Authors: Judy Ann Davis
Tags: #Suspense, #Contemporary
Well, if Lucas had anything to say about it, Mike Fisher’s son was not going to be subjected to any sort of humiliation. He would take the boy and raise him, single-handedly if necessary. Todd was not going to become a foster brat, not if Lucas could help it. The Fisher name was finally going to crawl out of the slimy hole of nobodies. In addition, the petty Moniques of the world and anyone else who tried to stand in his way could go straight to hell. Clenching his teeth, he squinted at the road in front of him, irritated his thoughts had wandered out of control. Again.
He looked over at the passenger’s seat. The dainty techno-wonder had dozed off. She even slept neatly and organized, rolled into a tiny ball, on her side, hands clasped at her waist. He wondered whether she would be upset if they took a slight detour. Deciding it was best not to wake her, he swung onto the exit ramp, heading southeast of the farm and turning into a small country lane where a sun-faded maroon house with peeling white shutters sat along the road. He pulled into the drive and cut the engine.
Elise roused, sat up, and yawned. “What time is it?” Her voice was thick, still husky from sleep.
“Around eight,” he said. How in hell could the mere sound of her voice make him catch his breath and send his stomach into a dive?
Elise pushed up her sleeve to check her watch. Frowning as soon as she realized it was in the trunk, she yanked the sleeve back into place. “Thank heavens, we’re home.” She peered out the window. Her brow wrinkled. “Oh, no, don’t tell me we’re lost.”
“Not exactly,” Lucas said. He had hoped she would continue to doze. It would have made everything easier. “I needed to make a small detour and see someone. Can you spare a few minutes?”
“Sure. Want me to wait in the car?”
He started to say, “Yes,” and then changed his mind, heaving a sigh. “No. Hell, why not? My life’s an open book lately. This is just another page in a chapter.”
He reached over, unlocked the glove compartment and took out a small bag.
“Is it a mystery, adventure, or comedy?” she asked with an amused look.
A damned tragedy, he wanted to say. Instead, he said, “You decide.”
“You came. I knew you would!”
The small voice at the top of the stairs halted the conversation before Elise was properly introduced to the elderly couple standing in the lighted entranceway.
A little boy, barefoot and wearing too-large, green pajamas that puddled around his tiny ankles, peered down at them. He held a battered storybook protectively against his chest, partially obscuring a picture of a dog she recognized as Copper from
The Fox and the Hound.
Taking the stairs two steps at a time, Lucas reached the boy and stopped. “Slight problem, Todd. Mr. Springer was hurt, and I had to take him to the hospital.”
“Is he going to die?” The child’s eyes grew large and wary.
“No, no, of course not. He’s fine,” Lucas assured him. He handed him the bag. “Here’s the animal crackers I promised you, but you must promise me you won’t eat them until tomorrow.” He scooped up the child and, with a little arm locked around his neck, returned to the entryway. “I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine.”
“Come, sit down,” said the elderly woman, whose last name Elise remembered was Johnson. “Can I get you something to drink? Miss—?”
“Elise. Elise Springer. No, I’m fine, thank you.” Elise smiled.
The small living room they entered was tidy and clean and reminded Elise of the Fifties. Square, dark tweed chairs and a sofa with walnut end tables lined the room’s perimeter and were strategically situated to face the television atop a metal stand in a corner. Through an opposite archway, she could see a well-kept kitchen with a red and white Formica table and vinyl-padded chrome chairs.
“He’s been peppering us all day with questions, ever since I told him you might not be coming today,” Mrs. Johnson said to Lucas, and turned to her white-haired husband standing beside her. “Hasn’t he, Hank?” She motioned for Elise to take a seat.
Elise chose a chair beside the sofa, its back draped with a colorful ripple afghan. Lucas, carrying Todd, buckled down onto the sofa beside Mrs. Johnson.
“I’m sorry,” Lucas said, settling the boy on his lap. “I hope he wasn’t too much of a bother.”
“No need to be sorry,” the elderly woman replied. “Accidents happen. Lord knows we’ve had our share of them over the years. Right, Hank?”
Her husband nodded and peered at Elise through wire-rimmed glasses. “So you’re Anton’s daughter? The architect?” When she nodded, he asked, “How’s your father doing?”
“Fine. Much better than I expected.”
“Good. Good to hear,” Mr. Johnson said, sounding genuinely concerned.
The uncomfortable silence that might have followed was punctuated, as if on cue, by the muffled sound of a phone.
“Her purse rings!” With a powerful leap for someone so little, Todd flew off Lucas’s lap, sending the box of animal crackers and his book skidding across the floor. He rushed over to stand a wary foot away from Elise’s knees.
“My cell phone,” she explained, feeling foolish under the stares of everyone present. She reached for her purse and withdrew the phone. “Elise Springer.” Relieved, she heard her youngest brother’s voice.
“I thought you shut it off?” Lucas interrupted.
She turned from the phone. “No, Lucas, you assumed I did.” She spoke into the phone and then turned back again to Lucas. “Fritz wants to know where we are.”
“Mulberry Road,” Mrs. Johnson supplied with a smile. “Just tell him the Johnsons’ place. He’s our insurance agent, so he’ll know. Such a nice young man.”
Elise relayed the information and then glanced at Lucas again. Beneath his visible air of calmness, she sensed irritation. “Fritz and Thomas are at the farm. They have the pizzas and want to know how long we’ll be.”
“Fifteen minutes.” The answer came out with a tired sigh. “Tell them to start without us.”
Elise repeated Lucas’s reply and disconnected, glancing up in time to see Todd curiously regarding her with huge gray eyes, the same color as Lucas’s.
“Can I see it?” Todd asked shyly. He inched his way toward her. He was a little charmer, Elise decided, with his cherub-like face and fine, flyaway blonde hair cut in a tattered bowl style.
“It’s not a toy, sport,” Lucas said.
“I just want to see it. It’s flat.” His tiny lower lip ballooned outward. “It’s not like Mrs. Johnson’s Jitterbug and it isn’t like the phone you washed, Uncle Lucas.”
“Washed?” Elise raised a quizzical eyebrow at Lucas and smirked. “Here, Todd, come and take a look.” She motioned to him, and he scrambled up into her lap. She resettled his needle-like elbow lodged against her ribcage and cupped his soft hands around the rectangular cell. The delicate scent of baby shampoo from his hair, still damp from a bath, reached her nostrils.
“How does it work?” he asked.
“It’s called a smartphone. I’ll show you. Do you know your numbers?”
When he nodded, she took his finger and positioned it over the on-screen number pad. “What’s the phone number here?” she asked Mrs. Johnson, memorizing them as the elderly woman spoke.
Elise repeated them slowly to the child, helping him locate the correct ones. He giggled each time a number chirped beneath his touch.
In the kitchen, the Johnson’s phone rang.
She glanced up to find Lucas intently watching them.
The phone sounded again.
“Okay, Lucas, snap out of it,” she admonished, nodding toward the wall phone. “You’re supposed to be the guy on the other end. We need a second party here.”
“What?” Lucas looked at her with baffled eyes.
“The phone. Pick up the Johnsons’ wall phone.”
“Oh, yeah, right.” He strode to the kitchen and plucked the receiver from the phone beside the refrigerator.
“Now say hello,” she whispered to Todd.
Warily, the boy put the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
“Hello, is this Todd?” she heard Lucas ask from the kitchen.
“Uncle Lucas!” he said, beaming. He turned to her, his eyes bright. “It’s Uncle Lucas!”
“Well, talk to him,” she coaxed.
? The boy had said uncle three times since they arrived. So this must be Mike Fisher’s son.
“What should I say?”
She smiled and snuggled the child closer. “Tell him, he has a nice car and a cute nephew.”
“Eee-lise says you have a nice car and a cute nephew.”
“Am I the cute nephew?” Todd asked in a whisper, swiveling and peering up into her face. A soft, tiny hand came up to brush her cheek.
“Yes, absolutely,” she whispered and saw him beam.
“Well, tell her thank you and say good-bye,” she heard Lucas say seconds later. From the kitchen, he stared at her through the archway. His eyes, a penetrating black from a distance, seemed to probe her very soul. She felt a tug at her heart as if the phone had strings.
“We have to hang up now, Todd. It’s way past your bedtime,” Lucas said.
“Bye. Oh, wait, did you find Ranger yet?” the little boy asked.
“No. Sorry, Todd, I’m still looking for him. There are a lot of boxes left at the cottage.”
“Okay.” Todd reluctantly relinquished the phone. “Can you come back? Tomorrow? With your phone?”
Lucas’s tall frame filled the archway. “Elise will be very busy the next few days, Todd.”
“For just a few minutes?” he pleaded. Disappointed, he pouted, hung his head, and stared at his bare toes.
“Sure. I’ll try,” Elise said. “Now, do what your Uncle Lucas says.”
“Okay.” Happy now, he slid off her lap, picked up his box of animal crackers and his book and padded to the bottom of the steps with Lucas behind him. Strong arms reached down and swung him up into them.
“Good night, Todd.” Elise waved at him.
“Night, Elise.” He waved back, twisting his little body in pretzel fashion to get a better view. The two disappeared from view, but not before she heard their puzzling exchange.
“Is Ee-lise a possum’s ability, Uncle Lucas?”
“No, sport, she lives too far away.”
The farm hadn’t changed much, from what Elise could see in the soft moonlit night when she arrived. The solid weathered gray barn stood peacefully in the wide yard with its twin silos guarding it like sentinels. Rosy warm lights flooded from the two-story house with a wraparound porch complete with a white wicker swing and colorful, floral-cushioned wicker chairs. Off to the right, a spacious farmhouse kitchen ran the full depth of the house. The entrance gave way to a solid oak staircase climbing up to four bedrooms and a glorious bath with an oversized bathtub.
Elise sank lower in the steaming water, listening to the loud antics of Lucas and her brothers below in the kitchen as they finished off the pizza and what she hoped was no more than a few beers. Beside the tub, Bess, her father’s Dalmatian, was stretched out on a blue throw carpet, patiently waiting for her to finish. The dog had become permanently attached to her the minute she walked through the door, and Elise surmised she was just simply missing her father. Anton had bought the pup eight years ago when Elise was in her third year at the university.
She heard the front door slam shut and a car roar to life. It would be Thomas, returning to his house in Wilkes-Barre fifteen minutes away. Earlier, he had given her a list of Home Health numbers to call to arrange for in-home help once her father was released from the hospital. In his usual efficient way, he had already enlisted a farmer down the road to tend to her father’s beef cattle. Anton Springer had given up his dairy cows six years ago, when he reached sixty-two. Elise at first thought the transition would be difficult, but he seemed to enjoy the freedom from the strict hours needed to manage milkers.
Drying herself quickly, Elise pulled on a navy sweat suit and headed for the now-quiet kitchen. Fritz had obviously headed for town as well. Beer can in hand, Lucas stood by the sink and was staring out the window at the inky blackness.
He turned to face her. “I thought you’d turned in for the night.”
She went to the counter beside him and pulled out the carafe from the coffee maker. If the number of beer cans littering the counters and table was an indication of how much he had downed, there wouldn’t be enough aspirin in the house to relieve his headache in the morning.
“If you’re fixing that for me, forget it.” He took a sip of beer, leaning against the refrigerator to watch her work.
“No, actually, it’s for me,” she said. It was partially true. When she worked late, she often enjoyed having a cup.
“Caffeine will keep you wired all night.”
She shook her head. “As a rule, it doesn’t.” In fact, she could guzzle coffee by the cupful and still fall into bed and be instantly asleep. Removing a can of coffee from the cupboard, she measured some coffee grounds into a filter. “So what have you been doing the last twelve years, Lucas?”
“Did my stint in the army, wandered a few years doing odd jobs, and then settled in Atlanta. I’ve been there ever since.”
He shrugged. “It was as good a place as any. I picked up a job in a small garage and got hooked on cars.” The barest of smiles crossed his face. “Not that I hadn’t been hooked before, mind you. I got bored with bars and blind dates and took a few night courses at Georgia State.”