The Trouble with Bree (Spotlight #1.5) (3 page)

BOOK: The Trouble with Bree (Spotlight #1.5)
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He raised an eyebrow. “So we’re both breaking the rules.”

My phone rang before I had a chance to say anything. It couldn’t have been anyone but Daisy. My blood ran cold. “Are you going to answer that?” Josh asked.

I said a quick prayer for good news as I put the phone up to my ear. But Daisy’s sobs told me everything that she couldn’t.

Ev didn’t make it.

Letting the phone fall from my ear when the conversation ended, I stared into space but saw nothing. The shock blocked everything, the tears, the emotion, all of it.

“Hey,” Josh said softly and I jumped as he put his hand on my knee. “That didn’t sound like good news.”

I shook my head, trying to make the words come, and that’s when I lost it. Josh wrapped his arms around me and let me cry on his shoulder. “She’s dead.” I finally managed, something cracking inside of me when I said it. “But the baby made it.”

“Jesus.” Josh pulled me in closer. “How far along was she?”

“Not even six months. He’s going to be in the hospital for a long time.” I could only pray we weren’t having this conversation again in a couple weeks for the baby.

“They can work miracles now.” His hand moved softly up and down my back. I should have pulled myself away from him, but instead he moved his fingers up to my hair and I nestled in closer. “We have quite a few kids enrolled that were born very prematurely that are doing just fine. Babies are troopers.”

“I know. But he needs his mother, and she can’t be there for him.” I broke down all over again. He’d lost everything before he even took his first breath on his own. It wasn’t fair.

“Yeah.” Josh sounded far away. “I bet that kid surprises you.”

I smiled, knowing that any kid that had Ev as a mother, even if he’d never get to meet her, wouldn’t give up without a fight. “I bet you’re right.”

Chapter Six

Losing Ev blew a hole in all of our lives. There were so many times that I wanted to pick the phone and ask her about something that no one else could answer for me. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of her. A song would come on the radio she had loved to sing, or I’d see something she’d be able to finesse into awesomeness. Daisy looked like she’d had a limb ripped from her body, empty and drained.

It was the first day after the services, and the boys were being awful, fighting with each other about everything. Or maybe my patience was just fried. It didn’t matter what the cause was, they were driving me crazy. I’d just sent Landon to his room to get him away from his brother, and he was howling in protest.

“Sounds like things are pretty interesting over there,” Josh chuckled when I answered his call. I almost didn’t, I was so exhausted it actually took effort to speak.

“That’s behind a closed door.” He must have thought I was a horrible mother. He worked with kids, so he should understand. “And over Legos, I might add. Which there are approximately a million of in this house.”

“The right Lego piece can make or break a project.” Josh sympathized with Landon. Lucas was happily playing with the Legos in the middle of the living room floor now that his brother wasn’t trying to be the boss of him. “Maybe it’s a guy thing, but the tantrum makes a little more sense to me now.”

“If I had any government secrets right now, I’d spill them to get him to be quiet.” I rubbed my forehead, but the only thing that was going to make this headache go away was a nap. That was never going to happen. “I missed you the last couple of days.”

And I was terrified he wasn’t going to call me again. Normally I wouldn’t be sitting around waiting for some guy to call me, but I wasn’t going to mess with his job. This was something I had to let him do. But he did it, and I wasn’t going to let him second guess himself.

“I missed you, too. Are you going to be free anytime soon?” he asked.

Old Bree would have said no, she was busy, and played games. But if I’d learned anything this week, it was that I didn’t have time for that shit anymore. “Yeah.”

“If I remember correctly, you were looking for some career advice. And I believe that I suggested that dinner would be the perfect place to discuss your future?”

Landon let out a pathetic howl. Just to make sure he wasn’t bleeding profusely, I opened the door a crack, and he was even more pissed off to see the huge smile on my face. He buried his head in his comforter and whimpered, and I leaned against the door after I closed it again, trying not to laugh.

“That does sound like a very solid plan.” I let my giggles out. Landon kicked the wall, bringing reality rushing back. “But my mom had the kids all week. She’s going to be too tired to babysit again for like a year.”

“What if we brought the boys with us?” Josh suggested. I was glad he couldn’t see my eyes almost fall out of my head. “They do like to eat dinner, right?”

“They like chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs and cut up hot dogs, both of which are served in all fine dining establishments.” I laughed. “Are you sure about this?” I mean, seeing me on the sly was one thing, but going out in public with Landon? Another howl came from behind the door. I wasn’t sure anyone would want to be seen in public with that kid right now, but Josh was playing with fire.

And I knew better than this, bringing guys around the boys too soon. Everyone wanted to make nice with my kids when they were trying to impress me, but they forgot all about them when they didn’t want anything to do with me anymore. It was bad enough when some jackass made me cry because he left me, but when he did it to my kids, that made me murderous.

“Yeah. Bree, there are two things you’re going to learn that I take very seriously: food and the future. They’re the two things you can control to ensure your own happiness.”

**

My first official date with Josh was at Friendly’s. We had two little escorts in tow, three if you counted Bish. Even though Josh had already been to the house, the kids didn’t know that, and we decided that it was best to meet at the restaurant.

“Do you guys remember Mr. Maxwell?” I asked, feeling foolishly formal. Landon nodded, smiling, and Lucas handed him Bish. Josh had no idea what high praise that was.

“I know this guy.” Josh examined Bish closely before twisting him back and forth to make him look like he was swimming before Lucas took him back, squealing with laughter. “You guys can call me Josh.”

That
could cause some problems on the first day of school. I raised an eyebrow, but Josh shrugged it off. “The mister thing is just too weird. I’m not going to use it at school.”

So Josh didn’t take well to convention. Good to know. I let Lucas slide down my body once we got in the lobby, and Josh looked like he wanted to do….something. He raised his hand but didn’t touch me. “You look great,” he said.

“Thanks.” I didn’t go all out, since we were at a pretty casual place. But this was the first time Josh had seen me with makeup on, I wore my hair down, and put on the cutest top I had.

The hostess brought us to a booth. By the time I buckled Lucas into his booster seat, Landon and Josh had their heads together, crayons in hand, working on the treasure map on the back of the place mat.

“I haven’t been to a Friendly’s in forever.” Josh tapped his foot under the table as he considered the menu.

“Nothing’s changed. A couple new ice cream flavors, that’s it.”

“Nice.” Josh put down his menu and nudged Landon. “What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?”

Landon considered this very important question carefully. “Strawberry.”

“That’s news to me.” I think he’d had it once.

“What about you?” Josh asked Lucas.

“Chocolate.” That was more like it.

Once we ordered burgers for ourselves and hot dogs for the boys, Josh got down to business. “So you wanted to know about becoming an administrator?”

“Well, yeah.” To be honest, I’d been more interested in doing career research before I’d spent two hours cuddling on the couch with him. Maybe he was trying to keep up the professional façade in public, but it threw me for a loop. “You’re so young, and, well how old are you?”

“I’m twenty-six.” I was close. “You?”

“I’m twenty-one.” I waited for the inevitable look that came any time anyone did the math on that one, but it didn’t come. “Anyway, it’s a pretty big position, and now that I know you went straight into that, I guess I’m intrigued.” And pretty impressed. I’d be lucky if I got my associates degree by twenty-six.

“I’ve watched a lot of kids slip through the cracks.” Josh looked down at his hands, then back up at me. Something in his eyes had changed, and I had a feeling he’d pulled himself up out of one of those cracks. “I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to more kids.”

“I think that’s one of the reasons I was interested in why you did it.” I understood more than I wanted to. “People like to make a lot of decisions for you when you’re a kid, and they’re not always the right ones.”

“Exactly.” He smiled, but he bit his lip. “You said you were taking classes?”

“I’m starting in a couple weeks. Now that Landon will be in school a couple days a week, and Lucas is old enough that he can entertain himself for a little while, I can do it. But it’s just a couple of classes, online.”

Josh shook his head. “Don’t discount what you’re doing, Bree. It’s a big decision to start school. You should be proud of yourself.”

My belly warmed, it had been a long time since anyone even suggested that. “I am.” Maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but it was the first thing I’d done for myself in a long time, and I was excited about it. “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but if I waited to figure that out, I’d never start anything.”

“Nope. Sometimes you just have to jump.” The waitress brought us our sodas and Josh paused to take a sip. “When they offered me this job, I moved here from New York, no questions asked. I knew I wasn’t going to get an opportunity like this again if I waited for everything to be perfect.”

“You should have been a motivational speaker.” I nudged him under the table with my knee, but I didn’t expect him to catch my leg, leaving his hand on my knee.

Above the table, serious as ever. He was going to make me explode. “What classes did you sign up for?”

“English composition and psychology.” I don’t know why I was excited about psychology, but I was. “Just basic stuff.”

“Good place to start.”

“Mama, I don’t like it.” Landon made a face like he’d been poisoned and pushed his strawberry milk away.

“You just said that was your favorite.” I sighed, then took a sip to make sure nothing was wrong with it. Delicious. I switched his drink with Lucas’ chocolate milk. Lucas would eat anything I gave him, and Landon was happy. Problem solved.

Josh’s hand was still on my knee. “We don’t have to be so formal, you know,” I said, bouncing my leg up and tossing a sideways glance to the kids, who were happily coloring on their mats. “They don’t judge.”

When our eyes caught, Josh’s expression was anything but businesslike. Heat rose in my cheeks. The kids might not judge, but I’d never been out on a date in this stage of a relationship with them. It was strange and confusing, and as much as I was starting to like Josh, it was totally unnerving. But like he said, if I waited for everything to be perfect, nothing was ever going to happen.

The waitress brought our food, and it snapped the bolt of electricity that was surging between the two of us. I got the kids’ food situated, then put ketchup on my burger.

“You’re good at this,” Josh said softly. I looked up at him, still chewing, puzzled. “Does anyone ever tell you that?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.” I looked down at my plate, then back up at Josh. “Eating?”

He shook his head. “No, with the kids. I know it’s not easy. But you make it look that way.”

“Oh.” He was right. “No, no one ever says that.” A lot of people liked to give me what I made myself think of as constructive criticism for my own sanity. Compliments were few and far between. “Thank you.”

“I have an idea. Do you want to get ice cream down at the waterfront and bring these guys to the park?” Two excited sets of eyes turned toward Josh at the P word, then to me. Like I had any choice once
that
suggestion had been put on the table.

I laughed. “Let me just get one thing straight. Are you dating me or dating them?”

He shrugged. “I thought you guys were a package deal.”

“Mr. Maxwell, you are a very smart man.” The kids were still waiting for the verdict. “Of course we can.”

Chapter Seven

Everyone was covered in ice cream minutes after we got to the park. I’d come prepared, and cleaned up the boys and Bish with baby wipes once they finished their cones, then handed one to Josh.

“You’re not going to do it for me?” He raised an eyebrow. The boys had already run over to pirate house, and we were alone for the first time tonight. The park had quieted, most of the kids had gone home for dinner.

“Come here.” I started with his hands, slowly wiping the cloth down each of his fingers and his forearms, then grabbed a clean wipe from my bag and traced this lips, our eyes locking. “How’s that?”

He grabbed my hand, wipe still in it, and slid his fingers between mine. Moving our hands down, he pulled me in to him. I was trembling, my eyes only breaking contact with his to make sure the kids were okay. Lucas needed to be watched really closely on that thing.

“It’s good.” Josh put his fingers under my chin and moved my eyes back to his. We were so close, and I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. There were still a few kids running around, their parents on benches, but I had to block it all out as Josh leaned in close and kissed me right below my lips. “You had a little bit right there,” he murmured against my chin.

It had been a long time since I’d had my first kiss at a playground. Like since I was fourteen and had to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night. This one was way hotter.

Lucas tackled my legs, pushing me into Josh. “Swings!”

“Where’s your brother?” I asked, horrified that I didn’t know. Lucas motioned toward the swings. Landon lay on his stomach over the swing, head and legs hanging close to the dirt as he moved back and forth. “Shit.” I picked up Lucas and dragged Josh over with my free hand.

“I’m sorry.” Josh trotted to keep up with me. “I got caught up in the moment.”

“Please. Don’t be.” I wasn’t mad at him. I was just mad at myself. We got the boys strapped into the little kid swings after I peeled Landon away from the regular ones. He didn’t like it, he had big boy envy so bad, but he wouldn’t like cracking his head open, either. “Are you sure about this? Me? Us?”

Josh pushed Lucas, and wrinkled his brow. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s always going to be like this. It’s not ever going to just be us, and the kids don’t ever follow any plan.” That bothered some guys, including their fathers. “It’s fun tonight, but sometimes it’s definitely not fun. I just want to make sure you realize that.”

“Bree.” Josh gave Lucas a big push and then came over to me, slipping his arm around my waist. I stepped away from Landon’s swing, I only had a couple seconds before my services were called for again. “Stop worrying so much. I know what I’m doing.”

I reached up and touched his face, running my fingers over the stubble on his cheek. The sensation gave me shivers.

“Mama!” Landon reprimanded me. Time was up. “Push me!”

At least one of us knew what we were doing.

**

Josh waited for me behind the car as I buckled the boys in. “I had a great time tonight.” I said, nervous as I stepped toward him. The sun had begun to fall, casting shadows over his face. His green eyes still burned bright.

“I did too. Thanks for letting me hang out with the boys,” he said. I opened my mouth to speak, and he put his finger on my lips. “I’m looking forward to getting to know all of you.” Before I could ruin the moment by saying anything, Josh leaned in and kissed me. At first he just pressed his lips against mine, and I thought that might have been it, but then he pulled my bottom lip with his teeth. As I laughed against his lips, he came inside, softly stroking my tongue. He leaned against the back of my car, and I let myself fall against his body, losing track of everything.

I could have stayed there all night, kissing Josh against my trunk. Old Bree would have invited him back to the house, and had him spend the night. But everything was different this time. I forced myself to peel away from him. “I’ll see you soon?” I asked.

He nodded, and if I didn’t make a break for it, I’d repeat every mistake I’d ever made. The boys waved to Josh as we drove away until he faded out of sight.

There was another car parked in my spot when I got home. I knew exactly who it belonged to, and I braced myself for impact. I parked in a visitor spot, and carried Landon, who’d fallen asleep, in one arm, and held Lucas’ hand with my other.

“Daddy!” Lucas broke away from me as soon as he saw Troy sitting on the stoop. Troy crushed out his cigarette before Lucas tackled him. I could barely breathe. He may not have left me with any visible scars, but he might as well still have his hand on my throat.

“Hey, buddy. I missed you.” Bullshit. Troy kissed Lucas on the top of the head and then glared at me. My blood ran cold. “What the fuck, Bree?”

“Don’t talk like that in front of Lucas.” I brushed by him, opening the door. Troy caught it, and stood up to follow me, carrying Lucas. I didn’t want him to come into the house, but he was holding the ultimate playing card on his hip. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

Troy laughed, slamming the door behind him. “You stupid bitch, you need to look at a calendar.” I pretended he wasn’t there as I took Landon into the bedroom, taking off his shoes before tucking him in. I kissed him on the forehead and went back to deal with the shitstorm that was about to break out in the living room.

Valentine’s Day was over six months ago. With everything that had happened with Anthony stealing my wallet, and of course Ev, I’d totally lost track of time. But Troy hadn’t, and time away hadn’t softened his rage. I should have petitioned to have the restraining order renewed before it expired. He had me right where he wanted me.

“What do you want?” I crossed my arms in front of my chest, standing by Lucas. He’d already started playing with his Legos. Troy sat on the couch like he owned the place, legs wide, elbows on knees, ready to pounce.

“Where the fuck were you?” He continued his insane interrogation, each word coming out of his mouth like a bullet fired from a gun. If anyone had questions, it should have been me.

“None of your business.” I hoped he couldn’t see me trembling, because that’s what he wanted. He fed off my fear like most people drank coffee. I realized I left my bag and my phone in the car when I saw he was here. Shit. “You need to go.”

Troy stood up and got in my face. “I’m not fucking going anywhere until you tell me where you were,” he said through clenched teeth. “I’ve been texting you all night and you ignored me. I want to see my son.”

“He’s right here.” I glanced down at Lucas, who wasn’t even fazed by this. Then I lifted my chin back up to Troy, refusing to back down. “I took the boys out for dinner and to the park.” This was never going to end if I didn’t answer his questions.

“Where you getting your money from?” He lunged closer, and laughed when I flinched.

“Not from you.” He’d never paid me a dime of child support.

His palm cracked across my cheek hard enough to make me stumble. Lucas wailed as I tripped over the Lego box and fell in the middle of the living room. Troy had never hit me before. He yanked me back up, and I wasn’t ready for it, I slumped against his body and he grasped my shoulders. “Who is he?”

“Get out.”

Troy hit me again, and my lip split on impact. But I couldn’t get away from him, his fingernails dug into my arms. Lucas wailed at the sight of blood on my lip. “Look what you did,” he said, like it was me who made Lucas cry.

“He was perfectly happy before you showed up.” Lucas sobbed at my feet, and I ripped myself free of Troy so I could sink down and hold him. I needed it as bad as he did right now.

“Fuck you, Bree.” Troy kicked me repeatedly, making sure I knew exactly what he thought of me. I cradled Lucas to make sure none of the blows connected with him. If Lucas wasn’t there, I would have gotten the hell out of there, but I was terrified he’d miss me and kick Lucas by mistake. I was too afraid to send Lucas away for the same reason. Troy had never hurt the kids, at least I didn’t think he ever would. When he got like this, blinded by whatever enraged him, all bets were off.

Landon ran out of his room, awake now, screaming once he realized what was happening. I knew he wanted to come over to me, and I wasn’t sure I could shield them both. “Go back to your room, baby.”

He didn’t move. “Mama!”

“Get out of here.” Troy snarled at Landon. He turned white, still frozen in place. “You little shit.”

“Don’t you dare talk to him like that!” I screamed.

Two cop cars pulled up in front of the building. Relief flooded through me. My downstairs neighbor must have called them. Although she wasn’t doing it because she gave a shit about what happened to me, she’d been trying to get me kicked out of here for months.

“You have company,” I said through gritted teeth. He’d kicked me in the same spot about six times and it hurt like hell. “Let the cops in.”

“You called the fucking cops?” He grabbed a handful of my hair, pulling me up to his face.

“No. But they’re here,” I gasped, breathing heavily to not give into the pain. Mashing his lips together, he slapped me again before letting go of me. I fell in a heap on top of Lucas. It was out of my hands now. The police were banging on the door, demanding to be let in.

The cops were familiar with me, with Troy, and they didn’t have to ask that many questions. My bloody face and hysterical sons told them everything they needed to know. Once they cuffed Troy and dragged him out of the apartment, one of the officers sat down beside me in the middle of the living room floor.

“I know you,” I said as I wiped the tears away from my eyes. Now that Troy was gone, it was safe to cry. “You brought me and my friend to the hospital last week.” This guy was like my guardian angel.

He nodded, looking so sad. “That wasn’t your sister, was it? I was sorry to hear she didn’t make it.”

“No. My friend’s sister. And thank you. Again.”

“What happened tonight? Does that guy live here?”

Lucas had finally calmed down, but he still pressed his little body against me. Landon had come over to us, sobbing. My poor babies. They shouldn’t have had to see any of that. Ever. “No. I had a restraining order against him, but it expired.”

“You’re going to fix that?” the officer asked as he filled out his report and I nodded. “Do you think you’re going to press charges?”

“Yes.” I didn’t hesitate. There was a time that I wouldn’t have been able to stand up to Troy.

“Who’s this guy?” The officer motioned to Lucas, who buried his head against my shoulder. “Is he okay?”

“This is Lucas. His son.” I motioned toward the slider, where the lights from the cruisers still whirred red and blue shadows over the room. Troy’s head bobbed in silhouette in the back seat of the cruiser. “That’s why I can’t totally break ties with him. But he wasn’t supposed to be here tonight.”

I double locked the door behind the officer when he finally left, and slumped against it. Landon came up to me, hugging my legs. “Are you okay, Mama?”

“I am. How about you?” He nodded against my thigh. I winced, a bruise was blossoming in that spot and it hurt like hell. I was still shaking when I crouched down to hug him back. “I have an idea. Wanna sleep in Mama’s bed tonight? I’ll read you guys some stories?”

Landon smiled and nodded, and I sent him off to get some books while I cleaned myself up. My cheek was swelling, and my entire thigh was turning purple. My head was pounding, but my heart hurt the worst.

Once I stop shaking enough to concentrate on the words, I read to the boys until they fell asleep. I lay awake, terrified that Troy was going to come back, even though I was pretty sure he would be spending the night in jail. Even things like that didn’t go as planned. One of his friends could bail him out, or they could decide they didn’t need to keep him overnight. Troy had never acted like that before. Controlling, demeaning, and unreasonable, but besides the night he tried to choke me, he’d never raised a hand to me. And I was going to do everything I could to make damn sure he never did again.

BOOK: The Trouble with Bree (Spotlight #1.5)
9.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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