Authors: Denise Hunter
“What do you think?”
He’d already hung the drywall, and the patching was drying, which explained the smell.
He swung the door open, showing her the thumb-turn on the other side, then closed the door and demonstrated the lock with the key.
Thank you, Vanna
. “Are both doors keyed the same?”
“Yep.” He threw her the new set of keys, and she caught it clumsily. She’d keep one set in her room and find a hiding spot in the kitchen for the other.
He gathered his tools and supplies.
Now that he was finished, maybe she could take the kids to the driving range. She could teach them how to tee off.
Jake capped the drywall compound, then walked through the new doorway toward the family suite.
“Where are you going?” Meridith followed him down the hall.
“Patching up the other partition.”
“I thought you were done.”
“If I get them both patched, they’ll be ready to sand and paint on Monday. You got any more of this green?”
“What? I don’t know.”
He trotted down the back stairway and unlocked the new door’s thumb-turn.
Meridith stopped at the top of the steps, sighing. The sooner he finished, the sooner he’d be out of her life. Out of the house, she corrected herself. That man was not in her life. From the base of the stairs she heard the scraping sound of the putty knife against the wall.
Feeling eyes on her, she turned to see the children standing in the doorway of Noelle’s room. Jake flattened the knife against the wall, filling the crevice. It was all he could do to smother a grin. He didn’t know which he’d enjoyed more, spending a couple hours alone with the kids or finding new ways to provoke Meridith. And to think he was getting paid.
Maybe once she went back outside, the kids would come down and pretend to play a game at the kitchen bar while they talked.
He could hear Meridith talking to them now, asking them about the game they’d supposedly been playing, acting all interested in their activities. If she really cared about them, she wouldn’t be ripping the kids from Summer Place just so she could go back and live happily ever after with her fiancé. And he was pretty sure that’s what she was planning.
Their voices grew louder, then Jake saw them all descending the steps. Noelle led the pack, carrying her Uno cards, followed by the boys, then Meridith.
Noelle winked on her way past.
Little imp. The kids perched at the bar, and he heard the cards being shuffled. Dipping his knife into the mud, Jake sneaked a peek. Meridith was opening the dishwasher. Great.
Ben kept turning to look at him, and Jake discreetly shook his head. Even though Meridith faced the other way, no need to be careless.
“Noelle, you haven’t said anything about your uncle lately. He hasn’t e-mailed yet?”
He felt three pairs of eyes on his back. He hoped Meridith was shelving something. Jake smoothed the mud and turned to gather more, an excuse to appraise the scene.
Meridith’s back was turned. He gave the kids a look.
“Uh, no, he hasn’t e-mailed.”
“Or called or nothing,” Max added.
Noelle silently nudged him, and Max gave an exaggerated shrug.
“Well, let me know when he does. I don’t want to keep pestering you.”
“Sure thing,” Noelle said, dealing the cards. Her eyes flickered toward him.
“I was thinking we might go for a bike ride this evening,” Meridith said. “Maybe go up to ’Sconset or into town. You all have bikes, right?”
“I forgot to tell you,” Noelle said. “I’m going to Lexi’s tonight. I’m spending the night.”
“A friend from church. You met her mom last week.”
A glass clinked as she placed it in the cupboard. “Noelle, I’m not sure how things were . . . before . . . but you have to ask permission for things like this. I don’t even know Lexi, much less her family.”
“Have you spent the night before?”
“No, but I’ve been to her house
He heard a dishwasher rack rolling in, another rolling out, the dishes rattling.
“Why don’t we have her family over for dinner one night this week? I could get to know them, and then we’ll see about overnight plans.”
“This is ridiculous. They go to our church, and her mom and my mom were friends!” Noelle cast him a look.
she said with her eyes.
Did Meridith think Eva would jeopardize her daughter’s safety? The woman was neurotic. Jake clamped his teeth together before something slipped out.
“Just because they go to church doesn’t necessarily make them safe, Noelle. It wouldn’t be responsible to let you spend the night with people I don’t know. You never know what goes on behind closed doors.”
“My mom would let me.”
The air seemed to vibrate with tension. Jake realized his knife was still, flattened against the wall, and he reached for more mud. Noelle was glaring at Meridith, who’d turned, wielding a spatula. Was she going to blow it?
To her credit, the woman drew a deep breath, holding her temper. “Maybe Lexi could stay all night with you instead.”
“Well, wouldn’t that pose a problem for
family, since they don’t know
Despite his irritation with Meridith, Jake’s lips twitched. Score one for Noelle.
“I suppose that would be up to her family.”
He heard Noelle’s cards hit the table, her chair screech across the floor as she stood. “Never mind.” She cast Meridith one final glare, then exited through the back door, closing it with a hearty slam.
A week later Meridith ran her hand over the new door trim and surveyed the paint job. The sunny yellow matched the rest of the kitchen, and the finished wall was smooth as glass.
Ben touched the wall too. He hadn’t left her side since he finished his homework.
“It’s a beautiful day outside, Ben. Why don’t you go enjoy the fresh air?”
“Max is outside. Maybe he’ll play Frisbee with you.”
Silently Ben ambled toward the door and slipped through it.
Meridith turned her attention to the new partition, stepping back. You couldn’t tell it was new. The trim had been painted white to match the old trim, and hard as she tried, she couldn’t find a paint run anywhere. Not bad.
“Everything okay?” Jake appeared at her side.
“Would you stop sneaking up on me?” she said, unwilling to admit that the insanely loud washing machine may have disguised his entrance.
He nodded toward the partition.
She forced her eyes from his. “It’s fine.” She wasn’t about to admit she’d been admiring his handiwork. He might raise his price. “How’s the gutter coming?”
It was falling off the back of the house, its angle leaving a small pond off the back porch steps when it rained.
“All done. Have to run to the store for a few things.” He placed his hands on his hips, just above his tool belt.
She checked her watch. “You might as well call it quits for the day.” She was ready to have the house back, at least until her guests arrived.
He nodded once. “Just let me gather my—”
A sharp cry split the air, then was silenced by a thud. Meridith was out the door the next second.
She crossed the porch and found Ben near the puddle on his side. He pulled his knees into his belly, bawling.
“Ben!” Meridith pushed Piper aside and squatted beside the boy, carefully rolling him over. “What happened?”
“He fell off the ladder!” Max dropped to his knees beside his brother.
“You left the ladder up?” Meridith glared at Jake, but he was running his hand over Ben’s head.
“Don’t feel any bumps.”
“My arm!” Ben wailed.
Jake reached toward it.
“Don’t touch it!” Meridith said. “Can you move it, Ben?” She touched his arm lightly.
“Nooooo . . .”
“What happened?” Noelle appeared at her side.
“He fell,” Meridith said. “I need to get him to the ER.” Then she remembered. “The guests . . .” How were they going to get in? Someone needed to greet them. She couldn’t think with Ben howling.
“It’s okay, honey,” she said. “We’ll get you taken care of.”
Jake gathered Ben in his arms. “I’ll drive you to the ER. Noelle, stay here and check the guests in. Max, you stay with her.”
A thirteen-year-old running the inn? She didn’t think so. “Call Rita and see if she can come,” she said, following Jake.
“I’ve checked in guests lots of times.”
Meridith tossed a look over her shoulder. “
Noelle glared. “Fine.”
Meridith followed Jake around the house to his truck. Piper followed silently, head low as if sensing the trouble.
“You don’t have to do this,” Meridith said. “I can drive myself.”
“Get in,” Jake said.
Once she was settled on the cracked leather seat, Jake placed Ben on her lap. The boy curled into her, cradling his arm.
“He needs to be buckled in.”
Jake hopped in the driver’s side and backed down the lane.
Ben had quieted, his breaths coming in shuddery spasms. She had a bad feeling his arm was broken.
“How you doing, little man?” Jake asked once they were on the main road.
“Fi—fine.” The word wobbled pitifully.
“How far’s the hospital?” Meridith asked.
“Seven, eight minutes.”
Meridith gripped the door as Jake took a corner fast. She nearly told him to slow down, but Ben’s whimpering stopped her. She hoped they’d give him something for the pain immediately.
It was nice of Jake to give them a ride, but she wondered how they’d get home. She’d have to call a cab or ask Rita to come after them.
It seemed like an hour later when Jake swung into the hospital parking lot. She tightened her hold on Ben as he screeched to a halt at the ER doors.
Jake put the truck in park, and Meridith fumbled for the doorknob.
“I’ll get him.” Jake rounded the truck, opened her door, and pulled Ben carefully from her arms.
Once inside, she approached the admissions desk while Jake set Ben in a chair.
“I’ll park the truck,” he said. “Be right back.”
Jake stood when Meridith entered the waiting room. A nurse wheeled Ben to the door, which opened automatically. Ben’s cast looked wet and heavy. His eyes were closed, his head lolling against the chair back.
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s nicely sedated,” the nurse said, then turned to Meridith. “Here’s the prescription, and you’ll need to make an appointment with his pediatrician.”
Meridith nodded. “What about school?”
“He should be able to go back Monday. Is he right-handed?”
“That’s good. He might need those painkillers the next couple days, and remember to keep the cast dry.”
“I’ll get the truck.” The chill in the air felt good against Jake’s heated skin. He’d hated waiting in the lobby while Benny was so upset, but he could hardly insist on going back. Besides, it had given him time to pray for the kid. As if the boy hadn’t already suffered enough, now this.
He felt awful about the ladder. Guilty. And he hated the way it felt. Like he’d let Benny down again.
The kid was fine now, though, he reminded himself. Resting peacefully. He was glad they’d given him pain meds. Meridith had probably insisted. He’d been surprised she already had the kids on her insurance. But on second thought, he expected no less.
When he pulled the truck to the door, the nurse wheeled Benny out. Jake picked him up and set him in the middle. By the time he was behind the wheel, Ben was slouched across Meridith’s lap.
“He’s sound asleep,” Meridith said. She set her hand on the little boy’s shoulder awkwardly, as if she didn’t know where to put it.
“Best thing for him.” He turned toward the pharmacy.
“Where are you going?”
“You don’t have to do that. We’ve kept you out late enough.”
“He’ll need the pain meds in the morning.” Jake turned on the heat. Meridith was probably cold in that short-sleeved sweater.
While they waited for the prescription, she called home and checked on the kids again. He could tell from her end that the guests had arrived and retired to their room.
She was still on the phone with her friend when he pulled out of the pharmacy parking lot. “No,” she was saying. “You go on home.
We’ll be there in a matter of minutes . . . Did he ask me to return his call?”
Lover Boy must’ve called. Jake eased around a corner, then flipped off the heat.
Meridith closed her phone.
“Your friend headed home?”
“Yes. Her daughter needs help with math.”
As silence settled around them, he reviewed the evening for the dozenth time, remembering the grimace on Meridith’s face when Ben had fallen, the worry lines etched across her forehead. If he’d doubted she cared about the kids, those doubts had faded. Maybe she went about it wrong, but there’d been no mistaking her concern.
All that time in the waiting room had given him too much time to think. She seemed far too normal to be bipolar. Some quirks, sure, but nothing dangerous or crazy. But, he reminded himself, a person with bipolar disorder could have frequent and extended periods of normality between the depressed and manic phases. He had to remember that. Couldn’t let those sea-green eyes beguile him.
“Thanks for the ride. That was above and beyond.”
“Wanted to be sure the little man was okay. My fault anyway.” He’d be more careful in the future. No ladders left standing, no nail guns left on.
“I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Shouldn’t have left the ladder up.”
“Let’s just call it an accident. The doctor said it was a minor break. Should heal in three to four weeks.”
Ben shifted, heaved a deep sigh, then settled.
“Just glad he’s not in pain anymore. He’ll have fun drawing pictures on the cast, getting autographs. When the itching starts, tell him to use a blow drier set on cool to blow air inside it.”
“You’ve broken an arm?”
“And a leg and a wrist.”
“Oh my. You must’ve been a handful.”
He chuckled. “And then some.” He had a feeling some of his escapades would shock the stockings right off her. But with the kind of childhood he’d had, he was lucky he wasn’t rotting in jail.