Love After Dark

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Chapter 1

Paul Martinez loved everything about September on Gansett Island—from the cornflower-blue sky, to the cool fresh air and the quiet of the island returning to normal after another busy summer. The year-rounders got their island back in September. The tourists went home, back to school and work, after playing on Gansett all summer. During three crazy months, the island’s regular population of a few hundred hardy souls swelled to thousands.

As he drove home following a long day of landscaping work, Paul appreciated that the island roads had returned to “normal,” with hardly any cars, mopeds or bicycles impeding his ride. Islanders appreciated the tourists and the boost they brought to the economy. But they were also happy to see them go after Labor Day, when a collective sigh of relief greeted the cooler days and nights of September.

As the co-owner of Martinez Lawn & Garden, spring and summer were Paul’s busiest time of year, followed closely by autumn, when the leaves turned brilliant colors before they dropped into yards that needed to be cleaned up before the winter set in. By the first of next month, the pumpkins would be in and ready to harvest.

A lot still had to be done before they settled in for the long, cold winter on Gansett. Other than plowing snow, their business slowed to a crawl in the winter, which was why Paul loved those months best of all. By the time the snow came, he was ready to sleep for months.

This fall promised to be extra busy with his brother Alex’s upcoming wedding to Jenny Wilks and their move into the house they’d been building on land near the house where he and Alex had grown up. Paul hadn’t expected to still be living at home in his early thirties, but his mother’s dementia had derailed a lot of his plans, including having a family of his own.

Alex’s relationship with Jenny had given Paul hope that it might still happen for him, too, but he wasn’t holding his breath waiting for Cupid to strike, even if a lot of their friends had taken the plunge in the last few months.

His future sister-in-law had gone so far as to try to fix him up with her friend Erin, the island’s new lighthouse keeper. They’d hung out with Alex and Jenny a few times. He liked Erin and admired her resiliency after losing her twin brother—who had also been Jenny’s fiancé—during the 9/11 attacks on New York City. But he didn’t feel that spark of something extra with her, no matter how much Jenny might love to see both Martinez brothers fall for lighthouse keepers.

It wasn’t going to happen between him and Erin, and she knew it as much as he did.

He’d had drinks a few times with Chelsea, the bartender at the Beachcomber. As much as he liked her and found her attractive, he didn’t get the sense that she was into him that way, so he hadn’t bothered to pursue it.

Every time he got his hair cut at the Curl Up & Dye salon in town, Chloe, the owner, flirted with him. Once he’d suggested they get together sometime, and she’d said she would love to, but it had never happened. Maybe he should’ve taken it a step further and actually asked her out, but something held him back. He suspected that flirting with guys as she cut their hair was part of her professional gig, and she probably wasn’t into him at all.

Women were as vexing to him in his thirties as they’d been in middle school, when he first started to notice the way they looked at him and his brother. He’d been told on more than one occasion that they were good-looking guys. Well, he was, anyway. Alex was kind of ugly when it came right down to it.

Paul laughed at that thought. Some things never changed. He and his brother had been busting each other’s balls for as long as they’d been talking. But Paul gave thanks every day to Alex for coming home to Gansett when things started to get really bad with their mom. Paul had never been so happy to see his brother, who had given up an awesome job and a satisfying life in Washington, DC, to come home to help him run the family business and manage their mother’s illness.

Alex had been extremely unhappy about the changes he’d been forced to make—until he met Jenny and became the happiest bastard on the island. Not that Paul would begrudge his brother the happiness he deserved. However, he couldn’t help but look on with envy from time to time, especially with the lovebirds nesting—among other things—in the room next to his until their house was finished.

Paul had never been more thankful for earplugs and headphones since Jenny moved in with them. Some things a brother just shouldn’t have to hear. He’d trained himself to sleep with music blasting in his ears. The alternative was listening to the two of them go at it constantly.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d gotten laid, so that was contributing to the general malaise that gripped him lately. Living with the gleefully engaged sex fiends had only made him more aware of how long it had been since he’d had sex. How pathetic was it that he couldn’t even remember the last time? Between dealing with his mom’s illness, running the business and serving on the Gansett Town Council, it was all he could do to find the time to sleep and eat every day, let alone think about sex.

But it had been on his mind lately, nagging at him and reminding him that, despite his many responsibilities, he was still a healthy young man with needs. It might be time to call Chelsea or Chloe and get serious about dating again. Now that he and Alex had the help of Hope Russell, the full-time nurse they’d hired to oversee their mother’s care, he was able to have a social life again.

If he’d met Hope under different circumstances, she’d be first on his list of women he’d like to date. But their dad had always hammered home the importance of not dating women who worked for them. Hope wasn’t exactly in the same league as the college girls who worked in their retail store, but the last thing he or Alex needed was to give Hope a reason to leave them. So he kept their relationship friendly, not romantic. But he found himself thinking about the sexy single mom a lot more often than he should for someone who had no plans to pursue her.

As he pulled into the long driveway that led to Martinez Lawn and Garden as well as the family’s home, Paul decided to make it a goal in the off-season to start dating again before he woke up one day to discover he’d missed the chance to find love and have a family. After a brief stop to make sure the retail store was locked up for the night, Paul continued on toward home, where he found Hope’s seven-year-old son, Ethan, sitting on the top step waiting for him.

Paul smiled at the predictable sight of Ethan running toward him, full of excitement and energy that Paul envied. He wished he could bottle the kid’s energy and keep some of it for himself. “What’s the good word, my man?” Paul asked him, as he did every night.

Ethan greeted him with a fist bump that Paul returned. “The good word is school stinks, and I want summer vacation back.”

“Oh, that’s a tough one. Want to help me unload and we can talk about it?”

“Sure.”

“Those aren’t your school clothes, are they?”

“No way. I take that crap off the second I get home. Thank God it’s the weekend.”

Paul had to hide his grin from the boy. He had been exactly the same way when he was Ethan’s age. He’d run home from school, change as fast as he could and wait for his dad to come home to pick him up so he could “help” all afternoon. Thinking about that brought a pang of sadness for the father he missed so terribly.

He and Ethan talked about everything and nothing as they unloaded the tools and equipment from Paul’s truck. He was careful not to give the boy anything too heavy or sharp.

“Can we go check on the pumpkins?” Ethan asked when the truck had been unloaded and the equipment stored in the aluminum shed.

“Sure. Go tell your mom where you’re going.”

Ethan scampered off toward the house, running at full tilt while Paul took a seat on the tailgate of the truck to wait for him. The boy’s interest in the pumpkin patch amused Paul and again reminded him of himself when he’d driven his father crazy for weeks every autumn asking when it would be time to harvest.

“I can’t wait for Halloween,” Ethan said a few minutes later as they crossed the yard to the fields behind the retail store. Off to the far left, Alex and Jenny’s beautiful new colonial-style house was nearly ready for move-in, and not a moment too soon as far as Paul was concerned.

“What’re you going to be this year?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking about a Jedi warrior, but Mom said we might not be able to find a lightsaber on the island.”

“I have one in the attic.”

Ethan stopped short and looked up at him, agog. “You have a lightsaber?”

“Don’t say that like I’m a hundred years old or something. I’ll have you know that Star Wars belonged to my generation long before it belonged to yours.”

“Huh?”

Paul laughed at the face Ethan made at him. He was a cute kid with freckles from the summer sun, dark hair that fell over his brow and big blue eyes that never missed a thing. Ethan ran ahead of him into the field where the pumpkins were growing right on schedule. With a quick glance, Paul could see they were still a dark yellow, but well on their way to the deep orange they would become in a few short weeks.

“Not quite there yet,” he said. “But getting closer.”

“How can you tell?”

“Size and color, my friend. They tell the story. When they’re ready, they’ll be bigger and orange, not yellow.”

“That one there is orange.” Ethan pointed to the one orange pumpkin in a sea of yellow.

“Pick it up for your mom.”

“Maybe she’ll let me carve it.”

“Whatever you do, don’t carve it by yourself. That’s how kids end up at the clinic getting stitches.” Paul could speak from experience about that and had the scar across his left palm to prove it. He pointed it out to Ethan.

“Wow, you got that carving a pumpkin?”

With Ethan struggling under the weight of the pumpkin he’d picked up for his mom, they started walking back toward the house. “Yep. My dad told me to wait for him, but I was in too much of a rush and sliced my hand wide open. My parents totally freaked out because there’s no hospital out here.”

“Was your dad mad?”

“He was after he knew I’d be okay. I got a hell of a talking-to about the dangers of knives and doing what I was told. Tough lesson learned the hard way.”

“I don’t have a dad anymore.”

Paul tried not to show any reaction to that statement. He’d wondered about the boy’s father, but neither Ethan nor Hope had volunteered any information about the guy, and Paul hadn’t wanted to ask. “Neither do I.”

“Yeah, but yours died. Mine’s in jail.”

Paul felt like he’d been sucker-punched. “Oh.”

“Yeah, it sucks.” Spotting his mother on the porch of the Martinez house, Ethan took off running, calling out to her about the season’s first pumpkin.

Paul followed him, still reeling from what he’d just heard. He had so many questions. Why was Ethan’s father in jail? What had he done? Had he hurt Hope or Ethan? God, Paul hoped it wasn’t that. Why hadn’t Hope disclosed the information when they hired her? Were either of them in any danger? Did he dare broach the subject with her, or did he pretend he didn’t know?

Shit, what a dilemma.

Hope was still on the porch when Paul got there a few minutes behind Ethan, who’d gone inside to show the pumpkin to Paul’s mother. Marion adored the boy, and they shared a special bond.

“I hope he’s not driving you crazy,” Hope said, as she did just about every day. She tucked a strand of her reddish-brown hair behind her ear and crossed her arms, the pose almost defensive, as if she were always waiting for disaster to strike. He’d had the thought before, but knowing what he did now, it took on new meaning.

“I enjoy hanging out with him.”

“Still, feel free to tell him to leave you alone if you’re busy.”

“It’s fine, Hope. He’s a great kid.”

“Yeah,” she said, her smile softening her face. “He is.”

“How are things here?”

“Your mom had a tough day. She’s been more confused than usual.”

Paul ran his fingers through his hair as he absorbed that news. “Is that even possible?”

Marion came to the door. “Is that my George home from work? George! Come see what Paul brought home. The first pumpkin of the season!”

Hope sent him a sympathetic smile. After all these weeks of working for them, she certainly knew how difficult it was when his mother regularly mistook him for his late father.

“Hi, Mom, it’s me, Paul.”

Like always, he had to withstand the pain of watching her face fall with disappointment when she realized it was him and not his father. That killed him a little more every day. Sometimes he was tempted to pretend to be his father just to give her a moment’s reprieve, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that to either of them.

“Oh, well, your father will be along soon, then. Come in and get washed up for dinner. You know how hungry Daddy is after working all day. He’ll want to eat as soon as he gets home.”

Paul took the stairs slowly, each step a reminder of the realities of his life.

“George? Is that you?” Marion came back to the door. “Oh, there you are! Dinner is ready! Come in and have a cold beer.”

It took everything Paul had to cross the porch to the front door, to tell his mother once again that he was Paul, not George. They’d stopped telling her that George was dead, because neither he nor Alex could bear to see her relive her painful loss with every new reminder. They’d decided to let her have her illusions if they brought her comfort.

But being constantly mistaken for his late father was taking a toll on Paul—and on his brother, too.

Wearing a towel around his waist and dripping from the shower, Alex materialized out of the hallway where the bedrooms were located. “Hey, Mom,” Alex said. “Come have a seat. Dinner is almost ready.”

“Your dad just got home. Give him a minute to wash up.”

Alex glanced at Paul. “You okay?”

“Sure,” Paul said with a grim smile, “never better.”

Hope followed him inside and went through the motions of getting Marion to the table and cutting her chicken into tiny bites.

Different day, same routine. Sometimes Paul wondered how much more he could take before he’d lose his own mind. But he and his brother had promised their father on his deathbed that they would take care of their mother. And that was exactly what he would do, even if their situation was slowly killing him one painful day at a time.

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ISBN
E-Book: 978-1942295334
Print: 978-1942295358