Authors: Molly O'Keefe
“Hey.” Lucy lifted her hand in a little wave.
“Hey.” Aaron’s voice broke over the word and he got so red the tips of his ears lit on fire. He vanished down the hall to the laundry room.
“I came by to do a car exchange, but Reese wasn’t up yet.”
The lump on the couch groaned and pulled the quilt up over his head.
“Still isn’t.” Jeremiah sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. “Casey, buddy, could you stop crying?”
Like a faucet was turned off, the whimpering stopped.
“Are you mad?” Casey whispered.
“Of course not,” Lucy answered for him.
“Yes, he is,” Ben said, always ready for a fight, and Jeremiah sighed again—bone-weary of these fights he never won no matter what he did.
“Come on, Casey and Ben,” Lucy said, “let’s get this stuff cleaned up.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Jeremiah said, stepping forward to take one of the towels in Casey’s hand.
She smiled at him, sympathetic and perhaps a little pitying, which was exactly the opposite of the way he wanted her to look at him and it pissed him off. He wanted her to look at him the way she had last night. He wanted that little bubble of time to be unbroken, unsullied by reality, so he could think about it alone in his cold bed. But having her here, in the unflinching light of day, robbed him of the fantasy.
“I’ll just take you home.” He was way gruffer than he intended and he saw Casey look over at him full of anxiety.
God, I just cannot get this shit right.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lucy said, picking up toys and stacking them on the coffee table.
“You don’t have to clean this up.” He stepped forward, taking the toys from her, trying to get her to stand. Trying actually to get her out of here, but she was stubbornly reluctant.
“It’s almost done, isn’t it, Casey?” She winked at Casey, who’d thrown all the kitchen towels over the lake of water next to the couch.
Great, just great. Now, I’ll have to dry all of them.
But Casey beamed at her and it was the last damn straw.
“I said stop!”
Everyone halted and turned to stare at him. Casey’s lower lip started to tremble. The front door slammed shut and he figured that was Ben running out to the barn, which is what he did every time Jeremiah yelled.
“Okay.” Lucy stood and dropped the car keys on the coffee table. “Don’t worry about the ride, I’ll just call Mia and wait for her outside.” She gave Casey a big grin and the little boy stared after her with his broken heart in his eyes.
“See you,” Lucy said without making any eye contact, and Jeremiah knew, he totally understood, that he was the biggest asshole in the world. Yelling at kids and a woman who were just trying to help.
The front door shut and in the silence Casey’s big five-year-old eyes damned him.
“Hey.” Aaron came back in the room reeking of that deodorant all the preteen boys wear, convinced the smell made them irresistible to girls. “Where’s Lucy?”
“Jeremiah scared her away,” Casey said.
“Uncle J.” Aaron sighed and then walked into the kitchen for something to eat.
“I was a jerk, wasn’t I?” he asked Casey, who nodded.
“I should apologize, shouldn’t I?” Casey nodded again.
Swearing under his breath, he grabbed Reese’s keys from the coffee table and headed outside to apologize to Lucy.
* * *
her phone. Probably because she and Jack were having wild monkey sex while Lucy stood here getting barked at by a man she’d almost had sex with just a few short hours ago.
She snapped shut her cell phone and looked up at the sky wishing there was some kind of prayer for teleportation. Mom hadn’t shared that one with her.
She spun at the sound of Jeremiah’s voice. He stepped down the steps to the asphalt and she opened her phone and quickly pressed Redial.
“Look, Jeremiah, I get it, things are tough for you, but frankly, my life is no picnic right now. So, why don’t you just go deal with your mess and I’ll deal with mine?”
He ignored her, stopping a foot from her. “I’m sorry, Lucy.”
Mia’s voice mail came on and she snapped the phone shut.
“Your sister’s not around?”
His smile was a variation on his million-dollar grin, more devastating because it was tarnished at the corners. “I can take you home.”
Past caring about his feelings, she looked him right in the eye and didn’t bother mincing words. “I think you have bigger problems to deal with.”
She watched him bristle, his blue eyes dark.
“Where’s Ben?” she asked.
“Probably in the barn.”
“He do that a lot? Run away?”
“Enough that I know he’s in the barn.”
“I’m giving him and me a chance to cool down,” he interrupted. “I appreciate your concern, but I’ve been doing this for a year, Lucy. You met these boys five minutes ago.” He held up Reese’s keys. “Take Reese’s car. He’ll come and get it when he gets off the couch.”
There was more she wanted to say. Plenty more. But what was the point, really? She grabbed the keys. “Thanks.”
“Yeah,” she snapped, remembering the way the touch of his hands turned her inside out, the way he kissed her like she was the best thing he’d tasted in years. She felt duped by that man in the moonlight last night. “See you.”
She got back in Reese’s car and peeled out of the driveway, leaving Jeremiah Stone in her dust.
he could no longer see the dust plume behind Lucy’s car.
Not your finest showing, Stone. Not at all.
If his sister were alive she’d take him by his ear and give him a good shaking. But the truth was, he’d suffered through months of women with the best intentions coming through this house with their casseroles and sympathy and he’d watched the boys run roughshod all over them. Using that well-meaning sympathy to their advantage.
Eating pie for dinner, sleeping all together in Aaron’s room, playing video games for hours at a time, not doing their homework. The last babysitter he’d hired had let Casey walk around with Annie’s favorite green towel, like it was a baby blanket. And Ben… Christ, that kid’s temper had grown out of control the past few months. He was like a lit bomb and Jeremiah never knew when he was going to go off.
It’s not that he didn’t think the boys needed sympathy, but they also needed rules. He needed rules. He needed some boundaries and Ben needed to know that he couldn’t just run off to the barn every time he felt like Jeremiah was being unfair.
Jeremiah mentally braced himself and headed into the barn. Usually Ben sat in the empty stall at the back, burying himself in the clean hay. But he wasn’t there.
“Ben?” he yelled, and then listened for a rustle or a creaking board. Nothing. He climbed up into the hayloft and only found the cats snoozing in the sunlight.
The nine-year-old wasn’t in the arena, or feeding any of the horses in the paddocks.
He tried; he really did, not to jump to the worst possible conclusion. But the worst possible conclusion was the kind of thing that happened to this family time and time again. And he couldn’t stop himself from imagining him running off along the fence line toward the creek and the high pastures and all kinds of trouble. His heart, feeding on worry and anger, pounded in his neck as he stomped toward the house.
He threw open the front door and stepped into the living room where Reese was finally sitting up, his head in his hands. Aaron and Casey were eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and watching ESPN.
“We got a problem,” he said.
“Could you not yell?” Reese groaned.
“Ben’s run off.”
“What else is new?” Aaron asked, not taking his eyes off the TV and the baseball highlights.
“He’s not in the barn.”
Aaron glanced over. Annie’s eyes were in Aaron’s man-boy face, and it brought Jeremiah up short every damn time he looked at the kid. Aaron put down the sandwich and stood. “Casey and I will take the ATV,” he said.
“I’ll saddle Rider and check out the creek.”
“What can I do?” Reese asked.
“Stay here in case he comes back.”
“Oh, thank God,” he muttered, and flopped backward on the couch.
“It will be okay, Uncle J.,” Aaron said as he and Casey put on their boots. “He always comes back.”
Grateful for the help and the optimism, Jeremiah clapped his hand on the eleven-year-old’s shoulder, wishing things weren’t they way they were. Wishing these boys could just be boys, and he could just be an uncle and that every situation didn’t have the capacity for disaster.
* * *
to the small house she grew up in. She was happy to see the red climbing roses her mother had cultivated through the years still creating a green canopy over the south end of the house. It wasn’t warm enough for blooms yet, but every summer the scent of those flowers filled the air that came in through the window of her old bedroom.
Rose was the scent of her childhood. Of a warm, safe home. It was the scent of her family all together. In Los Angeles Sandra grew roses in pots on the balcony of their condo. But they weren’t the same. The scent had to combat exhaust and smog and Mr. Lezinsky’s cabbage rolls. And they didn’t bloom with the same wildness, the same gorgeous display of excess, as they did here.
Sort of like Mom,
Lucy stopped the car in front of the yellow house with white shutters and a bright red front door. For the hundredth time this morning, she called her sister.
“Jeez, Lucy,” Mia finally answered, lewdly out of breath. “Take a hint, would you?”
“Oh, for crying out loud. I’m outside. Stop whatever it is you two are doing. We need to talk.”
By the time she got out of the car and past the roses, Mia had the door open and was kissing Jack as he walked out the front.
“Your shirt is buttoned wrong,” Lucy pointed out, and Jack’s hands flew to fix the buttons on the black shirt he wore, in the process revealing pale skin and muscle.
“Stop staring at my husband,” Mia said.
“I’m sorry, I can’t stop. I didn’t think hydro-engineers were supposed to have bodies like that.”
“Mine does. Now git.” Mia pushed Jack down the porch steps. “I’ll meet you and the architect in an hour.”
“Wait,” Lucy said, stopping Jack from walking down the steps. “We have a situation up at the ranch house.” She filled Jack and Mia in on Walter’s sprained ankle.
“How long was he sitting there?” Jack asked.
“Doctors said according to the amount of fluid in his foot at least two hours.”
“Stubborn son of a bitch,” Jack muttered.
“Well, he’s on an air cast and is supposed to stay off it for at least three weeks. And that’s best-case scenario. And now Mom is talking about staying until Walter gets on his feet.”
“Well, that’s handy, isn’t it?” Jack blinked at Mia and then Lucy, as if the problem were solved.
are so dense
“I’m not going to let our mom care for your dad. Not after what he did,” Lucy said.
“I agree with Lucy,” Mia said when it looked like Jack was going to argue. “We should just move back to the house,” Mia said. “I can—”
“No!” Jack said quickly. “I mean, I will move back if we have to, but…”
Mia ran a hand down his arm. That house didn’t have a whole lot of happy memories for Jack.
God, what a mess.
Lucy didn’t want to go home and she didn’t want to stay. She didn’t want Mom taking care of Walter, but it was utterly unfair to ask these two to do it.
Mom wants to do it,
she reminded herself.
“Mia,” Lucy said. “You guys deserve a little time alone. You’ve been caring for that man for five years.”
Jack and Mia shared a look and then Jack nodded. “We were just talking about this. Getting a ‘housekeeper’ who could act as a nurse.”
Mia pushed away from the white door frame to cup her husband’s cheek. It was too bad they were going to move out of this little house. It looked pretty on her sister. Sweet.
“It won’t be easy to find someone to take Walter on, much less get Walter to agree to it,” Mia pointed out.
“Well, Mom seems to think she knows how to get him to agree to a caregiver sooner rather than later.”
“How?” Mia asked.
“I have no idea, but Mom wants to stay for three weeks. By then he’s off the cast and the worst of it should be over. If I can’t get Mom to leave after three weeks, then I’m never going to get her leave.”
And three weeks should be enough time for me to figure out a plan for the rest of my life.
“You know,” Mia said, “if you need to get back to Los Angeles, you can. It’s not like Mom needs a babysitter.”
“You’ve done your time, Mia.” She smiled over at Jack, hoping she sounded convincing. “The two of you are building a house, starting a life. You don’t need to play referee between Mom and Walter.”
Mia sighed and put her hand on Lucy’s shoulder as if she could discern what was wrong just by touch. And she probably could. Lucy felt uncomfortable being so naked to anyone—even her sister. She fought the urge to shake off Mia’s fingers.
“Hey, Lucy?” Jack asked, his eyes focused on something past her head. “Who’s the kid in your car?”
She whirled in time to see Ben climbing out of the backseat of Reese’s car into the driver’s seat. The boy barely saw over the steering wheel, not that he was looking at them. Nope, the kid was focused on the steering wheel. The ignition key.
“Oh, Jesus,” she muttered, running down the steps of the porch just as Ben started the car.
The engine roared to life and she heard Jack and Mia charge down the steps after her.
“Stop!” she screamed, her heartbeat deafening in her ears. “Ben!”
The boy looked up, his dark eyes barely clearing the steering wheel. And then the car rocketed into Reverse and spun out, kicking up clouds of dust that choked and blinded her.
Frantic, she waved the dust away but it didn’t do any good, so she simply ran after the sound of the engine.
Oh, God, please don’t let him hit anything big.
Just as she sent the prayer skyward there was a sickening crunch and the terrifying sound of breaking glass. The dust cleared and she stopped at the sight of the back end of the car buried in the green roses on the side of the house.
She skid to a halt just as Jack ran past her and threw open the driver’s side door. She was a coward but she knew her heart couldn’t take seeing that boy hurt in the driver’s seat of that car. The blood and broken little bones.
Please, please let him be okay. Please.
“He’s fine,” Jack said, glancing at her over the roof of the car. “A little banged up, but fine.”
“I’m going to go see if the inside of the house is okay,” Mia said, and she ran back inside.
Ben, looking so small, so fragile, walked around the car and stopped in front of her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She laughed, a wild gust of breath. It was impossible to process what had just happened in…had it even been ten seconds? Ten seconds of terror and relief. She was light-headed. “I think maybe you need to save that apology for Reese. Look at what you did to his car.”
He glanced over his shoulder and hung his head, the black curls along his thin neck damp with sweat.
So small, so terrifyingly small.
“He scraped through a big patch of paint, but the structure of the house is fine,” Jack said as he came up. “The roses, however, are toast. You dodged a bullet, son.” Jack propped his hands on his hips and managed to look so disappointed even Lucy felt like apologizing.
“Does your uncle know where you are?” Lucy asked. She reached out to put a hand on Ben’s shoulder but he jerked away before she made contact.
“Well, we’re going to have to call him. He’s probably freaking out.”
“He’s always freaking out.”
“Doesn’t make what you did okay,” Lucy said.
“Not by a long shot,” Jack said. “You could have been hurt. Or you could have hurt someone else. Badly. You should know better, Ben.”
Ben’s jaw, remarkably similar to his uncle’s, set like concrete.
“I’ll go call Jeremiah,” Jack said, and stepped back toward the house.
“Do you have to tell my uncle?” Ben asked when Jack was gone. For the first time in the few hours she’d known him, the little boy looked his age.
Ben stared down at his boots, which were beat up and dusty.
“What were you thinking, Ben?” she whispered.
He jerked a shoulder, trying so hard to be cool. An instinct she understood all too well, and she applauded his effort. Hard to act cool when you’ve just plowed a hundred-thousand-dollar sports car into someone’s house, but he was giving it his best shot.
Things were bad at Stone Hollow, she thought, if a nine-year-old boy had to pretend to be so hard. Worse than she’d thought and she wondered if anyone knew it.
“He hates me,” Ben whispered.
Lucy gaped at the boy, at the heartbreak and anger. This was bad, really bad. And she had no idea what the boundaries were. Or the rules. Jeremiah wouldn’t like her interfering but Ben was a nine-year-old boy in a lot of pain who needed all the help he could get. “Oh, honey, no, he doesn’t—”
“Yes, he does,” Ben spat. “And I hate him, too. I do. I hate him. He’s not my dad.”
“Jeremiah’s on his way,” Mia said, coming around the side of the house. She glanced over at the car and winced. “So much for Mom’s roses.”
“I’m sorry,” Ben whispered.
Mia laughed and handed Ben a glass of water. “Not as sorry as you’re gonna be when your uncle gets here.”
* * *
sports car covered in slaughtered rosebushes and wished he had one clue about how to handle this. One single clue. A hint. He wished he could have a five-minute conversation with his sister for some guidance, because he was totally in the dark. He tried to think of what his own father would have done in this situation, a tactic that usually helped him in whatever parenting dilemma he was facing. But Jeremiah had never caused the kind of trouble Ben seemed drawn to.
So he stared at those rosebushes, the yellow clapboard house with the—
—cement foundation, and waited for the answers to come to him.
“The house is fine,” Jack said, and Jeremiah nodded as if that was the much-needed answer to a question. But the truth was he didn’t care about the house right now. He cared about the sullen, wild-eyed nine-year-old ball of anger to his left.
What about Ben?
he wanted to ask.
Is he fine? Will he ever be fine again? Will any of us?
Reese started up his car and slowly pulled it away from the house. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as if they’d all been expecting the house to fall apart. The back of the car looked like an accordion. A broken and very, very expensive accordion.
“You,” Jeremiah said through his teeth, unable to even look at his nephew, “will be working at the ranch until you’ve paid off repairs to that car. In fact, I think you’re grounded until you’re about thirty and if you even—”
Lucy cleared her throat and he glanced sideways at her, infuriated at her interruption.