Authors: Molly O'Keefe
“Twenty thousand dollars. That’s the penalty for backing out of the contract.”
Twenty grand. “Is that all?” she gasped, trying to force her lungs to work. “I thought they’d want a kidney. My firstborn.”
“Very funny,” Meisha said. “But you have options. You can declare bankruptcy.”
“And then what?”
“And then…you have no debt, but you also have no credit. You’ll need a cosigner for any loan.”
“What are my other options?” she asked, her eyes still closed.
“You can sell your condo. The market is shit, but…you might get enough to clear out the debt, or at least take out a good chunk of it.”
“We’ll sell the condo,” she said, making the decision in a heartbeat. Declaring bankruptcy seemed like an awful big shadow over the rest of her life.
“I’ll figure out what to tell my mom.” Another lie. More lies. One after the other.
“She’d just worry. And I don’t need her worry on top of mine. I’ll call my real estate agent.”
“All right. Keep me posted.”
Lucy opened her eyes only to look right into Walter’s watery baby blues. Watery baby blues full of reproach.
Her blood turned to sludge in her veins.
She stood, the chair screeching over the stone of the floor.
“You’re selling your mother’s home?” he asked.
“It’s my condo.”
“Where she lives.”
“You don’t judge me.”
He looked at her for a long time, his face immutable. He was made of freaking stone and her failures were like knives in her skin the longer she looked at him.
“Don’t say a word to her,” she spat.
He shook his head and quietly left. Limping toward the back patio and the cushioned deck chair he sometimes sat in.
Once he was gone, she stood there and shook.
* * *
getting Casey his thirtieth drink of water and making sure he went pee before finally turning off his light, Jeremiah stopped in front of Ben’s room.
The light was shining out from under the door, a thin sliver that wasn’t much of a welcome. It was nine o’clock and he had school in the morning, and then his gardening punishment with Lucy and the boy needed his sleep.
Jeremiah hung his head, bracing himself to be the bad guy one more time today. After the dinner battle and the shower battle and the cleaning-up-his-room battle. Now, the going-to-bed battle.
“Hey, Ben,” he whispered, knocking on the door as he pushed it open. Ben’s room was bare, his dresser and bed the only things in it. Jeremiah remembered the walls had been covered in SpongeBob SquarePants pictures and dozens of hand-drawn superhero action shots. But at some point, Ben had taken everything down.
When was that?
How do I keep missing these things?
Ben lay in the pool of light from the lamp clipped onto his bed frame. He was reading and very studiously ignoring Jeremiah.
“It’s pretty late, buddy.”
Ben turned a page.
“You’re going to Lucy’s tomorrow after school, remember?”
Jeremiah took a breath and turned to stare at the bare walls sloping down to the floor. A window dormer had been cut out and the night sky was full of stars. All of them as far away as the boy in the bed.
“You can talk to me,” he whispered, his throat burning. “I know…maybe it doesn’t feel that way all the time, but…you can talk to me about how you feel.”
He heard the quiet rustle of another page turning and then, not that he expected much different, more silence.
“Turn off your light in five minutes,” he said, stepping out of the room without looking at Ben.
Please, Lucy Alatore, please be the help we need.
* * *
in Walter’s room.
he thought, sweaty and disoriented. His stomach roiling with every breath. The fire was under his skin. He looked down at his body, naked and glowing on the bed. Christ. Was this hell?
Had to be. He’d plumbed the breadth and depth of awful on earth, there’d been no horrible stone unturned in his life and this—the burning body—was new.
He’d died. Thank God. Thank God the torture of trying to stop drinking was over. He took a breath, another. Too shallow. Not enough air.
“Walter.” He turned, trying to find that voice. Searching the shadows for the devil come to escort him to his just rewards.
There. By the window. Tall and thin, grim and unforgiving. His ex-wife.
“You,” he breathed.
“I told you, you would burn,” she sang. “This is what you get for coveting another man’s wife.”
“And what do you get?” he panted. “For what you did to that family. To our son.”
“You. You were my punishment.”
“Good.” He laughed at the thought. They’d deserved each other for a time there, he and his ex-wife. They were each other’s just rewards—he just felt so damn awful his son, Sandra and the girls got wrapped up in their war.
“You think you will win her like this?” Vicki hissed. “You think your son will forgive you for the way you turned your back? You think those girls are going to think better of you because you lie in your bed shaking and vomiting and sweating like some pig?”
“Go away,” he breathed.
“Never.” He could smell roses. “You aren’t half the man A.J. was.”
He sighed, the knowledge a stone in his gut, a weight in his heart. “I know.”
“You’ll never have more than me. You’ll never get anything better than the mess you made—”
Anger fed the fire under his skin and he pulsed with fury. “Shut up. I’m done with you.”
She laughed and he screamed, opened his mouth and spilled fire over her, until his lips cracked and his skin crackled. With a strength that surprised him, a speed he would never believed he possessed, he lunged up and toward her, grabbing her wrist. Real in the fever. Odd.
“Walter,” she said, her hand cool against his bare chest. The fire under his skin hissed at the contact. Like rain on a campfire. “You’re hurting me.”
“Good,” he said, holding on to that wrist. “You won’t win.”
“No. I can fight. I will fight.”
A cool hand touched his forehead. And the fire fled the area. He pressed the hand in his grip to his chest, over his heart and the fire darted away, scared of the power.
Suddenly exhausted he laid down. His eyes closing. He tried to hold on to that hand, to keep his grip on her, on everything, but it was impossible. He was being sucked down, down, down.
And just before sleep claimed him, he smelled roses again. And cumin.
* * *
had it all planned out. She waited for Ben in the back garden. Her mom would answer the door, calm him down because he’d probably be nervous. Give him something to eat because he’d probably be hungry. And then she would lead him out to the garden where Lucy would put him to work staking the vegetable plants.
Over the past few days she’d developed this theory, and the more time she spent with it, the more she believed in it. She would just ask him about his mother. She would talk to him, open him up. And like popping a blister, all that grief would pour out and then…he could heal.
He was clearly dying for someone to just listen. She could be that person. Hell, she’d be great at being that person.
So caught up in her daydream and potential plans of going to school to become a child psychologist, she didn’t hear her mother coming down the rickety steps to the garden until she cleared her throat right behind her. Lucy jumped a mile, pulling out a strawberry plant as she did.
“Crap,” she muttered, and tossed the plant to the side of the aisle. Mom stood beside Ben, who had his eyes narrowed and his arms crossed over his chest. He was throwing around a glower to rival his uncle’s.
“Here he is,” Sandra said, her eyes wide, sending Lucy the secret message that perhaps the plan was not starting with success. Mom wore a beautiful silver cuff around her wrist and it took Lucy a second to recognize it as something she’d made for her mother last year. She so rarely wore it.
she thought, as if the work were someone else’s.
“Have you had something to eat?” Lucy asked.
“I’m not hungry,” Ben muttered, dropping his arms to reveal the video game graphic on the front of his T-shirt.
Sandra shrugged and mouthed “good luck” before walking back up the staircase.
“You ready to work?”
“Gardening?” He sneered. His dark hair flopped over his eyes, making him older and younger at the same time. All the sweetness of his youth, going sour at the edges. The poor kid.
“You’d rather move rocks? Make license plates?”
He stared at her, her attempt at humor flying right past him.
“You’re going to help me stake the vegetable plants.”
She blinked at him, stunned by this sudden aggression. “I thought you wanted to be here!”
He pursed his lips and shrugged like some put-upon child pop star and she wanted to tell him he looked ridiculous. But instead, she took a deep breath.
“I think gardening is better than what your uncle had in mind.”
Ben muttered something under his breath that would no doubt get him in huge trouble with his uncle so Lucy choose to ignore it, largely because she had no idea how to handle a nine-year-old swearing under his breath at her.
It hadn’t even been ten minutes and this whole thing was already slipping out of her hands.
“Here,” she said. “Let me show you what I want you to do.”
She bent down to pick up the trellis things and the round green wire things she’d found in the back shed that she remembered from when she was a kid.
“These plants are peas and they’re—”
“Those aren’t peas.”
She looked up at him and then down at the plants. “What are you talking about?”
“They’re not peas.”
“How do you know?”
Ben licked his lips, the facade crumbling a little. “My mom… We used to have a garden. Those are going to be flowers.”
“Flowers.” Which meant she’d probably pulled out most of the peas. Great. Total fail. “Well, good thing I have such an expert with me.” She smiled, big and bright, and Ben’s face boarded right back up. Eyes narrowed, lips drawn in a downward curve.
she told herself,
this is about getting him to talk. Not about punishing him.
“Was it your mom’s garden?”
He blinked and she held her breath, waiting for the up swell in music, the small leak that would become a geyser of pain.
“I’m not doing this shit,” he muttered, and sat down on the ground.
“Ben…” She sighed.
“Tell my uncle, I don’t care.”
Right. Tell Jeremiah that Ben wouldn’t do the first thing she asked him to do? Not a chance.
“Look, I’m not a bad guy—”
He shrugged and she stiffened, offended by that shrug. As if that shrug spoke a whole new demeaning language all its own.
“You’re the one that ruined that car!” she cried, and somehow, in some way, she knew she was handing him all the power, but what the hell was she supposed to do? Bodily lift him up and force him to work? Wasn’t that illegal?
“Fine,” she said. “But you’re sitting there. The whole time. And you’re coming back tomorrow.”
He shook his head at her. “You’re crazy.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not the picture of mental health, kid.”
He scowled at her and she started to push the trellises into the earth around the flowers, winding the vines up and over the structures.
“That’s a pumpkin,” Ben muttered.
“Good,” she snapped, and kept on working.
with me,” Jeremiah muttered to Casey as the boy hopped up the steps toward the Rocky M’s front door.
“What if Sandra has banana bread again?” Casey asked.
There was no arguing with a five-year-old’s stomach. He’d learned that the hard way. But Jeremiah still wished the kid would just wait in the car with Aaron so he could pick up Ben and conduct his behavior interview with Lucy in relative privacy.
He put his hand up to knock on the heavy front door but before he made contact the door swung open and Ben poured out of the house like it was on fire.
“Hey,” he cried as the kid stomped past. “What happened?”
“It was great. Can’t wait to go back,” Ben said, and then kept on toward the car. Jeremiah shared a stunned look with Casey, who only shrugged as if to say,
What are you going to do?
A five-year-old with all the wisdom of the ages.
“Hey, Jeremiah,” Lucy said, leaning against the door like a teenage girl waiting for her date to pick her up, and he felt something smooth and sweet slip into his bloodstream. That old desire to flirt, to lean back and charm this woman’s secrets from her hands, to share a few of his with her—the harmless ones. The fun ones.
It was a powerful drug. Back in the early days of his rodeo career, he got ribbed all the time for nearly missing his call times because he’d be chatting up the girl at the snack bar.
But that was a million years ago and he stifled that smooth, sweet inclination.
“Hey, Lucy, how did it go today?” He put one foot on the first step of the porch and tipped his hat back. Casey copied him, his little boot on the step next to his.
“Good.” She nodded. “Just fine.”
He’d been expecting a little more. “Was he polite?”
“No.” She laughed but when he turned toward the truck, she stopped him. “Stop. I…didn’t expect him to be polite. But he was fine.”
“What did he do?”
“Did he do what you asked him to do?”
“I knew this was a bad idea. We can forget it. Just—”
“No, Jeremiah.” She touched his arm, the contact burning through his shirt and his disappointment. “Let’s not give up. Not yet.”
“Did he…did he say anything? At all?”
In the movies the kid would open up to the pretty stranger, pour out some of his grief. Maybe develop a crush that would pull him out of the pit of despair he seemed to live in. Jeremiah had no reason to believe anymore that life was anything like a movie, but he could still hope.
“No, Jeremiah,” she murmured, her eyes liquid with sympathy, “he didn’t say anything. But it was the first day.”
Behind Lucy, Sandra appeared, flushed and smiling. “Well, hello, boys,” she said, and Jeremiah tipped his hat, stupidly pleased when Casey did the same.
“Howdy, Sandra,” Jeremiah said.
Casey took the three steps up to the door. “Excuse me, Sandra?” he asked, and she smiled down at him.
Here comes the banana bread,
thought Jeremiah, not un-tickled that his nephew seemed to have Jeremiah’s way with women. There should be something of him in these boys he was raising.
“What are you having for dinner?” Casey asked.
“Brisket, corn on the cob, beans and a salad.”
“That sounds real good. We’re having peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.” Casey poured the orphan routine on thick.
“Casey,” Jeremiah groaned. “That’s not true.”
Well, not totally. There was something in the freezer he could pull out.
“That’s no way to feed a growing boy like you.” Sandra winked at Jeremiah over Casey’s head. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
“Yes!” Casey cried just as Jeremiah said, “No.”
Casey whirled and frowned at him as if he’d lost his mind. “Brisket, Uncle J. Bris-ket.”
“Three growing boys,” Jeremiah said to Sandra and the gape-faced Lucy. “They’re like locusts, honestly, they’d eat the cupboards if you let them… .”
“Excellent,” Sandra said. “We’ve got a fridge full of leftovers no one is eating around here. Go tell your brothers that they need to come in and shuck some corn.”
Casey jumped off the porch with a wild whoop and ran off to the truck to share the news. They were going to eat well tonight. But Jeremiah didn’t like feeling like an interloper, didn’t like spreading the burden of feeding three bottomless pits onto an unsuspecting Sandra.
“Wow,” Lucy said, looking at Jeremiah with twinkling eyes. “The kid is a smooth talker. I wonder where he gets that from.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Jeremiah said, ignoring Lucy. “He made us seem much worse off than we are.”
“I’m sure he did,” Sandra said. “But we would still love to have you. This house could use three growing boys in it for a night.”
“What about Walter?” Lucy asked.
“What about him?” Sandra asked, her face falling into stern lines. She twisted the wide silver cuff on her wrist, as if turning a key in a lock.
“Well.” Lucy laughed. “I’m pretty sure he won’t like having three growing boys here.”
“Then he can stay in his room,” Sandra snapped in a voice Jeremiah had never heard from the woman before. Sandra left and Lucy stared after her mother with a wrinkle set deep between her eyes.
He wanted to kiss that wrinkle. Slide his hands into the satin of her hair where it touched her shoulders, her neck. He wanted to warm himself against her skin, warm those places inside that had been cold for so long he no longer felt them. Her fire blazed in her eyes and the stubborn, knowing set of her shoulders.
The truck door slammed and the three boys ran past him with varying speed. Ben, sullen and dragging his feet, brought up the rear. In a flash Jeremiah saw how tonight might end. How Ben with his disdain could hurt Sandra and the thought made him furious. Sick to his stomach.
“Ben—” he snapped, as if the boy had already done something, and Ben flinched away from him.
always wrong. Always so damn wrong.
“Come on in, Ben. Mom’s going to put you to work,” Lucy said, ushering the boy inside, but not before he sent one poisonous look at Jeremiah over his shoulder.
Finally, standing alone outside the house where the sounds of the boys spilled out the front door, he realized, to his great shame, the person who might ruin it all was him.
* * *
cleared the hallway Ben shrugged her arm off.
“Ben.” She sighed.
Holy shit, did the kid ever give it a rest? “My mom is going to work very hard to feed you,” she said. “And it will be good food, too. If you’re rude to her or make her feel bad, you won’t ever get fed by her again.”
He looked at her a long time, trying, she could see, to hold on to his anger, but in the end his stomach won out and he just nodded. “Good, now go see how you can help.” Ben walked off into the kitchen and then Jeremiah stepped into the hallway, just behind her. The skin along her neck and the backs of her arms shivered at his proximity. She was too aware, all too aware, of the dangerous cowboy.
What would be so wrong?
a little voice in the back of her head whispered. What would be so wrong with a little comfort? Some release from the pressure that was building in her chest. What would be wrong with a little fun?
God. Fun. It seemed like such a foreign concept and she knew, despite the burden that rode Jeremiah so hard, he would be fun. In bed, he would be a carnival of delights.
And she wasn’t one for casual sex, didn’t really know how to do it, but perhaps now was her moment to try. Maybe not every relationship had to be some dramatic melding of souls. Maybe she could have one that was just about the occasional melding of bodies.
She had no idea how to do that, but she had the feeling Jeremiah was well versed.
What are you thinking? You made a deal—no more kissing.
Luckily, she had plenty of practice breaking deals.
“You want a drink?” she asked. “We’ve got some beer.”
“That would be great.”
The boys were shucking a giant bag of corn down by the garden and, after grabbing their beers, Lucy led Jeremiah out to the back porch so they could keep an eye on them.
Sandra was in the kitchen, pulling plastic containers out of the fridge with gleeful abandon.
“Thanks again,” Jeremiah said, gesturing with his beer toward the knot of boys sitting on the ground, corn silk floating around them. “For Ben.”
The silence pounded and shook between them and Lucy wondered if it would be better if they just stripped naked and did the deed on the splintered porch boards, or worse. Worse probably.
Jeremiah took exquisite care in tearing a strip off the beer label. She watched his wide blunt fingers with a weird fixated breathlessness. “I’m…I’m too hard on him. I don’t even give him a chance anymore.”
“I can understand the inclination,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “He makes it hard.”
“He used to be so sweet,” Jeremiah said with a quick grin that sent pinpricks right through her heart. “Funny, like really goofy.” He laughed a little. “He used to do this thing for Casey when he was a baby—a whole comedy routine. Ben would hit himself in the head and pretend to stagger around and then fall down and Casey would howl. I mean, he’d pee he was laughing so hard. Ben would do it over and over again.”
Lucy smiled because Jeremiah was smiling, his face splitting into craggy lines by his bright white teeth. So different from that charming grin he used in other moments.
“But…” Jeremiah shook his head. “That kid is gone.”
“Not gone.” She touched his hand and, yep, as expected, a spark traveled from the dark, hair-roughened skin of his arm right to the core of her, where she went wet in a wild rush.
She jerked her hand away and he glanced over at her.
“Sorry,” he muttered, waving his hand as if clearing the air. “I’m preoccupied. How are things going for you in Los Angeles?”
“Oh.” She shot him a skeptical look. “You don’t want to talk about that.”
“Jeremiah.” She laughed. “The other day in the garden you wanted to run away so bad I could see it.”
His smile was lopsided, rueful and utterly self-aware. A heartbroken cowboy who was self-aware? Good Lord, he was a country song brought to life. “I’m…I’m not good with the deep stuff,” he said. “I’m totally shallow.”
“Come on,” she cried.
“It’s true. I’m the king of small talk. Of one-night stands. Try to talk to me about your feelings, or anything deeper than the color of your underwear, and I panic.”
“So, I told you about my business and you panicked?”
He opened his eyes wide. “I thought you were going to cry, Lucy. I freaked right out. I broke out in a rash.”
“Well, then, all the more reason not to tell you about Los Angeles.”
“True,” he murmured, but watched her sideways, both of them slipping into waters so fast moving, so treacherous, they must be sick in the head. “But maybe you can change me.”
She howled with laughter, even as something in her chest spasmed. “How many women have gotten their hearts broken believing that?”
“Probably too many,” he said, sobering slightly.
She punched him in the shoulder, not enjoying the sudden downturn in mood. “Cads aren’t repentant. Goes against type.”
Again that grin. Again the electrical storm between them. “So? What should I be?”
Everything I want right now,
everything I need. Fun. Easy. Uncomplicated. A blind release from the pressure keeping me up nights.
The words didn’t come. It didn’t feel as if anything was easy between them. Ben. Los Angeles. All of it complication upon complications.
But she still wanted him.
“You know.” He leaned forward, just slightly. Not enough to be pushy, but enough that the equation between them changed and her better sense was drowned out by the sudden clamoring demands of her body. “I might be wrong, but I’m sensing that perhaps you’re interested in breaking a certain rule you’ve given us.”
“It wasn’t just me,” she whispered, looking at his lips, the pinkness of them. The lushness of them. How did she not notice those lips before? Gorgeous. She wanted to investigate them further. “You agreed that anything between us would be a mistake.”
“Well.” He sighed, the smell of his breath intoxicating. “Maybe we just need different rules.”
“Like what?” Oh, Lord, was that her voice? She sounded as if she’d been running uphill.
His finger touched her hand, the knuckle of her thumb, and her nipples got hard in a wild cataract of feeling. “Like…we keep things casual.”
“Casual?” She didn’t know how to tell him that she wasn’t very good at casual. She was trying, but it was hard for a woman who’d lived with a calling for most of her life. Who’d never had any other job but the one she’d just utterly failed.
He tilted his head as if to get a better look at her. “Am I reading you wrong, here, Lucy? I’ll admit I’m out of practice… .”
“No, you’re not reading me wrong.”
She touched his hand, the roughness of his skin, the hair that prickled and teased her palms. So many textures, so many things to discover on him. He could be a project. Her imagination roared as she pictured his body. The perfect sculpture of it. The shadows and light of his skin. The flex of muscle, the tension of sinew.
“Lucy.” She looked up into those endless blue eyes, rimmed in black, filled with fire. A kiss. Yes. She did love to kiss.
His lips fell across hers like sunlight. Light and warm and sweet and she melted into the moment, into him. He breathed out, she breathed in and the earth stopped rotating, as if someone had just pressed pause on the rest of the world.
“Hey, Uncle J.” Aaron, the oldest boy, charged onto the deck from the steps like a wild animal and she and Jeremiah leaped apart. Her beer fell from numb fingers, rolling across the floor, spilling a trail of beer. “Sorry,” Aaron muttered, darting forward to grab the bottle and hand it to her—half-empty and sticky.