WORTH IT ALL - CHAPTER ONE - Claudia Connor

WORTH IT ALL – CHAPTER ONE

9781101887295JT ignored the gym stink and the matches going on in the rings to his right and left and the grunts at the red punching bags. He shook the sweat from his hair, ignoring the heckling from Simon’s home crowd, and motioned with his gloved hands. “Come on, big man. Bring it.”

Two hundred fifty pounds and six and a half feet of tattooed Polynesian muscle circled him on the elevated mat. Simon moved in and JT landed a quick jab to the man’s shoulder, smiling when it made him take a step back. Simon was built like the tanks he used to drive, and he had a right hook that could make a man see stars if he didn’t pay attention.

“You’re going down,” Simon said, a big-ass grin splitting the scar that ran across his cheek. “You know that, right?”

JT smiled right back. He might be a couple of inches shorter, a little lighter, but he could hold his own. “Not happening. And cocky doesn’t look good on you.”

“Losing, however, looks really good on you,” Simon said, coming in for a strike.

“If you two don’t stop yapping like little girls, I got better things to do.” Simon’s eighty-something-year-old grandfather and owner of this paint-peeling and duct-taped-together gym stood just outside the ring. As small as Simon was massive, he had that old-man, raisin-in-the-sun look, and was still very much the boss.

They obeyed like boys, put in their mouth guards, and got serious. JT bobbed and dodged, his below-knee prosthesis moving like an extension of his body. The recent changes he and his team had made to their newest model of the next-generation powered ankle seemed like good ones. The sensors in the ankle sampled real-time motion while the artificial intelligence continuously analyzed the data and calculated the best response.

They circled each other, each getting in a few good licks. Thanks to an IED in Afghanistan, Simon wore a similar style below his right knee and an above-the-knee prosthesis on his left. With the A.I. and automatic stumble recovery in their latest microprocessor knee, Simon was actually at an advantage.

Ten minutes later when neither man had gone down, Pops called it in JT’s favor, much to the dismay of the handful of spectators who’d put their dollars on Simon.

Breathing hard and dripping sweat, JT held the ropes apart for Simon, then slipped carefully through himself. He patted the old man’s shoulder. “Good job, Pops.”

Pops grumbled, then turned to the group as he walked away. “All right. That’s it. Everybody back to your business or get out.”

Simon pulled at the Velcro at his wrists and worked his gloves off. JT did the same, and they both grabbed towels on their way to the locker room that smelled even more gritty than the gym. He wanted to record his notes while the information they’d just gained was still fresh.

After getting his hands unwrapped, JT grabbed his tablet from his bag and sat on the wooden bench. Neither spoke while they took a few minutes to get down their notes for design improvements. This was his sixth trial and already the adaptive capabilities of this smart device far exceeded last year’s model.

Simon finished first and put his tablet in his bag. “The hot brunette pretending to work the bag was watching you again. Black bike shorts, red top barely containing the important parts. That’s as far as I got.”

JT switched out the bionic foot at the end of his prosthetic for the one he wore in the shower. “You think she’s hot, go for it,” JT said. “Or don’t. If she works out at this gym, you’re probably related to her.”

“I happen to know I’m not. She’s one of Layla’s friends. But she wasn’t looking at me, pretty boy, she was looking at you. Doing nasty things to you with her eyes,” Simon added, rolling a polyurethane cover over his left leg.

JT stood and peeled the sweat-soaked shirt over his head. “Well, if she’s one of your sister’s friends, then it’s a definite no.”

“Right. Because you don’t do serious. You’d rather eat my mom’s leftovers and watch Jeopardy! with your dog.”

“Boulder prefers Wheel of Fortune, if you must know, and he’s damn good,” he added with a smile, then dropped his shorts and stepped into the shower.

Resting his hands against the tile, he let the hot water beat at his back and his smile fell away. Not even Simon knew he’d been serious once and what a disaster that had been. His best friend had lost his legs being a hero. He had not.

Ten minutes later, he was dressed in jeans and a plain black T-shirt. He sat on the bench again to get his shoes. He tied one, attached the other.

They finished packing up and passed through the gym, giving a wave to Pops. Everyone continued with what they were doing, including the hot brunette in the black bicycle shorts. JT pushed against the glass door and the thick air of Southern California smacked him in the face. The summer sun was just dipping below the horizon, and he guessed it was still a balmy ninety-five degrees.

“You want to come to Ma’s for dinner? You know you’re always invited.”

“Not this time, but tell her I said thanks. I’m going to grab a quick bite around the corner, then head back to work.”

“I’ll tell her, but it’s no good eating alone. Neither is human avoidance.”

“It’s called dedication, so you can also tell her I work harder than her son.”

Simon huffed, then raised his hand in a wave and moved on to his own car.

JT was just climbing into his SUV when Simon stopped and turned back. “You know, I think I’ll come with you. It’s early. I can always eat twice, right?”

JT felt the slightest hesitation. Maybe he did prefer eating alone, but he gave Simon the simple directions, and pulled out of the lot.

He made a left at the corner as the West Coast sun slid down into an orange ball of fire, backlighting the tall palms. A medium-sized city, Corrino was twenty miles southeast of Los Angeles. A good place for their company base and conveniently close to Simon’s family, even if it was about as far as he could get from his own and still live in the continental U.S.

Twenty minutes later he and Simon were seated at the counter with drinks and burgers. Simon was giving a detailed account of his future brother-in-law’s latest faux pas—overflowing the toilet at Simon’s parents’ house—but JT’s attention was on their waitress walking away.

You could learn a lot by watching a person work. Watching a person do anything when they didn’t know you were looking. He’d seen her pick up a pacifier from the floor and offer to wash it off. Seen her reassure a lone mother with four kids when one of them spilled their milk for the second time. Her name was Paige and even now she stood at the other end of the counter, helping an older gentleman struggling to read the menu.

He’d seen her five times, she’d waited on him three of those, and they’d still only exchanged a handful of words. It was just looks and smiles and for some reason that was a lot. What did it say about him that just seeing a woman he had no intention of ever making a move on was the highlight of his week?

“When are you going to make a move?”

At Simon’s question, JT jerked his gaze from the waitress and picked up his cheeseburger. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Simon mimicked. “Don’t be a pussy.”

“Fuck you,” he said, taking in his friend’s amused gaze. “I’m looking. I’m a guy. She’s pretty.”

“She’s pretty. You sound like freakin’ Mr. Rogers.”

JT laughed softly and shook his head. His longtime friend and business partner wasn’t known for holding back. “How’s your burger?”

“It’s good. I can see why you come here, though I’m beginning to see the food’s not the only reason.”

Simon was still chuckling when their waitress returned and stopped in front of them. Pretty didn’t cover it and JT’s pulse jumped in his throat. She was long and slim with wispy blond hair pulled back at the nape of her neck. A tiny green four-leaf clover hung on a gold chain against skin almost as white as her blouse.

“Can I get you anything?”

“No, thanks,” he said, catching her shy smile and feeling something silent and invisible pass between them.

“Actually,” Simon began, lowering his drink down. “My friend here—”

He kicked Simon’s titanium leg hard enough to knock his foot off the rung he’d propped it on. “Everything’s good. Thanks.”

Her blue-green eyes met his. “Okay.”

Probably a good thing she didn’t hang around for whatever asinine thing was about to come out of Simon’s mouth.

“God, you’re mooning over her like an eight-year-old with a crush on his teacher. It’s painful.”

“Whatever.” But he felt like he was eight years old when he looked at her. Way out of his league and just a little lost.

“So ask her out.”

JT raised his glass to his lips. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

Maybe because she looked too sweet, too easily disappointed. Not the kind of girl he dated, though Simon had a point. He didn’t really date. He met women when he wanted to, and if they were willing, had sex when he wanted to. Sporadic and meaningless acts that did nothing but relieve tension and leave both parties mutually satisfied.

“I don’t know what you have against taking a woman out on a date,” Simon said. “A little one-on-one time. Some candlelight and conversation.”

He didn’t have anything against it, in theory.

Simon’s phone vibrated and he read the text. “Shit. I forgot I promised my sister I’d help move some furniture. She wants all her stuff in the condo before the wedding so they don’t have to mess with it after the honeymoon.”

He nodded. “Makes sense.”

Simon finished off the last half of his burger in three bites and drained his glass. He scooted out of the booth, taking his time to stand, and reached for his wallet.

“I got it,” JT told him.

“Thanks. I’ll get you next time.” Simon grabbed the last couple of fries from his plate. “Make a move, before someone else does.” He started to turn, then paused. “Oh, and my mom says if you aren’t dating someone else, she’s going to force you to take Layla to the wedding.”

“Why the hell would your mom want me to go out with your sister?” Taking a woman to a wedding definitely fell into the category of serious.

“Beats me,” Simon said with a grin. “Later.”

Simon left and JT took his time finishing, watching Paige as he did. There was an inherent sweetness in her smile and the cheerful humming he’d noticed when she hurriedly wiped down tables. But then there were times, like when she slowed to refill a soda or wait on a customer to count out change, that she seemed a million miles away. Like if she stopped long enough, the weight of her thoughts settled over her like a wet blanket. He’d like to know what those thoughts were.

She grabbed more plates, loading up a heavy tray. Thanks to Simon’s hassling, he now had a vivid image of sitting across from her, watching her eat, being served instead of serving. He could picture Paige smiling shyly at him across the table. How the soft glow would reflect off her hair and dance over her cheeks. She was a woman made for candlelight, she was—

“I have a turtle.”

JT angled his head toward the child on the other side of the now-empty seat beside him. The little girl didn’t look up, her tiny hand moving deliberately over a sheet of white paper.

Was she talking to him or just talking? Were kids supposed to talk to strangers?

She slid the paper a few inches toward him and tapped on a green oval. “His name’s Eric. He’s a turtle.”

“Ah.” He raised his brows, nodded, and swallowed the food in his mouth. “Classic turtle name.”

She pulled her paper back in front of her and picked up a blue crayon. “I thought so.”

She had that deep, scratchy kind of little-kid voice that seemed at odds with her white-blond hair hanging in thin, wavy pieces to her shoulders. A butterfly clip thing clung precariously to a few strands near her ear. She swung one foot hard enough to tap the counter in front of her, the other was tucked beneath her short purple skirt.

He glanced around for a supervising adult. She looked really small to be left alone, but what did he know.

The line cook turned, a big grin on his face, and slid the little girl a mountain of fries. “Okay, Miss Casey Bell. Think you can eat a whole plate of Mr. Mac’s fries today?”

“Yep.” She gave a determined nod.

“We’ll see about that,” he said with a wink and chuckle.

“But I need ketchup.”

Mac was already back to his burgers so JT reached for the bottle, holding up a stack of napkins in front of him, and slid it over.

“I can eat a lot,” Casey said to him, flipping open the cap on the bottle.

JT had some doubts, as the mound of fries was as big as her head. She squirted here and there, making a series of ketchup piles until the bottle hit a pocket of air.

She slid him a sideways glance and giggled. She squeezed again and giggled, then grinned up at him again like they were sharing some secret joke, and a smile pulled at his lips. He got a text from work, an update on a trial he had some techs running, and shot back a reply. From the corner of his eye, he caught the girl swimming her fries through the ketchup. Her face resembled the plate, stark white and smeared with red.

Paige brought him a drink refill and laid his ticket beside his plate. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks.” Their eyes held for a beat before her attention turned to the child beside him.

“Good?”

“Yep.” She poked three more fries into her mouth and Paige rounded the end of the counter and out of view.

With no real reason to hang around, he grabbed his ticket and moved to the register. A break in the counter divided the checkout on the left from Casey in her seat at the end on his right. He watched her dot ketchup around the edge of her plate before Paige met him and took the ticket he held.

“Everything okay?”

Paige flashed him a bright smile and his gut twisted like it did every time he saw her. “Yeah. Great.”

“It’s twelve even.”

He handed her a twenty, and when she held out his change, their eyes met, and there was such an overwhelming feeling of rightness, the air backed up in his chest. It was true, he wasn’t looking for serious for so many reasons, but he thought of spending time with Paige, listening to her without distractions, drinking in every detail without her rushing around, and suddenly, for the first time in a long time, he felt like taking a leap. “There’s a new Italian place.”

The statement was barely past his lips and he was still formulating his next when the little girl held up her drawing.

“Mommy, look at Eric!”

Mommy? Her gaze swung to the little girl at the end of the counter and so did his. Same creamy skin, same mouth, same blond, blond hair.

He was still staring as she lifted the girl, her daughter, from the stool and held out his change. “Here you go.”

Seconds ticked by with neither of them moving and he had the sinking feeling something was slipping away. Talking to someone over a plate of lasagna was one thing, starting anything with a woman with a child was something else entirely. Especially for him. There were some things you didn’t get a second chance at. Or shouldn’t.

She was still holding out his change while he stood there like an ass. “No, keep it,” he finally said.

She glanced at the large tip in her hand, then back at him, her expression unreadable. “Okay. Thank you.” The she turned and headed for the swinging door behind the counter.

Casey smiled and waved at him over her mom’s shoulder, and he waved back, and that’s when he saw it. Propped on Paige’s hip, her purple skirt spread out and over her knees. But her left leg hadn’t been tucked under her. It ended a few inches below her knee.

Just like his.

“Stupid,” Paige muttered under her breath and rolled her eyes at herself. She pushed through the swinging door and into the back of the restaurant. To the right was the kitchen, to the left a good-sized space that served as the employee break room.

Casey leaned back to see her face. “What’s stupid, Mommy?”

“Nothing, sweet pea.” Just that, for a second, she thought he was about to ask her out. And even more stupid that, for a second, she’d wanted him to.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Casey said.

“Okay.” Paige lifted her most precious baby a little higher on her hip and kissed her neck, making her laugh. They got to the bathroom just as her cousin was coming out.

“Hey, Casey Bell,” Jenny said.

“Hey, Jenny Penny.”

Paige helped Casey get situated in the bathroom, then stepped just outside the door to wait out her daughter’s newly asserted independence. She wasn’t wearing her prosthesis today, nothing new. Though with kindergarten approaching, it was becoming a new worry.

“That was one hot man sitting in your section. Again,” Jenny added with an eyebrow waggle. “Two, actually, though I only got a glimpse of the other one before he left.”

Paige turned her face to hide any remnant of disappointment that might be lingering. “He doesn’t know my section.”

She peeked through the crack at Casey.

“I need privacy, please,” Casey said.

Paige smiled and walked a few steps away to join Jenny at the skinny floor-length mirror leaning against a wall.

Jenny slid out the wand to reapply her mascara, bringing even more attention to her big doe eyes. “Mmm. Just lucky I guess. But even you have to admit he was hot. And don’t act like you didn’t notice.”

Of course she’d noticed. She’d only been here a few weeks, but it was impossible not to. He’d never said more than a few words to her, always polite, always quiet, but his brown eyes and easy smile were hard to ignore.

“So hot.” Jenny sighed dramatically and leaned in, whispering, “The extremely gorgeous, rock my body, please let me touch you kind of hot.”

“Mmm. I wouldn’t know.”

“A travesty.” Jenny stretched her face out to the mirror and raised the mascara to her other eye. “You know he’s been coming here for weeks and not once have I seen him talking to anyone. Until now. Until Casey.”

“Casey could coax a rock into talking.”

“What are you going to do when he asks you out?”

“Do you really think I have time for a man? I barely have time to pee.” It was true. She didn’t have time for a man in between her daughter, two jobs, and school. But if he had been about to ask her out, and then hadn’t because she was a mom . . . She’d always be a mom. Or had it been Casey’s leg? She hated to think that.

There were generally two reactions to her four-year-old daughter’s amputated leg. People either stared, seeing the missing part before they saw her and all her perfection, which hurt, or they pretended not to see her at all. That hurt too.

Paige tightened the hair band around her thin ponytail while her cousin fought with her long, wavy mass. Jenny with her thick, dark hair, olive skin, and voluptuous breasts. A direct contrast to her own small breasts and hair as pale as her skin. She was like the anti-California girl. Plain. Unnoticeable. Overall unexceptional.

Her second cousin, twice, maybe three times removed, was a flirt, a bottle of sunshine and great with Casey, if a little flighty. She was the fun girl. The kind of girl a man would ask out without hesitation.

Had she ever been that girl? Even before Casey?

“Can you still watch Case tonight?”

“Sure, Miss College Girl.”

“Thank you. I couldn’t do this without you.” She gave Jenny a quick side hug as she passed.

“Yeah, yeah. Just be careful you don’t burn out.”

“I won’t.” If anything, she needed to work harder. “As soon as Casey starts kindergarten, things will slow down. I’ll be able to take a couple of classes during the day. You know, you could go too,” Paige said, watching Jenny continue with her hair. “Just take a few classes. See what happens.”

Jenny smiled. “No thanks. That’s your dream.”

True, it had always been her dream. And now they were here. Operation New Life was taking off.

“I’m done,” Casey called.

“Okay, baby.” When she lifted Casey to the sink, she smiled at her daughter’s sweet face in the mirror. She wouldn’t have those tiny baby teeth much longer. Paige gave her a tight squeeze, holding on an extra second until she wiggled free.

“I put your leg beside the blue beanbag, okay?”

“Okay.”

Casey could put her prosthesis on by herself. She could also take it off, which is what she preferred lately. She’d never pushed the issue of wearing it. Now she wondered if maybe that had been a mistake.

She got Casey settled in her hangout and put in a children’s DVD. Big Mac had converted the large storage closet for his granddaughter years ago. Complete with beanbags, a small table, paper, crayons, and puzzles, Casey loved it. It was just for a few hours while she and Jenny’s shifts crossed paths. It wasn’t a perfect situation, by any means, but it was the best one she had. Soon Casey would be in kindergarten and knowing her daughter was having fun at school while she worked would relieve a load of guilt.

“Okay, I have to go back to work now. It’s just for another hour, then Jenny will take you home. All set?”

“Yep.”

“Hey, Mommy?”

Paige paused at the doorway. “What, baby?”

“I’ve been thinking and I decided something.”

This ought to be good, she thought, smiling down at her angelic face. “What have you decided?”

“I’ve decided not to go to kindergarten.”

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