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Authors: Molly O'Keefe

Unexpected Family (9 page)

BOOK: Unexpected Family
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“It’s all right.” She laughed, nervous and awkward, her heart hammering in her chest.

“I forgot to tell you, but our next game moved to Beauregard.”

“Beauregard?” Jeremiah said. “That’s two hours away, buddy. I can’t take you that far on a Tuesday. Did you ask Mrs. Penning if you could ride with her?”

Aaron looked so crestfallen, so worried, that it was obvious there was no room with Mrs. Penning.

“Oh, man, Aaron,” Jeremiah said, clearly pained. “I just…I just can’t—”

“I can,” Lucy blurted before she even thought about what she was doing. Aaron beamed, Jeremiah looked thunderous.

“What are you talking about?” Jeremiah demanded.

“I’m starting a taxi service. I can take him, but…you know…it’ll cost you.”

“We’ll pay!” Aaron said.

“Now, hold on a second, Aaron. A taxi? Is this a joke?”

“What can I say, I see a need and try to fill it. My entrepreneurial spirit cannot be squashed.”

“Lucy,” he whispered, “You are an artist, a famous designer—”

Her body shook away from the words, not wanting to hear them out of someone else’s mouth. She stood. “Fifty dollars should cover it,” she said, unable to stare at Jeremiah’s questioning face.

“Fifty dollars, Uncle J.—”

“That will cover gas and maybe a cup of coffee,” Jeremiah said. “Your entrepreneurial spirit needs a business education.”

She stared at him, wounded by his cavalier tone, the way he made a joke of what had happened to her, and then as if he realized what he’d said, he sobered. “I’m sorry, Lucy. I didn’t mean… It was just a joke. A bad joke.”

“So, can we do it, Uncle J.?” Aaron demanded.

Jeremiah, probably motivated more by guilt than anything else, nodded and Aaron whooped.

“Why don’t we go inside and you can give me the details.” She stood.

“Thanks, Lucy,” Aaron said, all but falling over his too-big feet in an effort to open the screen door for her. “That’s so awesome.”

“Lucy?”

She turned back to Jeremiah.

“We’re not done.”

They weren’t. Not by a long shot.

She grinned and winked—
fake it till you make it.
“I know.”

* * *

T
HERE
WAS
A
GODDAMNED
party going on in his house. Walter could hear the voices of kids outside his window in the back garden. He was still deciding if he liked that sound. Normally, no. But this afternoon he’d woken up after twelve straight hours of sleep and he felt…different. Not necessarily better in every way, but in his head…he was better.

Walter limped down the hallway, his stomach queasy, his muscles weak. He’d lost some weight in the grueling torture of the past week. And he hoped to God he was through the worst of it, the last of the poison exiting his system last night, creating from the demons in his head that vision of his ex-wife.

Now, of course, standing in the shadows just outside the kitchen, he had a terrible fear that it hadn’t been his ex-wife at all. The scent of roses and cumin clung to only one woman he knew.

It had been Sandra in his room and he’d sworn at her and who knows what else.

Had she told him he’d never be half the man A.J. was? It’s not as if it would be news to him, but the words had extra punch from her mouth.

He was embarrassed and angry that she would have seen him like that. God, he’d been in his underwear. Naked in his dream, but he woke up in boxer shorts, so he prayed that had been the case while she’d been there.

But the real issue was that she would have ignored what he’d demanded of her—to leave him alone—and forced herself into his hell.

The rubber stopper at the end of his crutch made a nice thud on the floor as he stepped into the dining room. At the sound, Sandra poked her head up over the counter that split the dining area from the kitchen. Her cagey eyes unreadable.

“Sandra.”

She stood all the way up, her hair slightly skewed, thin flyaway silver strands wreathing her skull like a halo.

“You look better.” Her eyes traveled over him, missing nothing—his overlong hair, the scruff on his neck. He was obscenely glad he’d showered. Put on clean clothes. “You look very good.”

Out of the blue he felt like smiling. He squashed the instinct.

“Were you in my room last night?” he asked, demanded really, his tone totally unchecked.

“I was.” Again, he felt like smiling at that stubborn set of her jaw. No apologies from her.
Oh, Sandra,
he thought,
if we were only different people.

“I asked you to stay away.”

“I know, Walter, but you were so sick. You were—” She licked her lips. “In need.”

He chewed on his tongue, the words he needed to say not coming with any grace. “I’m sorry.” His voice was rough, too quiet, and he cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m sorry if I said something—”

“You screamed.” She rubbed her wrist, and he noticed a wide silver bracelet there. “That’s all. You thought I was Vicki.”

He remembered grabbing his ex-wife in that dream, holding her wrist, pressing the thin bones together. As fast as he could he crossed the room, leaving the cane against the counter, and he reached for her hand.

She jerked away, her eyes knowing.

“It’s nothing,” she said.

Oh, he’d hurt her. He wanted to take himself out back and peel the skin off his back.

He just stared at her, his eyes locked on hers. Those black depths opening up and showing him her heart. Her too-big heart. She shouldn’t be here, caring for him. But her heart would not allow her to be anywhere else.
Foolish,
he thought,
to be so kind. It would only get her hurt.

“Please,” he breathed, and slowly she lowered her arm. Carefully, with shaking fingers, he shifted the wildly beautiful bracelet that could only be one of Lucy’s creations. Touching only the metal and never her skin, he twisted the jewelry over her wrist until the inch between the wide ends of the cuff revealed purple bruises.

A moan broke in his throat.

Before he knew what he was going to do he lifted her wrist and pressed his dry, cracked lips to that soft skin.

She pulled her hand away, holding it to her chest, as if he’d somehow hurt her all over again.

He wore his body like a too-big suit, feeling small inside. Where it counted. “I’m sorry,” he told her. He was too wrecked to even feel embarrassed.

“It’s…it’s okay.”

“You were right last night. I’m not half the man A.J. was.”

Her eyes were wide. Coal-black. “I…I didn’t say that, Walter.”

He blinked. “Doesn’t make it any less true.”

From the living room he heard the sliding glass door open and Lucy arrived. A tall blond boy behind her.

She stopped in her tracks when she saw Walter.

“You’re up.”

He nodded, feeling suddenly like a zoo animal.

“Walter, not sure if you remember Aaron Bilkhead…” She shifted, holding an arm out to the kid.

“Of course I remember. The kid’s a neighbor.”

The boy smiled and stepped forward to shake his hand. “Nice to see you again, sir.”

Walter smiled at his manners. Annie wouldn’t raise her sons to be anything but respectful.

“You staying for dinner?” he asked, though the rough shape of his voice made it sound like an accusation.

Aaron glanced sideways at Lucy, who glowered at Walter. “I suppose I am,” Aaron finally said. “If…if that’s all right with you?”

“Be nice to have a full table,” he said, and nearly smiled at Lucy’s slack-jawed expression. It was good to surprise the girl. He grinned at her as he hobbled past her to the living room and the porch beyond.

The sun was shining and he wanted to feel it on his face.

* * *

J
EREMIAH
SAT
ON
THE
BACK
porch and thought about basketball. Laundry. Anything to cool the heat in his blood after that kiss with Lucy. But it wasn’t working.

Filthy, dirty hockey equipment,
he thought, but in his mind he only saw Lucy winking at him. And his body responded to the image like a young boy’s.

Behind him, the sliding glass door slid open.

“Lucy—”

“Nope.”

Jeremiah spun in his chair and then stood at the sight of the old man coming out onto the deck.

“Walter.”

“That’s my chair.” He pointed with his cane at the seat Jeremiah had just vacated.

“Here,” he said, jerking it sideways, closer to Walter, who then collapsed into it. Walter looked thinner, the skin on his cheeks and neck hung a little from his bones. He was pale and shaky, but his blue eyes were clear. Searing.

“You want a beer?” Jeremiah asked, lifting his empty bottle, hoping he’d say yes and Jeremiah could hide out in the kitchen. Check out the leftover situation, do some cherry-picking, anything but awkward small talk with Walter.

Walter stared at the bottle for a moment as if Jeremiah was holding up the proof of something Walter didn’t quite want to believe. “More than you know. But no, thanks.”

So much for hiding out in the kitchen.
Jeremiah braced himself against the railing and stared down at Ben and Casey, shucking corn in the grass. Casey was taking corn silk and hanging it over his ears like a patchy blond wig. “Look, Ben,” he said, his little-boy voice carrying up to Jeremiah. “I’m a girl.” Casey fluttered his eyes and pursed his lips like some kind of cartoon girl.

Jeremiah smiled. Such a goofball, that kid.

“You’re a dork,” Ben said, without looking up, tearing at the corn silk like he wanted to hurt it.

“Met your boy in there.” Walter jerked his thumb back to the house. “The blond one. Very polite.”

“My sister’s boy,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Walter. “Her oldest.”

Walter’s eyes focused in on him and it wasn’t casual. Those eyes, they were dead serious. Jeremiah had the fleeting impression that he’d spent a lot of years underestimating this man.

“Your sister died, right?”

Jeremiah nodded, his throat thick, wondering what the hell was happening. The old man was a drunk but he’d been at the funeral. “Last winter.”

Walter carefully put his feet out in front of him, tilted his head up to the sun as if he’d been in a cave. He closed his eyes.

“At some point you’re probably going to have to get used to the idea that they’re yours.”

CHAPTER NINE

A
FRESH
START
,
L
UCY
THOUGHT
on Friday afternoon as she stared into the dust plume kicked up by the bus traveling from town to the ranch. That’s what she and Ben needed. She’d been naive to think that they’d pick some vegetables and everything would be all right. Life wasn’t a movie, she knew that.

But she was determined to try again. If not for the kid, if not for her self-esteem, then for Jeremiah. Because the guy needed a break. And because she wasn’t about to tell him that she couldn’t handle Ben. That she’d failed. Again.

She waited out by the end of the drive where the bus would drop him off. The wind had picked up, swirling dust into her eyes despite her sunglasses.

There had been a lot of details about ranch life in Northern California she’d forgotten. The dust wasn’t one of them.

The bus arrived with a squeal of brakes and the creak of the doors opening.

Lucy’s heart hammered into her throat.

What makes you think you can do this?
she thought, panicked and full of doubt.
What do you know about any of this?

But there he was, stepping out of the bus, his face blank, his eyes angry.

“Hey, Ben,” she said.

He stared at some spot over her shoulder.

“It’s normal, when someone says hello to you, to say hello back. Or nod. Or grunt. Whatever.”

“Whatever.”

“Oh, ho! He jokes.”

There was no smile, but that cold blue anger in his eyes was a degree warmer.

Progress,
she thought, like a kid who’d somehow managed to blow a giant bubble and was afraid to pop it. She turned toward the ranch and, after a moment, she heard Ben’s feet follow.

“How was school?”

“Boring.”

“All of it or just some of it?”

He was quiet and her little bubble of satisfaction was in danger of being popped. “Some of it,” he said. “Math was boring.”

“Ugh. Tell me about it.”

“Division.”

“The worst.”

“We had art today.”

Oh, the satisfaction bubble was soaring to new heights. She suddenly imagined healing his wounds with sketch books and charcoal pens.

“That’s good?”

He grunted and she wasn’t entirely sure if that was a yes or no, or if it mattered. He was responding. Maybe that career in child psychology wasn’t a total loss.

“I’m an artist,” she said.

“Uncle J. said you stopped.”

She waved her hand as if that little matter was inconsequential. “Once an artist, always an artist. What do you like about art?”

He started talking about the papier-mâché sculpture he was working on. “I’m not sure what it’s going to be,” he said, “but when I’m working on it, no one bothers me.”

“That’s true.” She nodded, all too familiar with the loneliness of art. “You like to be alone?”

“I don’t like talking.”

Well,
she thought,
at least he knows it.

They came up to the barn and Lucy ducked inside to grab the gardening things, and when she came back out Ben’s eyes were frigid.

“I’m not gardening.”

She blinked, stunned by the sudden change in him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m not gardening. And I’m not watching you do it.”

“Ben—”

“I’m. Not. Doing. It.”

“Ben. Is it because of your mom?”

That chill in his eyes grew angry. Mean.

“Shut up about my mom.”

The bucket made a heavy thunk against the ground. “You should talk about your feelings, Ben.”

He stepped away, all that anger and meanness flared like a lit match. “I’m not talking to you about anything.”

“I
know you must miss her—”

His eyes went dead and she felt it all slipping away. Again. But worse because she’d felt closer to him. A sudden painful empathy for Jeremiah welled up in her, a terrible understanding of how hard it must be to try and love this boy.

“If you don’t want to be in the garden, then we’ll work somewhere else.” He wasn’t responding and she got desperate. “I know I have some sketch books around here somewhere, we could sit—”

“This is bullshit.”

The curse word was so ugly coming out of a nine-year-old’s mouth.

“Ben,” she said, trying to be implacable. Trying to have limits without losing her temper. “You can’t talk to me that way.”

“Why?” he snarled. “You’re just some woman Uncle J. is having sex with. Aaron told us he caught you two kissing—”

“Ben!”

“Screw you,” he yelled, and ran into the shadowed barn.

For a long terrible moment she was rooted to the spot. Her stomach in her heels, that big bubble in sticky pink ruins all over her face.

What? Just? Happened?

Obviously, she couldn’t chase after him just yet. There’d be no point in that. Jeremiah had been right that day at his ranch—she had to just give Ben and herself a chance to cool down. And then she’d try again.

Carefully, as if walking away from a ticking bomb, she backed away from the barn and headed into the house, where she could watch the barn and see him if he tried to leave.

She could sit and try to come up with a new fresh start.

* * *

W
ALTER
HAD
TO
FIND
a different place to sit. The back patio was too close to the house. Too close to Sandra. She’d started leaving the sliding glass door open during the heat of the day and he could hear her in the house. Humming.

A special kind of hell for sure.

And after breakfast Mia had ambushed him with another one of her babysitter candidates.

“You don’t want this job,” he’d told the woman’s stunned round face. “I’ll make your life hell.”

He didn’t have to tell her twice. She was up and gone in five minutes.

Mia had lit into him, which he’d sort of liked. He rarely saw her anymore. Having Mia lay into him reminded him of the good old days. If his ankle would have let him, he’d have jumped into the truck and… He stopped at the thought. And what? Gone to Al’s downtown? His bar days were over.

Face it,
he thought, stepping across the hard ruts in the parking area, using his crutch more than he’d like.
You have nowhere to go. Nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Walter stepped into the barn feeling like a green cowboy looking for his first job. This barn had been his home but he barely recognized it sober. Of course, he barely recognized it at all because Mia and Jack had updated everything. Fixed the stall doors. There was a cell phone sitting in a charger on top of a filing cabinet that had never been there before. A cell phone. In a barn.

What is the world coming to?

But the hard-backed chair that was always in the office was still there and he grabbed it, placing it securely in the sun just outside the open door. From the deep right pocket in his shirt he pulled out his penknife. A gift from his father when he turned ten, the bone handle worn and warm. An old friend.

Now, he just needed something to work on. Whittling when his hands shook like this might be about the dumbest thing ever. But he had this hope that it would help. Help his hands. Help his head.

Without drinking to fill the hours, he was bored. Listless. All too aware of the mess he’d made of everything.

With some effort he turned himself around, heading back through the wide center aisle to the back where they had stacked wood for winter fires. There was some white birch that was about the right size and he picked it up, pulling off the long splinters that snagged on the cuffs of his shirt.

From behind him he heard the rustle of hay, the scuff of a boot, and awkwardly he turned, hoping to see his son. But instead, in the stall opposite, he saw a kid’s tennis shoe and the frayed hem of a pair of blue jeans. “What the hell?” he muttered, and shuffled his way over to the doorway.

It was the kid. The troublemaker, Ben, sitting in the clean hay.

“What?” Ben barked when he looked up and saw Walter standing there. The tone of voice was uncalled for and Walter nearly told him to get the hell out of his barn. But the boy had been crying. Those defiant eyes were rimmed in red.

He thought of Annie Stone Bilkhead, and understood the kind of hole a mother like that would leave behind in her sons.

Ben scrambled to his feet. “Am I in trouble?”

“Probably,” Walter murmured.

“I wasn’t doing anything.”

Walter nodded. He remembered the night, a year or two after his wedding to Vicki, when he realized what his marriage was going to be like. The long lonely years that stretched out in front of him, bleak. Joyless. He’d come out here and started drinking. In the same spot the kid stood.

“You all right?” Walter asked.

The boy seemed like he was going to laugh, and for a moment it seemed like the kid’s emotions were going to overflow their banks. But then he cooled himself down. “Sure,” he finally said.

Walter nodded and arranged his body to turn back around. He had his wood. The chair and his knife were waiting for him.

“You gonna make me leave?” the boy asked.

“Only if you want,” he said, and sat down on his chair, leaving the boy to his demons, if that was what he wanted.

Moments later Walter heard Jack’s voice coming in through the back of the barn. “Okay, Mia,” he was saying. “Yes, I’ll deal with him. No, I can’t promise that. You know my dad.”

Walter ran his thumb over the smooth wood revealed by his knife. If only he could do that to his life. Whittle away the mess, leave what was useful. Clean. New.

That,
he thought with a bitter laugh,
would make for a mighty thin stick.

Jack appeared at his elbow.

My son,
he thought. Jack had come back to this ranch a few months ago a broken man, a scientist. Now he was a rancher, a husband, and looked every inch the job. Walter had heard Mia talking about how Jack was getting calls from all across the state asking questions about irrigation systems and water tables.

I’m proud of you,
he thought, but for whatever reason couldn’t say it.

“Hey.” Jack pushed his hat back on his head. “You can’t keep chasing off the women who come to interview.”

“I’m not chasing—”

“You threw a bowl of vomit at one woman.”

Not much to say about that, so he kept his mouth shut.

“You swore at that woman today.”

“A woman who can’t handle some rough language has no business on a ranch.”

“Dad—”

“It’s true and you know it.”

“No.” Jack stepped forward. “What I know is that you are making Mia’s life miserable, Dad. Miserable.”

“Can’t see how I’m doing that, I barely even see her anymore.” Jack opened his mouth but Walter stopped him. His ankle hurt. His face hurt and he had something he needed to say.

“I don’t want a nurse.”

Jack sighed, heavily. “I don’t think you get a choice on that anymore—”

“I’m sober.”

Jack blinked. Blinked again.

“A week now.”

“Wow…ah…wow.”

Walter couldn’t help but smile at his son’s astonishment, which had the strange effect of making Jack smile for a minute before he tucked it away, out of sight.

“How you feeling?” Jack asked.

“Like shit. But…better.”

“You ever done anything like this before?”

Walter shook his head, embarrassed for all sorts of reasons that he couldn’t really put words to.

“I take my pills like I should,” he said. “I’ve stopped drinking. My ankle is healing. I don’t want a nurse.”

“Sandra—”

Sandra. The touch of her body, the smell of her skin—for a moment the thoughts were a terrible sweet torture. But then he shoved them away where they belonged.

“—is leaving.” Walter said it with as much authority as he could muster, as if just by saying so he had the ability to make it happen.

“Then we’re going to need someone around here, Dad. Even more. Someone to cook and—”

“Cook, fine. But I don’t want a nurse. A goddamned babysitter.” He was beginning to yell, frustration making the back of his throat burn for a drink.
Christ,
he thought, it was hard being sober when he was just falling asleep in the sun. Dealing with people was worse. Painfully worse.

“Dad, we’re hiring someone. It’s just the way it is.” Jack shrugged as if his hands were tied and Walter knew he’d done that. Tied his boy’s hands. Drinking had ruined so much.

Resigned, but bitter, he turned in his seat, careful of his ankle.

“Dad?”

Walter paused without looking up. Too much effort getting his broken body to fall in line.

“I’m proud of you. About the drinking.”

Well,
thought Walter,
that was something, wasn’t it?
He listened to Jack’s footsteps and blinked back the burn behind his eyes.

The sun crawled across his feet, yellow and bright, until it filled his lap and Walter picked up his knife again.

“They’re trying to get you a babysitter?” a voice asked, and Walter turned to see Ben standing in the shadows outside of the stall he’d been hiding in. He’d forgotten about the kid.

“Seems like it.”

“You do something wrong?”

Walter laughed and pressed his thumb to the point of the wood. Sharp but it didn’t break the skin. “I don’t seem to do much right these days.”

“Me, neither,” the kid said.

In a burst of angry and desperate animation, Walter stood. “I’m hungry. You want to get something to eat?”

The boy shook his head. “I’m gonna stay here.”

Walter was going to argue—it seemed maybe the kid spent too much time alone. But maybe he’d been told what to do a few too many times, too.

“Suit yourself,” he said, and left the boy to his demons, taking his own with him.

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