Kissing Kendall

a Maritime City novel by Jennifer Shirk

Kendall Grisbaum is finally taking charge of her life, pouring her heart into opening a new bakery business and even allowing her best friend Georgie to play matchmaker for her. Trouble is, the one guy she secretly wants is Georgie’s older brother, Brad, who is decidedly off limits.

Brad can’t seem to get his little sister’s best friend out of his mind. He and Kendall used to be close friends, too, and as a local policeman, Brad can’t help but play protector, looking out for Kendall. When he offers to help her renovate her new bakery space on the side, their friendship—and their attraction—flares back to life.

Amid the temptation of doughnut muffins and blueberry cobbler, a new temptation draws them both closer. Can they take a chance on love when it means risking their friendship, even when not doing so risks everything?

 

Information:

Title: : Kissing Kendall (Maritime City, #2)
Author: Jennifer Shirk
Genre: Category – Contemporary Romance
Length: 202 pages
Release Date: December 2012
ISBN: 978-1-62266-813-7
Imprint: Bliss
 
Kissing Kendall - Jennifer Shirk

 
 
 

Praise for Kissing Kendall:

“Take a hottie with a crush, sprinkle in zinging attraction, and you have the recipe for this delicious romance!”
– Melissa McClone, author of His Larkville Cinderella

 

Excerpt:

© 2012 Jennifer Shirk
 
 

Chapter One

 
 
“We’re here to kidnap you.”

Kendall Grisbaum stood in the doorway of her home and tried to keep a straight face. “I hate to break this to you, Dee, but kidnappers don’t make a big announcement that they’re going to kidnap you. They just do it.”

Dee shot her a sheepish grin. “Well, that’s good to know for next time.”

“Thanks for the warning.” Kendall was about to give her one more piece of advice on proper abduction techniques, but instead closed her mouth with a frown. “Hey, did you just say, ‘We’re going to kidnap you’?”

Dee rolled her eyes, then jerked a thumb behind her. “Yeah, well, my sidekick in crime is still getting out of the car.” Kendall peered behind Dee and saw their other friend, Georgie—seven and a half months pregnant but looking ready to burst any second—trying unsuccessfully to hoist herself out of Dee’s Volkswagen Beetle.

“Some kidnappers you are,” Kendall joked.

“Hey, we might be slow, but we’re stubborn. So no excuses this time. You’re coming with us…or…or else.”

“Yeah, or else!” Georgie chimed in from down the sidewalk. A few moments passed before she finally managed to waddle up to the front porch, her face flushed from the exertion. “We’re here to kidnap you,” she announced, a little out of breath.

Kendall chuckled. “I gathered that already. So to what do I owe this rather poorly executed kidnapping?”

Georgie sniffed, pretending to be insulted. “You’re being kidnapped to spend the afternoon at The Helene Moorhead Spa because friends don’t let friends wallow into hermit status. It goes against the friendship code.” She attempted to peer at her feet, wiggling her toes. “Plus, I could use a pedicure.” Then Georgie glanced back up, and after studying Kendall a little closer, her eyes clouded with concern. “Hey, honey, are you feeling okay?”

“Don’t be silly. I feel fine.” Kendall squirmed under her friend’s appraisal, knowing exactly what Georgie was seeing. She hadn’t been eating right. Or sleeping much. Her recent job loss had thrown her over this brink of semi-depression. Needless to say, Kendall didn’t need to glance in a mirror to know she looked as though someone had worked her over. She could use a day at the spa for that reason alone.

“Could have fooled me. I’m worried about you. At least I have an excuse for looking so tired,” Georgie added, rubbing her rounded belly.

Kendall smiled, stifling a wistful sigh. Georgie had married her brother’s best friend, Walt Somers, a little over a year ago and they were already expecting their first child. Kendall had hoped for a child early on in her own marriage, too—a real family of her own—since she’d never had much of one growing up. Between the loss of her parents and having a grandmother who spent more time traveling than with her only granddaughter, it was no wonder Kendall was so desperate for the kind of stability she’d never known. But that wasn’t meant to be. At least not with Jake.

Kendall felt her smile falter a bit, so she looked away, flicking an imaginary piece of lint from her capris. “I’m not a hermit. I’m just… I’m…”

Oh my gosh. I am a hermit.

Her shoulders wilted. Her friends were right. Since she had been let go from her waitressing job a few weeks ago, all she had managed to do was learn the fine art of crocheting. What did she really have going on in her life? Nothing except her new puppy, Deuce, whom she’d picked up from the animal shelter. Maybe she did need to get out more.

“Okay, you win,” she told them. She swung the door open wider, allowing her friends to come in. “But before we go, would you two kidnappers like a cool glass of lemonade?”

Georgie’s face lit up. “Oh, I could definitely use a cold drink. And do you maybe have any of those homemade banana muffins to go with it? I’m starving. Kidnapping works up an appetite.”

“I had no idea,” she said, trying not to be amused at Georgie’s insatiable hunger since becoming pregnant. “But yes, I do happen to have some of those muffins you like.” She led the way into the kitchen, where Deuce happily chewed on a bone. As soon as they stepped foot in the room, the dog glanced up and rushed over to them, tail wagging.

Dee bent down, letting the puppy sniff and lick her fingers. “Where did you get a gem of a watchdog like this?” she asked wryly when Deuce began to stroke his head under her hand.

Kendall made a face. “I didn’t get him for security purposes; I got him for company. I—I’ve just been feeling a little lonely lately.”

Dee’s head whipped up and she looked at Georgie. The room went silent for a long moment before Dee cleared her throat and spoke again. “Kendall, if you’re lonely, you didn’t have to get a dog. It’s okay if you want to start, you know…dating again.”

Kendall’s stomach lurched as soon as she heard the word dating. No. She couldn’t. Just the thought of dating stirred up fears she knew were irrational but couldn’t get rid of nonetheless.

She turned away, stalling for time by reaching for the muffins. “I’m not ready,” she said quietly.

With muffins in hand, she turned back around in time to catch the look her friends exchanged with each other—the same look a mother gets when she learns her child was the last to be picked for a sports team. Great. More pity.

She bit down on her lower lip when it began to tremble. It was exactly those kinds of looks and the remarks that went with them that made her resort to the so-called hermit status everyone was so worried about. Her interest in going to the spa withered and died; it had been a mistake for her friends to come. There were only so many “I’m so sorry for your loss” comments she could handle. Even after all this time—almost two years—it weighed on her heart to still hear them. She had lost her husband and now, to make matters worse, she’d lost her job. Her life was in shambles. So, if she wasn’t up for being social lately, she figured those were two pretty good reasons.

Kendall squeezed her eyes shut when her mind shot to the day she received that life-altering phone call. About a year and a half ago, Jake’s firefighting squad had responded to a three-alarm fire. It had gotten out of hand by the time they arrived—four firefighters suffered minor injuries and were briefly hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

Jake wasn’t as lucky.

Her hands began to shake. Will these awful feelings ever go away? First her parents and then her husband. How many people were dealt that kind of blow before they’d reached the age of thirty?

Dee must have noticed her reaction, because she rushed over and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry; we didn’t mean to push,” she said in a gentle voice. “We just want you to be happy.”

Kendall nodded, but she didn’t open her eyes right away. She was close to tears and refused to give in to them. “I know,” she croaked. “You’re right about one thing, though. I do need to at least get out and find a job.”

She’d been wallowing in self-pity for too long. It was time to change something in her life—even if it only meant employment. She used to work as a waitress at one of the more popular pubs in town, the Fish Bowl. She enjoyed what she did there and the tips were good, but after the accident that took her husband’s life, it was almost painful to show up for work. A lot of people from the police and fire departments hung out there, and seeing them only reminded her of Jake. If she didn’t need to support herself, she’d almost consider it a small blessing that cuts needed to be made and she was let go.

Georgie reached for a muffin and broke it in half. “Okay, I guess finding a job would be a good start to get you back into the world again.” She took a bite of the muffin and let out a content sigh. “Oh, Kendall, these are so good. Truly, the best ever.”

Dee reached for a muffin, too. When she took a bite, her eyelids fluttered and her lips slid into a dreamy smile. “Oh yeah, these are yumola,” she mumbled with her mouth full. “But I have to say, your doughnut muffins are still my favorite.”

“Doughnut muffins?” Georgie stopped chewing and frowned at Kendall. “How come I don’t know about any doughnut muffins? Have you been holding out on me?”

Kendall chuckled. “Not at all. The doughnut muffins were just something I’ve been experimenting with. I’ve had a lot more time to bake and try new things since being laid off. But I promise, once I’m satisfied with the recipe, I’ll bring over a whole basket for you and Walt.”

“Ooh, and me, too,” Dee added. “I don’t think you have to perfect the recipe, though. It’s absolutely delicious as is.”

Georgie’s face suddenly lit up as she shoved the last bit of muffin in her mouth. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” she mumbled, snapping her fingers. “You don’t need to find a job, Kendall. I think your job just found you. Go into business selling these.”

Kendall wanted to laugh. Leave it to her friends to have their heads in the clouds. “And how am I supposed to sell muffins, door to door? Or maybe I should set up camp next to the Girl Scouts at the local supermarket.”

“No, better than that.” Georgie grinned. “You open up your own bakery. Remember, you used to talk about it a lot before you married Jake. Why not go for it now?”

Dee clasped her hands together and gave a little squeal. “Great idea! Now is the perfect time to do something like that.”

Kendall stared at her two friends, praying they were only pulling her leg. Open up a bakery? Oh, sure. I have nothing else going on in my life—just dealing with the loss of my husband and job. Piece of cake—no pun intended. It was all too ridiculous. Just because her friends adored her food didn’t mean it would guarantee her ability to sustain a business. Then again… Who knew? Maybe she really could. She had talked about opening up her own bakery years ago. Had done most of the research already.

No. Better to play it safe than be sorry. Things worked out for her when she played it safe. The one time she’d thrown caution to the wind and went against that internal code was when she had rushed into marrying Jake.

She had learned her lesson.

“I can’t,” she told her friends.

Georgie planted a fist on her hips. “Well, of course. Not with that attitude.”

“Okay, I won’t,” she countered. Then, to divert their attention, she held up the tray and offered her friends more muffins. They eagerly took the bait.

There. Crisis averted. Her friends were going to have to be satisfied with getting their fill of her baked goods when they came and visited her, and she was going to find some other job. Doing something. Somewhere.

Dee looked thoughtful for a moment as she chewed, giving Kendall the feeling that their discussion was far from over. “You know, if you’re worried about being a business owner, I’m sure Walt could give you some pointers, maybe even help you write up a business plan. He’s doing a great job running the pharmacy, isn’t he, Georgie?”

Georgie folded her arms with a scowl. “He’s doing a great job thanks to my help. We’re a team over there, remember?”

Kendall glanced at Dee and suppressed a smile. Both Walt and Georgie worked as pharmacists at Walt’s uncle’s pharmacy. Dee worked as a technician there too. When Walt had first come to town to help his uncle, Georgie didn’t just sit on the sidelines and let Walt take over. She’d made sure she voiced her ideas loud and clear—much to Walt’s initial chagrin.

Kendall shook her head. “Look, I know you’re both just trying to help, but I think it might be smarter to get a job working in a bakery first before I make such a huge commitment and open one myself. Get to know the ins and outs of running one from the inside. Then I can decide later on if it’s for me or not, okay?”

Georgie clucked her tongue. “Kendall, you could be old and gray by the time that happens. Where’s your ambition? Your dreams?”

Kendall had plenty of dreams. She wanted a family of her own, a career she enjoyed, and a man who loved her. But those dreams were tucked safely inside her so that she wouldn’t suffer any more pain or disappointment. “Look, I just choose to approach life more cautiously than you do. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“All right. Fine,” Georgie said with a shrug. “But honestly, Kendall, you really do need to start moving on with your life and stop being a loner. The way I see it, you’re about one step away from becoming Brad.”

Kendall’s attention perked up at the mere mention of Georgie’s older brother. Brad Mayer used to be one of her very best friends. She thought of him often but hadn’t spoken to him since Georgie’s wedding over a year ago. “Brad? What’s the matter with him?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” she said with an exasperated huff. “You’d think my brother would have had a girlfriend or two, since I’m married now and he can’t butt into my life any longer. But no. He never goes out. I’m not the only one who’s concerned, either—Walt’s worried about him, too. Brad’s been acting different lately. He’s becoming…crotchety.”

Kendall burst into laughter. “Oh, please. Brad’s way too young to be crotchety.” Way too kind and good-looking, too. She had thought so since the first time she’d met him.

Georgie had been the one who first introduced Brad to her. Georgie lived with her brother after graduating from college and had invited Kendall over to their place for movie night. Brad had taken their chick-flick choice in stride and even stayed to watch it with them. Afterward, he’d ordered pizza and surprised them both by making the best margaritas. She and Brad found they both loved watching football and cheesy eighties movies, and something had just clicked between them. Eventually, he had become almost like family to her, even stopping by the restaurant at night while he was on duty to walk her to her car when her shift was done. Brad had such a wonderfully deprecating sense of humor, too. But Georgie was apparently oblivious to any positive attributes of her brother.

Georgie snorted. “Try telling him that. It’s work, work, work with him. And when he’s not working, he’s working on getting more work with his new side job. Who would have thought a police officer would have so much free time on his hands?”

“Obviously crime is low thanks to him,” Dee commented with a wink as she reached for her third muffin.

Georgie made a face. “Did you guys even know he has his own handyman business on the side now?”

Kendall shook her head. Not that she was all that surprised—Brad had always been quite talented with building things. What surprised her more was that a handsome man like him wasn’t dating. Georgie always said he’d been quite the heartbreaker in high school, and Kendall had seen with her own eyes how plenty of women in town clamored for the chance to go out with him. He certainly seemed to be keeping busy, though, which probably explained why she hadn’t seen him around. He used to stop by her house to watch football or mooch food from her. In fact, it was how she first met Jake. Brad had brought him over one night to her house to watch a game and the rest was history. Then Brad sort of slipped out of her life.

She should have made more of an effort to reach out to him as well. But once she married Jake she’d been too busy focusing on being a wife. Then after Jake died, she’d been too focused on being a widow.

Georgie disrupted her thoughts by placing her hands on Kendall’s shoulders. “Please, Kendall. Listen to us. I love Brad and I love you, so I don’t want to see you end up with no social life, either. I can only handle one shut-in at a time.”

Kendall wanted to argue that being a shut-in wasn’t really such a bad thing—at least it was safe. But she knew a comment like that would only cause her friends to be more concerned. Instead, she tried to give them a reassuring smile. “Well, I can’t promise I’ll try to have a social life. But I’ll try to try. How about that?”

Dee and Georgie chuckled. Then they both reached out and hugged her. “We’re going to hold you to that,” Georgie warned good-naturedly.

Kendall’s heart sank. Deep down inside she knew she needed to move on with her life. But was she really ready?

County ten five one burglary in process.

Caller on the line reports broken glass and several items missing from home.

Copy.

Brad Mayer’s shift was ending just as he heard that last dispatch. He was about to respond when one of the midnight shift patrolmen five blocks away radioed in to respond to the call. Brad turned off the radio, about to head home, but a protective instinct tugged at his insides before he could completely call it a night.

His pulse kicked up. Kendall’s house was only a few streets away from that burglary. He’d swing by her house and make sure everything was okay; it only made sense at a time of night when prowlers, serial killers, and who knew what other scum could be lurking in the area. Someone had to look out for her now that her husband was no longer around.

Brad made a few turns and was on her street in minutes, slowing down when he finally approached her house. There really wasn’t much to the building itself, but Kendall had managed to make it charming with a seashell wreath on the door and hanging baskets of pink and white flowers along the porch. The house looked inviting, a welcome sight for any husband coming home after a long day’s work. It was a shame she and Jake had only lived in it for about three months together.

Jake had been a great friend, a great firefighter, and in the end, he had gotten the great girl. Brad had envied his friend so much back then, had even wished once or twice that Jake were out of the picture. And then it happened. Damn, he never wanted his friend dead. Brad missed him so much. He felt a nauseating, sinking pull of guilt. It had been an accident, but…maybe if they hadn’t gotten into that fight the day before, Jake would have been less distracted. Maybe Jake would still be alive.

Brad swallowed hard, and took his time scanning the area. The street was quiet, and nothing looked out of the ordinary from what he could tell. He noticed Kendall’s neighbors had planted a new shrub and replaced their porch railing, but other than that, nothing new. At least he could go home without worrying about her too much now. He figured it must be pretty hard living by herself. He made a habit of driving by and checking up on her now and then to make sure she was safe.

He owed that much to Jake.

He was about to pull away when her porch lights unexpectedly flicked on and the front door swung open. Holding his breath, he waited to catch a glimpse of her.

And then there she was.

Kendall emerged in gray stretchy pants and a yellow T-shirt. Appearing slightly frazzled, she jerked her body, tugging on a leash behind her. Finally, a German shepherd puppy tumbled out the door. The dog turned, looking ready to bolt back inside, but she quickly bent down to give it an encouraging pat on the head.

Brad smiled and got so caught up watching the amusing display that he forgot his engine was still running. Kendall must have heard it because she suddenly looked toward the street. Her face fell when she saw the police car.

Busted.

Kendall stood, squinting as if trying to make out who was in the car. Maybe if he pulled away now, she’d never know that he’d been checking up on her—his could be any random police car out patrolling the area, after all. He’d still have his dignity. But before he could hit the gas pedal and make a clean escape, she raised a hand and waved.

“Hi, Brad,” she called from the porch. “What’re you doing here at this time of night?”

He let out a sigh. Oh well. Dignity was overrated anyway.

He put the car in park and shut off the engine. “Hey, Kendall,” he said, stepping out of the car. “I, uh, could ask you the same thing.”

“Me?” A blush swept over her pretty face. “I guess it is late, isn’t it? Well, I—I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d take Deuce here for a walk.” She gestured to the German shepherd puppy, who was busy sniffing at Brad’s polished shoes.

He bent down and affectionately scratched the puppy under his chin. “Just get him?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer. His sister Georgie was best friends with Kendall and inadvertently kept him in the loop on all that was new in Kendall’s life. He and Kendall used to be close friends, too, but he had slowly put an end to that. Even before she and Jake had gotten engaged, Brad’s feelings for her had gone beyond the friendship stage. Not that she ever knew.

“I did just get him,” she said, giggling when Deuce jumped up and licked Brad’s nose. “It’s been nice to have company at night, ya know?”

Brad didn’t say anything, but he did know. In fact, he knew too well. His sister had moved out of his apartment and gotten married. Then Jake passed away. He and Walt hung out when they could, but Walt was going to be a father soon and had other priorities. Brad hadn’t met any women who piqued his interest enough to spend time with, either. Loneliness was now his new best friend.

Brad finally stood, his gaze drinking in every precious millimeter of her face. He hadn’t seen her since Georgie’s wedding. Her chestnut hair was swept up in a haphazard ponytail and her wan face looked even paler due to the lack of makeup. She was thinner and frail. From the dark circles and weariness he saw around her amber-colored eyes, sleep had been eluding her for longer than just tonight. But she still looked achingly beautiful to him, and his heart turned over in response.

“How’ve you been?” he asked.

“I… I’ve been…” Tears glistened in her eyes.

“I miss him, too,” Brad said gently.

Her lips began to tremble. “I knew you’d understand. I never did have to explain myself to you.” Kendall reached for his hand. He knew it was only meant as a gesture of comfort, but he couldn’t stop his fingers from clasping warmly around hers, turning it into something more intimate. Almost possessive.

Brad couldn’t understand why he could never shake Kendall from his system, even after she married another man, married his friend. He’d never asked her out on a date all those years ago. He should have. But then, Jake had beaten him to the punch.

His gaze inadvertently drifted to her mouth. For one brief, crazy second, he couldn’t help but wonder what she would do if he leaned in and kissed her.

What the hell was the matter with him?

He let go of her hand, surprised at how fast his attraction to her drew him in. Luckily, his sanity hadn’t totally upped and left, but he wasn’t willing to test it again. When thoughts like that entered a man’s mind, it was his cue to hightail it out of there before he did something stupid like ruin his already tenuous friendship with her.

“Well, it’s late…,” he said, wincing for stating the obvious. Then he realized why they were both outside in the first place: she was about to take her dog for a walk after midnight. Alone. “Hey, you’re not seriously going out now, are you?” he asked. “I just heard the dispatcher saying a house a few streets away was robbed.”

Kendall shrugged. “I’m not going far. Plus, I could use the fresh air. Don’t worry, Deuce here will protect me.”

Automatically, his gaze shot to the dog. Deuce wagged his tail, then flopped to the ground and rolled over with his paws held back as if signaling he wanted his belly rubbed.  Brad’s lips twitched. “Yeah, Georgie mentioned you had some guard dog there.”

Kendall tugged on the dog’s leash with a frown. “He’s still kind of young and playful, but a potential robber won’t know that.” She bit her lip. “I think.”

Brad gazed up at the starry night sky and stifled a sigh. It didn’t look like he would be leaving Kendall any time soon. Oh well, sanity be damned. He reluctantly motioned to the end of the street with his chin. “Come on, since you’re not going far, I’ll walk with you.”

Kendall gratefully met his smile and took the arm that he offered. “Thanks. It’s not every day I get a police escort for pooper scooper duty.”

“Yeah, well, just so you know, I’m not planning on doing any scooping.”

Kendall laughed, a light, tinkling laugh he hadn’t heard from her in quite a while. It warmed his insides.

“Ah, so you’re one of those, huh?” she asked, her eyes still crinkling.

Brad stopped walking and shot her a look. “One of those what?”

“You know. The type of guy who won’t have anything to do with poop cleanup.”

“Hey, for the record, I never said anything about that. The true test will come after my sister has her baby. She apparently already has me scheduled for babysitting.” He gave a fake shudder.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Kendall quipped.

“You’re on,” he said, grinning. “You never know; I could be the type to be reformed. I’ve heard marriage and the love of a good woman can make a man do crazy things.”

Kendall’s mirth slowly faded. She looked away, but not before he saw a flare of pain in her eyes. He wanted to kick himself for bringing up her marriage again and any reminders of Jake. Leave it to him to stick his foot in his mouth and upset her; yet another reason why it was better for him to keep his distance.

They walked farther down the street in comfortable silence until Deuce finally stopped and began sniffing around a hydrangea bush. Kendall shifted the leash from hand to hand as her puppy began investigating the area.

“Have you found a job yet?” he asked.

“No. Georgie and Dee think I should open up my own bakery. It’s kind of a big risk, though.” She slid her gaze to him, her forehead wrinkling. “What do you think?”

“I think you shouldn’t care what Georgie, Dee, or anybody else thinks.”

A laugh rumbled in her throat. “That’s not exactly what I wanted to hear.”

“Kendall, you know deep down inside that you can’t make a decision like that based on what other people think you should do. Only you know how to live your life. You would be a wonderful business owner, but there has to be a real need and drive that comes from within you. Until you have that, it really will be a big risk.”

She was silent for several long moments, then seemed desperate to change the subject. “So you never did answer my question. Why were you on my street so late?”

Brad blinked. Yeah, good question. “Um—”

“Were you checking up on me?”

“What?” He faked a laugh and ended up coughing a bit. “Th—that’s ridiculous. I would never—”

“Thanks,” she said with a smile widening in approval.

Brad laughed for real this time. “You’re welcome. I’m that obvious, huh? Well, it’s nice to know you can handle my overprotective nature better than my sister can.”

Before Georgie had married his best friend, Walt, Brad had been concerned about the men his sister was dating and had asked for Walt’s help in keeping an eye out for her. He figured any caring brother would have done the same thing. Unfortunately, Georgie resented the intrusion in her life. Big time. She ultimately forgave Brad and ended up falling in love with Walt, which was great on both counts. The way Brad saw it, if not for his protective nature, Walt and Georgie might not have ever gotten together. And if not for his sister, Brad would have never met her best friend Kendall. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t get his sister’s happily-ever-after, too.

Brad and Kendall came to the end of the street and started heading back toward her house. “I only get your protectiveness in small doses,” she reminded him. “But it is nice to know I have such a good friend looking out for me.”

Brad frowned.

Good friend.

Good friend.

Those two little words went off in his mind like a gong, and each time it echoed, a little piece of his heart ripped further.

“You bet,” he said, lightly punching her on the shoulder. But he knew deep down inside he wasn’t much of a friend to Kendall, let alone a good friend. He was barely a decent acquaintance. As soon as Kendall and Jake had gotten engaged, Brad had made it a point to gradually write himself out of their lives. It was torture being around them. Jake eventually noticed and Brad admitted the truth: that he had feelings for Kendall. Jake hadn’t taken it well, not that Brad blamed him. After all, he’d broken a cardinal rule of friendship: thou shall not lust after thy best friend’s wife. Soon after Jake’s funeral, Brad kept himself out of her life for a different reason: as punishment. Punishment for wondering what it would be like if Jake were gone.

Brad should have been there for her, to comfort her at least. Surely he could have allowed himself that much. Guilt pooled in his stomach. But once they were back in front of Kendall’s little house again, he turned to her and rallied what he hoped was an unaffected smile.

Kendall didn’t smile back. Instead, she studied him for a moment. “You know, I’ve really missed you, Brad. Missed our friendship.”

He didn’t hesitate when he answered, “Me, too.” It was the truth.

She tugged on Deuce’s collar and started walking up the steps of her porch. When she reached the front door, she turned and looked at him one last time. “Thanks again.”

He stood up straighter, raising his hand and giving her a mock salute. “It’s my duty to serve and protect, ma’am.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, her voice growing faint. “Maritime City is lucky to have you. Just—” Her breath hitched. She pressed her lips together and paused a few seconds before continuing on. “Be careful out there.”

Brad knew what she was really saying to him, so he made sure he looked her in the eyes when he answered. “I promise.”

She nodded. “You have to also promise you won’t be such a stranger and stop by more often. When you’re not on duty, of course.”

His chest tightened with regret. “Absolutely.”

“Good.” She gave him a little wave then disappeared inside her house.