located on the edge of town. Instead of wasting time, she’d backtracked to a service station to fill up.

“Hi, Lisa,” Joe hailed. “Sorry about the delay.”

Just over six feet tall, Joe moved gracefully for a man burdened with several suitcases and a bulky silver box. His hair was the same ash blond she remembered from high school, but the style a little shaggier than she’d expected. Cargo pants, a camp shirt that needed ironing, and loafers without socks completed his “rumpled artist” look.

At one time, Joe had been Lisa’s best friend—the shoulder she’d cried on when his brother was being a jerk. But then graduation night had happened. Opportunity had awakened desire, which led to a choice with ramifications that Lisa had just recently discovered.

She pushed the thought aside. She needed to deal with Joe in a businesslike manner because Maureen had warned her Joe had been asking questions about the sale. Once Lisa had negotiations out of the way, she could bring up the possibility that for seventeen years she’d been living a lie.

“Brandon said you were here earlier.”

Smile. Pretend everything is normal. She had too much to do in the next couple of days to open what undoubtedly would be a ghastly can of worms–both emotional and legal. The question of her son’s paternity had waited this long, what would another week or two matter?

Besides, as an uncle, Joe had left a lot to be desired. He probably wouldn’t be any better as Brandon’s father.

“No problem.” She pushed her gym bag out of the way to make room for his stuff.

She watched him look over her 1975 VW Bug. Lisa had helped restore the car’s engine during her three semesters as an automotive major. The body work and paint had been redone by a guy her mother had once dated. Lisa had unapologetically added the paisley seat covers and frivolous accessories just for the fun of it.

Brandon had been horrified. “Mom, I can’t drive that car,” he’d complained. “It’s too girly.”

She’d silently chuckled since that had been part of her plan. She didn’t want her son driving a sporty convertible. Lisa was quite content to see him behind the wheel of his grandmother’s older, far more sedate sedan.

“Sweet Bug,” Joe said.

“Thanks.”

“Is it new? Well, old, but you know what I mean.”

“It was a work in progress through most of my college years,” she said, running a hand over the curved fender. Lisa loved her car. It made her feel young at heart. Almost carefree. An illusion, of course, but a girl could pretend.

“Mom mentioned that your commencement is coming up. Congratulations. How come I didn’t get an announcement?”

“Thank you. I didn’t see the point. Considering how long it’s taken me.” Suddenly embarrassed, she motioned toward the bags still sitting on the curb. “I don’t think everything will fit. Why don’t you put the rest in the back?”

Joe picked up his leather garment bag, which looked expensive enough to hold an Armani tux, and tossed it carelessly across the rear bench seat. The silver case he lifted as if it contained a donated heart awaiting transplant.

Lisa bit down on a smile.

“What?” he asked, apparently sensing her amusement.

“Remember when you used to zip your camera under your coat to protect it from the fog and rain? Patrick called you Mr. One Breast.”

His low chuckle sent an odd shiver from her belly to her chest. The body parts in question tightened as if he’d felt her up. “You know, I’d forgotten that detail. Quite happily, actually.”

Lisa picked up a high end roller that looked as though it had been around the world a couple of times. She was glad to see that Joe appeared to have done well for himself. If he was financially set, then he might not care how much his mother got for the bar. Lisa wanted to pay a fair price, but with a son going to college next year, her resources were limited.

Am I crazy to do this?

Maybe.

Probably.

She couldn’t say for certain why she’d jumped at the chance to buy the bar when Maureen confessed that she’d made up her mind to sell out and marry Gunny.

“Are you sure this what you want, Lisa?” Maureen had asked, her shock obvious. “You’ve worked so hard to get your degree. Shouldn’t you be applying for a teaching job?”

“If you sell me Joe’s Place, I’ll sign up to be a substitute. That will let me keep one foot in the door without all the prep work and after school hours I’d have to put in. Plus, there are no openings locally in my field. I can’t ask Brandon to move his senior year.”

Maureen had been delighted by the idea of “keeping it in the family,” but, now, she was dragging her feet pending Joe’s okay.

Before getting in, Lisa touched the brim of her ball cap. “There’s an extra one under the seat, if the sun and wind are too much for you.”

He opened the door and sank into the low seat quite effortlessly. “The reduced level of smog might send my lungs into shock, but I’m willing to risk it. The sun feels great.”

His wink took her straight back to junior high. A brand new seventh-grade student in a strange town. The principal had been showing Lisa and two other transfer students around. The first person they’d bumped into was Joe Kelly. Racing to class. Late. “Mr. Kelly,” the principal had barked. “Come here.”

Instead of giving Joe a lecture, the principal had introduced the new arrivals and ordered Joe to take over the tour.

The meandering expedition had been punctuated with wit and humor—Joe’s trademark, she’d learned. His appreciation of the absurd, his warm, inclusive smile and wavy hair had been enough to make a girl fall in love. Which Lisa had. A fact that had turned complicated the minute she’d met his twin brother.

She got in, pulling the door extra hard behind her since it tended to stick. She checked to make sure his seat belt was fastened before turning the key. She shoved the stick into gear and stepped on the gas. The sun was warm on her shoulders and thighs, but not as hot as it would be in a few weeks when summer hit the valley. Then, she’d have the top up and the air conditioner running.

Maureen wanted an outdoor wedding. The last weekend in June. The idea had Lisa sweating.

“Are we headed straight home?” Joe asked.

Lisa shifted into neutral as they waited for the light to change at the intersection. “Uh-huh. Unless you need to stop somewhere. Your mother is preparing an Irish feast. Corned beef and cabbage, red potatoes, rye bread, the works.”

She happened to glance sideways and saw his pained expression. “What’s the matter? You don’t like corned beef?”

He shook his head. “No. I like it fine. Yum.”

She recognized the lie. Joe didn’t lie worth squat—unlike his brother. Patrick and Joe had been fraternal twins. They’d shared a number of personality traits, but honesty wasn’t one of them.

“Baloney.”

“No pun intended?” he asked, groaning softly. “Actually, I’ve been on a pretty strict diet since the holidays. Doctor’s orders.”

“Why?”

“I was at a party on Christmas Eve, and I started having chest pains and shortness of breath. The hostess thought I was having a heart attack and called 9-1-1. Turned out be acid reflux from too much champagne and rich food. Talk about embarrassing.”

Lisa frowned. “I’d have been scared spitless. Especially given what happened to your dad.”

He looked away. “Not my most pleasant holiday on record.”

Before she could reach out to touch his arm, a horn alerted her to the green light. She quickly shifted and shot through the intersection. A convenience store was just ahead on the right so she pulled into the parking lot. A flowering tree provided enough shade for them to sit without sweating in the sun.

“Admit it. You were freaked out. Your dad was only fifty-eight when he died. What did your doctor say?”

Joe looked at her but didn’t answer right away. “I have a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure. Add to that my sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits….” His full ruddy lips turned up in the corners, producing the infamous Kelly dimple in his left cheek. “I’m lucky to have dodged a bullet.”

“Luck being a relative thing. When your mother finds out that you didn’t tell her…”

He scrubbed a hand across his face, a gesture Brandon often used when he was frustrated. Her stomach produced a little extra acid of its own.

He sank down so his knees bumped against the dashboard. His fingers drummed an impatient tune on his thighs. “When I saw her at my cousin Paige’s wedding in November she finally seemed at peace with things. I didn’t want her to worry.”

Lisa and Brandon had been at Joe’s cousin’s wedding in the Bay area, too. Lisa had thought Joe had looked tired and unhappy. Later, Maureen told her Joe had broken up with his girlfriend of several years a few weeks earlier.

He gave her a sheepish look and added, “Plus, I knew she’d say ‘I told you so.’ At the wedding, she’d given me a hard time about not getting enough exercise.”

Lisa understood completely. Since Maureen’s medical crisis, she’d become very proactive where everyone’s health—family and customers alike—was concerned.

“Since the first of the year, I’ve been walking to the beach from my studio every day at lunch. It’s a couple of miles, and I even jog a little.”

He kept talking, but Lisa’s imagination lingered over the image of Joe strolling among beautiful women in skimpy bikinis. Why that bothered her, she didn’t know.

“…if I sell my studio.”

Lisa’s heart missed a beat. “Did you say ‘sell your studio’? Why would you do that?”

“Money. Remember the movie Slippery Slope?”

She shook her head. “Never heard of it.”

“My point, exactly. It chronicled the rise and fall of Vanilla Ice. Not my idea. In fact, I tried to talk my investors out of doing it, but they insisted. And when it flopped, who’d they blame? The director, of course.”

Lisa’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “That doesn’t seem fair. But that’s only one movie. You’ve had more successes than failures. Right?”

He let out a long sigh. “The movie business has changed, Leese.” Nobody had called her that in years. “Or, maybe, I’ve changed. I don’t know. But one thing I do know, making commercial movies hasn’t been fun for a long time.”

Lisa knew squat about the industry, except that there seemed to be a lot of money to be made if you were good at what you did. For as long as Lisa could remember, Joe had dreamed of making movies. He’d left home to attend the prestigious Visual Arts Center in L.A., majoring in film.

His first important project, which had focused on the effect a drunk-driving death had on a family, had garnered all kinds of awards. When a national distributor had picked up Dead Drunk, Joe’s future had seemed set.

“Are you telling me your career is over?” she asked. Sympathy warred with panic.

He extracted a pair of sunglasses from the breast pocket of his shirt. “Don’t pull any punches on my account, Leese.”

“Sorry. Didn’t know I had to. You’re the one who once told me you were destined for greatness, which was why you couldn’t get out of Worthington fast enough. ‘Once I leave, I’m never coming back, Leese.’ Remember that vow?”

He pretended to take a jab to the chin. “Good lord, I was an egotist. How did you stand me?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead saying, “The truth is I feel I’m at a crossroads in my career. Epiphany by chest pains,” he said breezily. “One day I woke up and realized I wasn’t a kid with a camera anymore. I was this intense, mostly unlikable, businessman creating crap for anyone who was willing to pay.”

She glanced over her shoulder at the camera case sitting on the back seat. “So…you’re moving home?”

“For a while. I’ve decided to make a movie about Joe’s Place.”

“What?” The question came out as a peep, but Joe didn’t seem to notice.

“I don’t have the exact storyline together yet, but ideas have been percolating in my head ever since Mom called. Maybe something nostalgic using archival footage. Or with interviews of locals on the role the bar has played in the community. Or, it might take a more personal focus. I’ve been thinking about Dad and Patrick a lot lately.”

A movie? Interviews?

“The first thing I have to do is talk Mom into postponing the sale for a while.”

Lisa was speechless. Postpone the sale? My loan is pre-approved. And the interest rates are going up. If they waited too long, she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy the place.

He lowered the shades to the end of his nose to look at her. “Something wrong?”

This wasn’t the first time a Kelly boy had ruined her plans. “Yes, actually.” She hesitated a second then blurted out, “I’m the buyer, Joe. Your mother told me she was thinking of selling because Gunny wanted to travel and didn’t want to be tied down. I had no idea you had any interest in the bar. I thought you hated Joe’s Place.”

He sat up sharply. “You’re buying it? Good lord, why?”

“In part to keep Brandon gainfully employed while he goes to college. It worked for me,” she added, unable to keep the pride from her tone. “I’ve saved enough money to pay for Brandon’s college, as long as he lives at home and earns his own spending money.

“I figured that over the four years he was in college, I’d slowly fix up the place. The real-estate market is going through the roof around here. When he’s done with school, I’ll sell the bar and reinvest the money wherever I want.”

Joe appeared shocked. “I can’t believe it. You, of all people, should be overjoyed to see the damn thing gone.”

Lisa knew what he meant. Joe felt the bar had contributed to Patrick’s drinking problem. After Pat’s funeral, Joe and his father had argued about the subject. The fight had driven a wedge between them.

“I know you think that what he saw at Joe’s Place influenced your brother, but I don’t agree. The bar is part of our community. Working there paid my way through college while giving me time to spend with my son.

“Brandon’s been helping your mother three days a week, sweeping the floor, restocking the cooler and handling exterior maintenance. The job keeps him out of trouble and gives him enough money to pay the insurance on your folks’ old car, which your mother gave him. Insurance is a big-ticket item for young drivers in California, let me tell you.”

“Grunt labor? Nothing behind the bar?”

The judgmental tone of his question grated on her already sensitive nerves. “Of course not. He helps out in the kitchen once in a while, but he can’t tend bar until he turns twenty-one. And even that would depend on his grades.

“I want him to finish school the way normal people do—in four years, not ten.”

Lisa had scrimped and saved to be able to pay for her son’s tuition. She couldn’t afford Harvard, but she could handle California State University–Stanislaus in nearby Turlock, her soon-to-be alma mater—provided Brandon did his share.

Uncomfortable with Joe’s scrutiny, she tilted her wrist to look at her watch. “Oh, cripes, we’d better hurry. You know how freaked out Maureen gets whenever someone is late.”

Or, maybe, he didn’t. He hadn’t lived around his mother for nearly eighteen years. Right after Patrick’s funeral, Joe had moved to L.A. Following the success of Dead Drunk, he’d bought a house in Topanga Canyon. He probably hadn’t returned home more than a dozen times in the past eighteen years.

Lisa, on the other hand, had chosen to remain in Worthington. She’d lived with her mother most of that time. Partly to save money and partly because her mother’s home shared a common fence with the Kellys, which meant two grandmothers and one grandfather in calling distance. Lisa couldn’t give her son a father, but she could make sure he had plenty of extended family. Even if that meant living in the shadow of Patrick Kelly’s ghost.

* * *

“Are they here yet?”

Brandon shifted his gaze from the television resting on an elevated stand in the far corner of the bar to his grandmother. She was transferring beer glasses from the drying rack to the lit cabinet bracketing the gold-framed mirror behind the bar. If he lived to be a hundred, Brandon knew he’d always remember her just like this. Forehead crinkled in concentration, but with lips pursed as she tunelessly whistled under her breath.

Before she got sick, Brandon would have called her short and round. Most of that extra weight was gone now. And she’d always made up for her lack of stature with a loud, commanding voice. Brandon’s mother claimed the reason Grams talked so loud was from raising twins and living with a husband who was hard of hearing.

Brandon missed his grandfather. A lot. Grandpa Joe had been a cool guy who’d treated Brandon fairly and never jumped on his case over little things, like his mom did. Not that Gramps was a pushover, but Brandon could read him easier and back off before Gramps reached his breaking point. Brandon used to feel that way about his mother, too, but lately, nothing he did met with her approval.

“No yellow Bug, Grams,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. Two large picture windows on either side of the double doors faced Main Street, but the thick clusters of red geraniums in the outside planter boxes and the neon beer signs hanging like curtains obscured the view a bit. Of course, nothing hid his mother’s car completely. “You can see that car coming five miles away.”

“A hippie time capsule,” his friend Rory had labeled it the other day. Just what Brandon needed—to be talked about because his mother was going through some kind of phase. He loved his mom, but just once he wished he had a normal family.

“Good,” Maureen said, her voice easily heard over the announcers of the NASCAR qualifying race Brandon had been watching. “Bright colors are safer. I told Gunny he should paint his motor home red. He said he’d think about it. Men always say that when they’re trying to humor their brides-to-be.”

Brandon couldn’t think about his grandmother getting married without shuddering. Old people making out. Like…why bother? They didn’t actually do the dirty, did they? That was too gross to even think about. His mom was a different story. She was probably still young enough to be interested in sex. Plus, Mom was pretty. His pals Rory and Winston both had the hots for her, which wasn’t surprising given the fact neither of them could find a girl their own age to date.

“Grams, are you sure you want to marry Gunny? He’s nice and all, but he isn’t as cool as Gramps.”

She walked to where he was sitting and rested her elbows on the smooth surface of the bar. Today was Saturday. Cleanup day. Joe’s Place didn’t open until four-thirty on Saturdays. And it was closed on Sundays and Mondays, except during football season. Despite the cleaning Brandon just got done giving the place, the bar still smelled of stale beer and old smoke. Recent laws had made it illegal to smoke indoors, but that hadn’t always been the case.

“Turn that off, honey boy. We need to talk.”

Brandon reluctantly lifted the remote; the screen went black. He loved his grandmother and would miss her terribly when she got married and took off on her travels, but when it came to heart-to-heart talks, she wasn’t Gramps.

He rocked back on the vinyl bar stool. The seat top wobbled slightly. Crap, he thought. His mother had asked him to tighten the screws and he’d forgotten. Brandon would hear about it later. His mother never forgot anything.

“So, kiddo, you don’t think Gunny is good enough for me, huh?”

That wasn’t exactly what he’d said, but Brandon nodded just the same. “He’s okay, I guess.”

“Gunny’s a good man. He knows how hard this move is going to be for me. Saying goodbye to this place and the people I love won’t be easy. He’s doing his best to make this wedding as painless as possible.”

Brandon faked a smile. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask, “Isn’t love supposed to make you happy, not sad?” But just then, the door to the bar opened and two people walked in. His mother carried a black leather bag over one shoulder and her purse in the other hand. Following a few steps behind was his uncle wheeling a suitcase and carrying a large silver case.

Afternoon sunlight filtered through the windows. The gold and blue from a Corona beer sign cast a swath of color across the blouse his mother was wearing. And he noticed she had on a skirt.

Why is she all dressed up? Am I missing something? And what was with the serious looks on both of their faces?

Brandon had never understood the relationship between his mother and uncle. His mother occasionally criticized Joe for not calling Grams more often, but then she’d make excuses for him.

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but Brandon knew there was something weird between them. He guessed it had to do with his father. But since his mother had quit talking about Patrick recently, Brandon didn’t bother asking. Even if she answered, he wasn’t sure he’d believe her.

But none of that mattered at the moment. The only thing Brandon had on his mind was the autographed photo his uncle had promised to get. Emma Watson—the angel-faced hottie Rory and Winston were totally in love with.

Brandon couldn’t wait to torture his friends with this new acquisition. But the main reason he’d requested the photo was to show it to Nikki Jean Cho, the coolest girl in school. Nikki planned to be an actress and last week he’d overheard her say that Emma Watson was her inspiration.

Since Brandon tended to get all tongue-tied around girls, especially girls as fine as Nikki Jean, he figured an icebreaker would help. Granted, there were just two and a half weeks of school left, but there was always next year. Unless something—or someone—screwed things up. With his mother graduating from college and his grandmother getting married, who knew what might happen?

Worrying about the future made his mouth dry. Suddenly, he craved a beer.