Jake grins. “Everybody’s after my goat balls.”
I snort. “That’s a lovely description. Why haven’t they written up the recipe in Epicurean Magazine yet?”
“They wish,” he says with a wink. “But it’s a secret. What else can I get you?”
“I think a plate of fried cheese will suffice.”
“And to drink? I just tapped an amazing ivory stout—not a Jackson brew, but local. From a place I like in Grand Rapids.”
“Just water. I have to pick Lilly up from school in a couple of hours.”
“So how is it, working for my sullen brother?” he asks.
My cheeks heat, because it would probably be fine if I hadn’t hooked up with said sullen brother. I was starting to get over that before our little—so hot—conversation in the kitchen on Saturday. “It’s fine.”
“Real convincing,” he says, sliding a glass of ice water across the bar. I stiffen, but he chuckles and shakes his head as he walks away, and I realize he’s not going to push me on it.
A few minutes later, he brings me my plate of fried cheese.
I take a bite and whimper, holding my hand to my mouth. “Oh. My. Gosh. Even better than I remember.”
Jake smirks. “If I had a nickel for every time a woman told me that . . .”
I ignore his innuendo and finish my goat ball, taking careful mental notes. I’m determined to replicate these little bites of heaven. There’s something in the batter that gives it a subtle crunch.
“What are you up to today?” he asks.
“I kind of want to get a feel for Jackson Harbor. I’ve been here over a week and don’t know much about it. Where should I go?”
“Well, you’ve already found the most important place.”
“Obviously,” I say around a bite.
He folds his arms. “Though you haven’t really experienced Jackson Brews until you have a draft beer.”
“I’ll add it to my list for a day I’m not driving around a small child.”
“Fair enough.” He taps his finger to the side of his jaw. “Hmm. Do you mind walking?”
“I’ve got a coat,” I say proudly. “It has a fleece lining and everything.”
“If you don’t mind the cold, keep your car parked and walk a block north to Lakeshore Drive. Most of the shops along the boardwalk are closed for the season, but it’s a beautiful view of the beach if you can handle the wind off the water. And there’s a lighthouse.”
“That sounds perfect. Thank you.”
“You know, I’d be happy to babysit my niece if you want Ethan to show you around. There are a bunch of nice restaurants around here, and the walk out to the lighthouse is really romantic at sunset.”
“I think you have the wrong idea about my relationship with Ethan.”
He arches a brow. “Do I?”
“He’s my boss. I’m his employee. That’s it.”
He stares at me for a long beat before nodding. “You made him smile when you barely knew him. And when you two are in the same room, he can’t take his eyes off you.”
“You’ve hardly seen us together,” I say, but I feel warm from his words. I like the idea of Ethan watching me, of being special because I can make him smile. I don’t want to like it, but I do.
He shrugs. “I guess I just liked the idea of him finding someone who could make him happy again.”
“No one can make someone happy. That’s something we can only do for ourselves.” I frown the second the words leave my lips. I’ve often repeated the advice a social worker gave me when I was sixteen, but I’ve never been good at believing it. I’ve been looking for someone who could give me the happiness I’ve found so elusive, from one bad relationship to the next. Happiness is like sand. It’s easy to grab a handful, but it slips away before you want it to, and the only times you can hold on for long are when it’s rocky and a little painful.
“Where were you with that wisdom three years ago?” Jake asks. He stares into space as he shakes his head.
“You mean when Elena died?”
“Yeah.” He takes a deep breath and swings his gaze back to me. “And before, I guess.” The sadness in his dark eyes is at odds with the goofy personality he’s always presented to me. It seems like Elena’s death took a toll of the whole family.
“Jake . . .” I should hold my tongue, mind my place in this family. But it feels important, so I ask, “What happened to her?”
“Heart attack?” Jake says, and the way his voice cracks makes it sound almost like a question.
I press my hand to my mouth. I’m not sure what a woman who’s likely to have a heart attack at her age should look like, but I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that answer from Elena’s pictures. “She was so young.”