It was supposed to be a win-win situation—a safe environment in which to raise a son for single mom Vicky, housekeeping and childcare for widowed Jack. Neither one wants or expects anything more.
But when Jack learns his best friend fathered Vicky's son and now wants partial custody, he feels threatened. He's come to care deeply for both, and doesn’t want to lose the family they’ve become. In desperation he offers a radical solution—marriage.
Vicky knows she can do worse than marry Jack, but wonders how successful their marriage would be when its only reason for being was to keep from losing her son. Add to this a troubled child with a secret about her dead mother and a former foe bent on revenge, and complications abound.
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Vicky Lowell cleared her throat and rang the door bell. When no one answered her first ring, she rang the bell again. This time a baby howled and heavy footsteps approached. The door swung open.
"Mr. Hazlett?" she asked.
"It's about time you got here," the harried man shouted over the din.
Taking care not to muss his shirt and tie, the man handed the fussy baby into her arms. Two little girls, still in their underwear, clung to each of his pant legs. "You're late," he said. "That means I'll be late. But I'm willing to overlook that if you can start right away."
"Mr. Hazlett, I think there's been some mis--"
"Look, if it's all right with you we can discuss the details later. I have a very important presentation this morning so I have to hurry. I promise I'll make it worth your while if you can start immediately."
"Damn it," he said, shaking off the clinging children. "Look at that, I'm wrinkled already."
The man strode into the kitchen and she followed. "But, Mr. Hazlett," she said again.
"I left important phone numbers for you on the desk." He took a last slurp from a coffee mug on the table, grimaced, and then rushed for the door. "If you need anything else, ask the kids," he shouted over his shoulder.
Mouth still open, Vicky took note of her immediate surroundings: a kitchen table littered with pizza crusts and cereal bowls, remnants, no doubt, of its occupants last two meals, counters piled high with dirty pots and pans, and microwaveable plastic overflowing from the trash can. Clearly, Tuesday must be the cleaning lady's day off. Though from the overall condition of the room, the woman must have been AWOL far longer than a day.
Surprised that people of obvious means could live so haphazardly, she turned her attention to the whimpering baby in her arms and the two children staring up at her. The younger one hid behind her sister, a thumb in her mouth and one tiny finger hooked around a button nose.
The baby, suddenly aware of the stranger whose hip she straddled, began to cry in earnest; Vicky bounced her on her hip.
"Jodie thgared," Thumb sucker said.
"Jodie? Is that her name? And what's yours, sweetie?"
The child released her shrunken thumb. "Soo-soo," she said, before latching onto it again.
"Soo-soo?" Vicky repeated.
"Suzy." The older girl yanked her sister's thumb from her mouth with a pop. The indignant thumb sucker did an angry jig before re-plugging her mouth.
"And what's your name, sweetheart?" Vicky said to the older girl.
Vicky rubbed her chin, pretending to be deep in thought. "Now let me see. Could it be Ophelia, by any chance?"
The guess elicited a frown from both children.
"No? How about Wilhelmina?"
The girls gave a tentative giggle.
"Oh, I know, I know," she said. "It's Hepzibah!"
The girls howled. "No, it's Yinda," little Suzy said.
Linda's brown eyes flashed as she elbowed her little sister. "She was s'posed to guess, dummy."
Little Suzy swung back but missed.
Hoping to head off a skirmish,Vicky diverted their attention with a rubber squeeze toy, poking it into baby Jodie's tummy, and then squeezing. The air emitted made a funny noise, eliciting giggles from all three children. Taking heart from their amusement, she aimed the squeaker at Suzy. The child lifted her undershirt and stuck out her belly. Vicky squeezed again, and another spate of giggles followed. But when she approached Linda, the little girl pushed the toy away.
Vicky set the squeaker aside, put the baby in her high chair with a hard cookie to gnaw on, and then tackled the clutter. As long as she was stuck there, she might as well make herself useful. She didn't start her shift at the cafe until five. "So," she said as she scraped dried tomato sauce and Froot Loops from the table, "where's your mommy today?"
"In hebben," Suzy said.
The unexpected answer gave Vicky pause, perhaps for its content, perhaps for the matter-of-fact way it was delivered.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know. You must miss her very much. I know I did when I lost my mama." She purposely didn't mention the loss of her father, not wanting to introduce that fear into their already scarred lives.
Suzy nodded forlornly. Then, her momentary sadness eclipsed by childish exuberance, she said, "Wanna see my dowwy?"
Before Vicky could answer, the child ran off, twin pony tails bobbing like springs over her bare shoulders. Seconds later, she returned with a naked, rubber doll whose hair looked as if it had done serious damage to the electrical circuits.
Cradling the doll in her arms, Vicky smoothed the stiff tufts protruding from its head. "Why, it's just like a real live baby," she cooed.
"I got a nicer doll." Linda ran to fetch hers. "Mine is a grownup lady doll. See, she even has titties."
Vicky regarded the Barbie doll with high, pointy breasts grossly disproportionate to her pencil-thin frame. Wearing a tight, red skirt, textured hose, and knee-high, black boots, the doll looked as though she could be on a first name basis with the vice squad.
"Well, she certainly is, uh, lovely," Vicky said.
"Yemme see." Suzy reached for the doll.
"No, you have your own doll." Linda held the doll out of reach.
Vicky stepped between the children. "I have an idea. Why don't you try to guess my name?"
The hyperactive Suzy jumped up and down. "Me first, me first."
"I don't want to." Linda wandered off wearing a long face.
Suzy promptly reeled off every woman's name she knew. After trying Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Carol, and Alice, she heaved an exasperated sigh. "I give up."
Vicky laughed. "I see someone watches a lot of vintage TV around here. Okay, since you gave it a good try, I'll tell you. It's Victoria, but you can call me Vicky."
Game over, Suzy scampered off. "I wanna watch cartoons now."
Baby Jodie, hearing a familiar word, banged her bare heels against the footrest of her high chair.
"Okay, you can watch toons too," Vicky said with a laugh.
The girls settled themselves in front of the TV, and Vicky took a moment to study them. Linda, the oldest and plumpest of the three, appeared to be around five years of age. If speech and size were any indication, the exuberant Suzy was about three. Baby Jodie, with six pearly teeth, couldn't be more than a year old. All had large brown eyes, though Suzy's were the darkest, almost black, like her father's.
With the youngsters conveniently engrossed in the homicidal antics of Tom and Jerry, Vicky finished straightening the kitchen, and then took a quick tour of the house, curious as to how the other half lived. Whoever had designed and decorated the house had exquisite taste, as each room, though littered with toys, crayons, and dolls, appeared well appointed with fine furnishings and tasteful accessories. Completing the picture of affluence was a well-outfitted back yard with a massive, wood swing set and in-ground pool.
Because Mr. Hazlett hadn't said what time he'd be back, Vicky hoped to have the lower floor presentable on his return. If there was a position available--and from the way he talked, there was--she hoped to be in the running. She could think of a lot worse jobs than cleaning a gorgeous home and caring for three adorable little girls.
Situated in a ritzy section of Sable Point, the Hazlett home had impressed Vicky the moment she pulled into its bricked driveway. With a soaring two-story entry over a pair of oak doors, each handsomely fitted with leaded glass inserts, the home bespoke elegance.
As lovely as the house was though, she'd noticed obvious signs of neglect: Sick geraniums gasping for air in waterlogged, plastic pots, shrubbery in need of drastic pruning, and a yard filled with more weeds than grass. Whoever tended to the grounds was also shirking his duty. Kin to the cleaning lady, perhaps?
Aware of time slipping away, Vicky checked her watch, hoping to squeeze in a few yard sales before leaving the upscale neighborhood. That is, if the local gendarmes didn't send her packing for blighting the streets of Sable Point with her scruffy pickup.
As a single parent with limited time and money, Vicky had ample experience culling through trash to unearth treasure, having picked up several nice pieces of jewelry and designer wear for herself, as well as hardly worn school and play clothes for her son, Tommy, almost eight and not the least bit picky about his wardrobe, which suited her just fine. Washability, wearablity, and price were the only factors she considered when parting with her hard-earned cash. Today's quarry was a ten speed bike she'd seen advertised in the local shopper.
The jangle of a phone from somewhere in the house gave her a start. Thinking it might be Mr. Hazlett trying to reach her, she followed the ringing into the den, answering it before it locked into the answering machine. "Hello?"
"Hello?" the voice on the other end said in the same questioning tone.
"May I help you?"
"Is this the Hazlett residence?"
"Yes, it is, but Mr. Hazlett isn't here at the moment. Would you like to leave a message?"
"Yes, please. This is Eleanora Quimby. I had an appointment to interview with him about a job, but I cant seem to find the house. I wonder if I might reschedule my appointment and get better directions?"
Vicky recalled her own confusion with directions. The ad in the shopper said 53 Kendrick Lane, but when she pulled up to that address she found a vacant lot. In the center of the lot stood a post with a for sale sign swinging from its outstretched arm. On a hunch, she turned down the next street, counting off numbers until she came to 53. The name on the mailbox was Hazlett.
"Hello, hello?" the disembodied voice shouted in her ear.
"I'm sorry, Miss Quimby," she said in a voice she didn't recognize, "but the position has already been filled. Thank you for calling though. Goodbye."
Too late, she clapped her hand over her mouth. Why had she said that? Stunned by her impulsiveness, she sank into the soft, leather chair. Her eyes fell upon a staggered row of photographs on the desk. The nearest showed a sit-down pose of a handsome couple with two toddlers on their laps. She almost didn't recognize Mr. Hazlett; he looked so young, so relaxed, not at all the uptight businessman who jumped down her throat earlier.
She looked at the light-haired woman beside him and wondered what terrible fate had befallen her. With a curiosity bordering on the morbid, she studied the photographs. A few showed the woman proudly cradling a smiling, fair-haired baby who had to be Linda. A later photo showed her holding the hand of an older Linda with one baby in her arms and one in her belly--Suzy and Jodie.
Sad that the pretty Mrs. Hazlett, despite her lovely home and successful husband, would never see her babies grow up, Vicky had an overwhelming desire to grab her own child and smother him with hugs and kisses. The comforting image chased away her momentary sadness, and she further envisioned him pulling away in embarrassment. "Aw, Mom," he'd groan, and she would tousle his hair and say he wasn't so big he couldn't get a lovey from his mama every now and then.
Vicky glanced again at the smiling Mrs. Hazlett. And though their diverse backgrounds may have launched them far afield in life and circumstances, she felt a strange kinship with her. It was as though the dead woman had been granted a glimpse at the domain in which she once was a central figure and, aggrieved by the pain and sorrow visited upon her loved ones, had directed Vicky to this house and its occupants so much in need of a mother's touch.
A sigh snapped her back to reality. She whirled around to search for its source. Finding no one else in the room, she reined in her runaway imagination and set the photos back in place. Then she hurried from the room and finished the chores she'd assigned herself.
By noon, she'd washed and dried four loads of clothes, scoured the kitchen till it gleamed, and cleared a path in the living room. While the children ate lunch, peanut butter and raisin sandwiches instead of the canned spaghetti they wanted, she dug through the freezer and refrigerator. Grabbing some limp vegetables and a freezer burnt chicken, she started supper. For some reason, doing such ordinary tasks in this house, for this family seemed more a pleasure than a chore.
Surrounded by guileless children and the aroma of homemade soup, all of it filling her head with wonderful, implausible dreams, Vicky felt a resurgence of hope. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to engrave the image and thus the feeling upon her mind, to recall at will when her own dismal trappings laid her low.
The image brought a smile to her lips. For there, seated beside the girls, a toothless little boy grinned back at her. Tommy.
* * *
Stuck in traffic, an anxious Jack Hazlett tapped impatiently on his steering wheel. How could he have entrusted his children to someone without first checking her references? True, the agency had vetted her, but sometimes even the most thorough background check fails to spot a fruitcake. And he had been in a bind; the future of his job hinged on his presentation that morning. Although his firm tried to accommodate his special needs by letting him take work home, he still needed to put in an appearance from time to time. Luckily, architecture lent itself to such allowances. With a drafting table, a laptop, and a baby monitor, he was able to do much of his work at home, enabling him to be on hand for the little crises that invariably develop whenever small children are left unattended for any length of time.
But however good his reasons, he shouldn't have left his kids with a total stranger! What if she harmed them or abducted them or, God forbid, murdered them? Every day the news abounded with horror stories. What would he tell the police about her? He wasn't even sure of her name. Quincy? Ellen Quincy? Was that the name the agency gave him?
What description could he provide? That she was of medium height, skinny, with short, blonde hair that looked as though she'd been attacked by a John Deere lawnmower?
With brutal honesty, Jack wavered between legitimate excuses for his actions and profound shame. The girls were all he had left of Holly, the way she'd been in happier times, laughing, smiling, flitting about like a butterfly on the first day of summer.
He still heard her laughter as it reverberated from the vaulted ceilings in the home he designed and built for her. She'd wanted lots of bedrooms, for all the babies they would have; and two fireplaces, one in the living room and one in the family room, so wherever she came to alight at the end of the day, she could warm her toes by the fire.
Home and children had been her life. So why, for the love of God, had he left their precious babies with a scrawny woman whose name and face he couldn't even recall? A woman who might at this very moment be doped up on drugs? Had her eyes been glazed and watery? Dear God, he couldn't even remember the color of her eyes let alone their condition.
As he waited for the light to turn green, he tried calling home again. This time, as in the last three times, his call locked into the answering machine. The light changed and he stomped on the pedal, his mind running the gamut of every bizarre and abhorrent child abuse case he'd ever heard of. And as he screeched to a halt beside the battle-scarred pickup in his driveway, his anxiety peaked. He stormed the door. "Linda, Suzy, Jodie? Where are you, kids?"
His heart stood still as he waited for a reply. But no stampeding feet rushed to greet him; no children hurled themselves into his arms. There was only silence. Dead silence.
He tore into the kitchen, his eyes scanning the yard and pool beyond. He darted through the downstairs rooms. Nothing. Frantic, he mounted the stairs two at a time. "Linda! Suzanne! Jodie!"
From behind the bathroom door a baby's cry echoed. Good Lord, what was that woman doing to his babies? Fearful of what he might find, he flung the door open.
"Yay, Daddy's home," Suzy shrieked.
"Hi, Daddy," Linda said more sedately.
"Da," gurgled Jodie from her terry cloth cocoon.
Jack stared at his two older daughters in the tub, their hair lathered into fanciful, foam hairdos, their round bellies slick with suds.
"Hello, Mr. Hazlett," the woman toweling Jodie said. "I hope you don't mind, but the girls got a little carried away with the finger-painting. I'd hoped to have them cleaned up before you came home."
Jack's breath eased out on a sigh. "Uh, no, no, I don't mind, Miss, uh, Quincy?"
The woman twirled the damp wisps on Jodie's head, dusted her with baby powder, and then fastened a diaper around her. "Actually it's Quimby." She handed the squirming baby into his arms.
"Quimby, of course."
"But Miss Quimby couldn't make it. My name is Vicky Lowell, and I'm here about the ten speed bike you have advertised." She reached for a plastic cup to rinse the suds from Suzy's body.
"Bike?" he asked inanely.
She nodded, her attention focused on her slippery charge.
"Oh. The bike," he said again. "I'm sorry, Miss Lowell, but I sold the woman's bike a few days ago. You mean you're not here about the housekeeper and nanny position?"
"Actually I was interested in the man's bike, Mr. Hazlett, for my son. Your ad said fifty dollars?"
"Yes, fifty dollars, right," he said, still trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle.
He watched her towel his middle daughter dry, sprinkle her dimpled backside with powder, and then send her off with a pat.
"So the bike is still for sale?" she said, raising hopeful eyes--hopeful, brown eyes.
The clean, fresh scent of pine throughout the house finally caught up to him, and a thought formed in his addled brain. "Uh, no, the bike is definitely not for sale, Miss Lowell."
Her face fell.
"It's yours--for the terrible inconvenience I've caused you. I can't possibly take any money from you. In fact. . . " He pulled out his billfold. "I believe I owe you for your time and labor. How about the bike and twenty dollars?"
"I appreciate that, Mr. Hazlett, but the bike is payment enough. Thank you."
Jack rubbed his chin as another thought took hold. "I don't suppose I could interest you in a full-time job by any chance?"
The woman's colorless lips parted, and the merest hint of a smile softened them. "As a matter of fact . . . ."
Fishtown, as its name implied, was a quaint, little fishing village along Florida's panhandle. Most of its businesses were geared toward fishing and tourism, chief among them, a marina, bait and tackle shop, fresh seafood outlet, and gift shop touting the latest in tacky souvenirs. Not to be left out of the tourist dollar were the requisite greasy spoon and house of ill repute. All tallied, boats and trailers, rods and reels, winches and wenches could be had at a price to fit any pocket.
Atmosphere, the tourists called it, and Fishtown Cafe abounded with it. Scattered superfluously across the eatery's weathered, plank walls were items one would expect of a place so named: shells of all shapes and sizes, gaping shark jaws, and assorted nets, gaffs, and buoys. Reigning majestic over all, a plaster King Neptune with three bare-breasted mermaids, their brightly tipped nipples fondled by so many grimy hands they needed repainting annually.
Because of its close proximity to the sea and the odors emanating from every home and establishment, Finchtown, its original name, had over the years evolved into Fishtown, with only a few old-timers aware it had ever been otherwise. Roy Finch, the barrel-chested proprietor of the cafe and lifelong resident of Fishtown, was the only living descendent of the town's founder.
Vicky, fresh from the Hazlett home, waltzed into the cafe's small kitchen, turned in her apron and the jaunty, Greek fishing cap Roy insisted all his girls wear, and gave notice.
Roy's heavy eyelids lifted. "You're quittin' right now?"
"Sorry, Roy. I hate to do this to you, but I unexpectedly got a job offer in Sable Point. Maybe one of the other girls can pick up my shift for a few days until you get someone else."
"Does Hank know about this?"
She made a face. "Hank's still out with the fleet. Besides, as long as I come up with my half of the rent, there's no reason he should even care. Bye, Roy, and thanks for everything."
Although Vicky felt bad about leaving so abruptly--Roy had been her friend for more years than she cared to remember--she'd waited too long and endured too much to allow sentiment to hold her back. And the idea of trading the damp, baby powder fragrance still lingering in her senses for the stale sweat, smoke, and grease of the cafe left a sour taste in her mouth.
Working for a professional man like Mr. Hazlett, in a house straight out of Better Homes & Gardens was more than she could ever have hoped for. Now that it was happening, really happening, it gave hope to other dreams. Like being able to afford her own place so she wouldn't have to share living quarters--or anything else--with Hank.
Vicky pinched herself to make sure she hadn't dreamt the day. A bike, twenty dollars, and a job. Had her luck finally changed for the better?
For the next two hours Vicky couldn't stop smiling and dreaming. It didn't matter that working and living in Sable Point were as different as preparing a feast and partaking of it. All that mattered was that for a few hours every day, she would escape the stench of Fishtown, the leers and outright propositions of its beer-bellied inhabitants, and Hank. Especially Hank.
Still soaring when Tommy came home, she wrapped her arms around the sandy-haired boy and gave him a big squeeze. "Hiya, babe. How was school today?"
Squirming out of reach, the child dropped to his knees in front of the TV. "Fine."
Vicky dropped down beside him. "Okay, ask me what I did today."
"What'd you do today, Mom?" he said, reaching for the remote.
"I got a new job. Isn't that great? Now I can cook dinner for you and tuck you in at night. How does that grab you?"
The boy shrugged. "Okay, I guess."
"Is that it? Aren't you glad we're going to spend more time together?"
"Sure, Mom," he said, surfing through channels.
"Now that I'm not working at the cafe anymore, we'll be able to go to the beach on weekends," she said, still trying to drum up a little enthusiasm. "And I can come to school on parent's night and see you when you're in a play and--"
The boy's eyes grew luminous, as if a light suddenly flashed on in his head. "Will you make enough money so we can go to Disney World?"
"Disney World? Well, yeah, maybe."
"Yippee! I want to go on Space Mountain and the Pirates cruise and the Runaway Train and--"
"Whoa, hold your horses, buddy, I just got the job. It might take a while before we can afford to do that."
"But you said we could."
"And we will, but not right away. Oh, and, honey, one more thing." She sandwiched his small hands in hers. "I'm going to give you and your school the name and phone number of the man I'm working for, but you're not to tell anyone else. Is that clear?"
"Because you don't want him to know, right?"
She nodded, sad that her child understood more than he should have to for one so young.
* * *
Vicky woke early the next morning, eager to begin her day. After a quick shower, she pulled on a pair of off-white slacks and matching top, stuffing the oversized shirt into her pants to give the illusion of fullness across her hips. She reached for her hairbrush, frowning as Suzy's doll came to mind. Damned if she wasn't a dead ringer for that pitiful creature.
She attempted to fluff and curl the closely cropped strands. But for all her effort, her head still resembled the business end of an old broom, no thanks to Hank and his vicious temper.
She'd thought he was going to kill her that day when he came at her with his long-bladed fillet knife clutched in his fist. But instead of plunging the blade into her, he began hacking at her hair. And as the silvery-gold strands rained down around her, a myriad of emotions--relief, hatred, humiliation, rage--washed over her. Her hair, long, pale, and silky, was the only thing that set her apart from other women. The rest of her was too plain, too thin, too ordinary.
Afterward, shorn like a concentration camp inmate, she huddled in a corner, hands covering the sprigs on her head. Too numb to cry, she wondered if she wouldn't have preferred a quick death to this slow erosion of the spirit. Her only comfort was that Tommy hadn't witnessed Hank's rage. The boy needed to believe in the innate goodness of man even if she'd given up on it. He needed a chance at life; not the life she'd known, but a better one, among people who didn't have to push aside empty liquor bottles to eat dinner; people who didn't look and smell as if they lived in the belly of a whale.
Setting her lips against the unpleasant memory, Vicky saw her son off to school, and then tied a cheery, pink scarf over her head. Before climbing into Hank's pickup, she paused to scrape off an obscene bumper sticker, hearing in her mind his adolescent guffaw when he plastered the crude phrase to his pride and joy.
Badly rusted with a cracked windshield and bald tires, the truck looked and drove as if it were held together by spit and fishing line. Some mornings the only thing that got it going was a good, swift kick, after which it sputtered, coughed, and jerked down the road like an asthmatic mule.
This morning, however, the old heap started right up. She let it idle for a few minutes. Then, with a mixture of hope and dread--hope the darn thing didn't stall in traffic, and dread that Mr. Hazlett's neighbors might complain about the unsightly vehicle parked in his driveway--she set out, her heart keeping time with the knock in her engine.
* * *
Jack had been up all night worrying about his impulsive hiring of a woman he knew nothing about. She appeared to be shy, a plus in his mind as he tended to be rather reserved himself. Thinking it prudent to learn more, he'd prepared a list of questions to ask her.
When she arrived promptly at seven-thirty, he directed her into the living room, now neat and tidy thanks to her. "Please, sit down a minute, Miss Lowell."
She lowered herself to the edge of the sofa, her weight barely making a dent in the cushion.
He cleared his throat. "First, let me say that I know you're good with kids. My girls have had a lot of strangers in their lives this past year, and none have left as great an impression as you. Why, they couldn't stop talking about you last night at supper, which was delicious, by the way."
"Mr. Hazlett," she said into her folded hands. "I understand if you're having second thoughts about hiring me, but--"
"No, no, it's nothing like that. I just thought, well . . . . " Damn, he hated these interviews. Who was he to question someone's background and qualifications?
He continued. "I just thought maybe we should know more about each other. As a parent yourself, I'm sure you understand my concern." There, less businesslike and in no way threatening. So why did she look like she was about to bolt for the door?
"Yes, of course," she said, this time into his feet.
He pulled his list from his breast pocket. "All right, let's see now. You've already mentioned you have a son. How about a husband, other children?"
"There's no one else. My husband, Tom, passed away when my son was just a baby."
"I'm sorry." He moved down his list, embarrassed in the light of day by the queries he'd labored over in the night. When he came to the end, he folded the list and slipped it back in his pocket." Now if you have any questions for me, please feel free."
"Actually there is one thing, Mr. Hazlett." She raised her eyes to his knees.
Jack braced himself for the inevitable.
"I was wondering about the girls' health. Is there anything I should know about them? Allergies to certain foods or special medications they take?"
Her question took him by surprise. It wasn't the one he'd expected. "Uh, No. The girls are all healthy and current on their shots." He took a deep breath, and then said, "And as far as I know, there are no serious after-effects from the loss of their mother." There. Now if she wanted to know more, the door was open.
Her eyes briefly met his before lowering again. "You have a wonderful family, Mr. Hazlett," she said. "And I'll do my best to spare you needless worry."
"Thank you." The interview ended and he stood and adjusted his tie. He told her about the girls' routines, said he'd be home at five, and asked her to prepare a simple main dish for him to heat up. Then he handed her a key. "In case you want to take the girls to the park, you'll be able to get back in."
She smiled and her pallid complexion suffused with color. Almost a glow, Jack thought generously. Now if only she could do something with her hair.
* * *
Vicky stared at the key in her hand. Mr. Hazlett had given her a key to his house! Eager to earn her wages, she pocketed the key and hurried upstairs. She found the girls in the nursery, Linda and Suzy on the floor coloring on huge pads of paper with fat crayons, and Jodie in her crib, sucking air from an empty bottle.
When the youngsters saw her, each had a different reaction. Suzy tackled her around the knees; Linda glanced up from her drawing long enough to mutter a disinterested Hi; and Jodie, spitting out the collapsed nipple, rolled over and peeped shyly through her crib rails. All three were in their nighties; in Jodie's case, soaked nighties.
Suzy proudly held up her artwork for inspection. "Yook what I did."
Vicky stared at the purple thing resembling an inflated rubber glove. "What a nice, uh, elephant?"
"It's Snuff-oh-uppa-gus," Suzy corrected.
"Of course, Snuffleupagus. My, didn't she do a good job, Linda?"
"It's okay," Linda said without so much as a glance.
"And yours is pretty too, a house with a swing set and flowers, and a big, yellow sun shining down on everything."
The child shrugged.
Vicky reached for a diaper from a stack beside the crib. "So is everyone ready for breakfast?"
"Yay," Suzy shouted. "Breffest."
"Well, then, let's get you all dressed."
"I can dress myself," said Linda in no uncertain terms.
"Of course you can. And when you're done, maybe you can help Suzy while I change Jodie."
Linda eyed her little sister with disdain. "Oh, all right."
By nine o'clock, Vicky had run the dishes through the dishwasher, built a Lego castle, changed bed linens, and pushed the children on their swings. After lunch, she put Jodie down for a nap and prepared two tuna casseroles, one for supper and one for the freezer. Next up, an apple pie.
Enjoying her day, Vicky couldn't help imagining how her life might have been had she made better choices. Might she be living in a house like this if she and Chip had married?
Loaded with charm and money, both of which he spread with impunity, Chip had taken her on a whirlwind ride. But why Sable Point's favorite son had bestowed his favors on her would forever escape her, since he'd all but ignored her in school. As did others, too genteel to associate with a poor girl from Fishtown whose mother shocked the county by killing her husband and then herself.
The general consensus at the time was that one or both had lovers. Though to an innocent child, that explanation explained nothing. After the double funeral she'd gone to live with her aunt, a childless, spiteful woman who took perverse pleasure in dredging up the horror. "Mark my word," she'd say whenever her niece's childish exuberance spilled over. "You'll end up a shameless tart just like your mother."
As a child, Vicky never understood that comment. But as childhood waned and her understanding of life grew, she began to wonder if she was indeed tainted, just like her mother. Was that why other kids shunned her, looked through her, talked around her? Was she bad, unworthy of the company of decent folks?
Just like your mother. Words to live by. And die for? Vicky often wondered.
Two months shy of graduation, she quit school to work full-time at the cafe. It was foolish to think she could actually have a career. Grand ideas for somebody like her, like her mother. Looking back on it now, she saw it as the first of many mistakes.
Immersed in her bleak past, Vicky didn't notice Linda at her elbow until the child tugged on her sleeve. "Jodie's awake."
"What? Oh, okay," she said, wiping her hands on a towel. "Why don't you roll this piecrust while I go get her?"
"I don't know how."
"Sure, you do. Here," she said, taking the child's hands in hers. "Just roll it back and forth like you do with your Play-Doh. When I come back I'll show you how to put it in the pie plate and add the apples."
"Okay, but hurry up. I don't want to miss Curious George."
Vicky ran upstairs for Jodie. When she returned, Jack Hazlett stood in the foyer.
"Power's out for blocks around my building," he said. "Construction crews digging in the area severed the underground cables. But that's okay; I need some time off anyway."
Vicky lowered Jodie to her playpen in the family room, and then returned to the kitchen. When she saw bits of pastry dough stuck to the counter, floor, and pie plate, her jaw dropped.
Linda, seeing the look on Vicky's face, heaved the rolling pin to the floor, narrowly missing Vicky's foot. "I told you I couldn't do it!" she said, running off.
"Hey!" Jack called after her. "Come back here!"
Without thinking, Vicky held out her arm to prevent him from going after her. "No. Please. It's all right."
"No, it's not all right! What the hell would make her act like that? She's usually very well behaved."
"We all grieve in different ways."
His angry eyes stared at her outstretched arm, and then closed in on her.
Fearing her unsolicited opinion may have jeopardized her job, Vicky lowered her arm and turned her attention to her mangled pastry.
An awkward silence ensued. Then Jack reached into the bowl of sugared apples. "So," he said, popping an apple crescent in his mouth. "Aside from my daughter's unpleasant, little scene just now, how'd it go today?"
"Fine," she said, carefully transferring her patched crust to the pie plate.
"You're not big on words," he said. "That works for me."
"Sorry," she said, crimping the rim of her pie shell.
"No, don't apologize. Silence is a rare quality in a woman these days."
Reminding herself that Jack Hazlett held her ticket to better days, Vicky clamped her lips shut. She'd already said too much.
"There is one thing that bothers me though," he said.
"What's that?" she asked, still bristling at his back-handed compliment.
"You never look directly at me when we talk."
She forced her eyes to his. Unblinking, she countered with, "And you never smile."
His hand, poised to drop a sugared apple chunk in his mouth, fell. "Excuse me?"
Unable to take her impulsive comment back, Vicky soldiered on. "You never smile," she repeated. "You always look like you're about to bite someone's head off."
In the next room, Bert and Ernie's shenanigans sounded over loud, over raucous as she waited to learn if her impertinence had earned her a one-way ticket back to Fishtown.
"You're right," he said at length. "I guess I have been a bit of a bear lately." His deep-set eyes sank behind high cheekbones as he forced a smile.
His smile broadened and fine lines radiating from his dark eyes told her he'd once been a man to whom laughter came as easily as breathing or eating. Allowing him the benefit of the doubt, Vicky decided that Jack Hazlett, though annoyingly opinionated, was doing his best under trying circumstances. She could relate to that.
What she couldn't accept was his apparent lack of empathy. Did he really think his loss was greater than his child's?
The following excerpt is from the middle of the book.
Jack pried the child’s dimpled arms from his neck, kissed her sisters, and rumpled Tommy’s hair. “Where’s your mom, sport?”
“Upstairs trying on her new clothes.”
“Daddy,” Linda said, tugging at his arm. “Can you take us to the park after supper?”
“Can’t, honey, I have a racquetball game tonight.”
“Can’t then either, babe. I promised Tommy we’d work on his pitching arm.”
The little girl’s face clouded over.
“Honey, I’m sorry. I already promised Tommy. Besides, Daddy needs time to do just guy stuff. I’ll take all of you to the park some other time, okay?”
Linda’s bottom lip bulged. “Ohh-kay,” she said, drawing out each forlorn syllable.
Hoping to cheer her up, Jack tickled her under the chin. “But, hey, we’re all going to the beach on Sunday. That’ll be fun.”
Linda returned his announcement with a feeble smile, Suzy greeted it with a delighted shriek, and Jodie merely wrinkled her button nose and grinned.
Jack grinned as well, amazed by his children’s diverse personalities. Linda, independent and controlled, expressed her feelings subtly if at all; Suzy, abounding with exuberance, shared every emotion the instant she experienced it, vocally, animatedly, and uninhibitedly; sweet, even-tempered Jodie fell somewhere in between, not as aloof as one sister, not as vociferous as the other. A real mixed bag, he thought as he climbed the stairs, unlike the children he grew up with.
In the foster care system, most of the kids learned early on to rein in their emotions, wary of showing anger when ragged lest they become the butt of every prank. And God help the poor tyke who couldn’t control a quivery lip and brimming eyes. Even joy was suspect, a kid sooner scorning that which brought him pleasure than risk having it snatched away by mean-spirited playmates.
After surviving a childhood as bereft as one could imagine, Jack considered it his duty to prevent a similar experience for Tommy. What boy wouldn’t benefit from having a man in his corner, someone with whom he could toss a ball, watch scary movies on a rainy Sunday, or just plain hang out and grouse about the peculiarities of the opposite sex?
Upon reaching his room, Jack paused in the hallway, transfixed by the figure pirouetting in front of his mirror. On her third twirl, she saw him, stopping so fast she nearly tipped over.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come home,” she said in a breathy voice. Eyes large and luminous, she tugged at the pale wisps of hair at the nape of her neck. “I hope you don’t mind, but I spent more than I planned. I have all the receipts here.”
“Uh, no. No, I don’t mind.”
“I stopped off at the beauty parlor too.” She smiled, and her smile assaulted him. Everything in the room dimmed but her and that killer smile. “What do you think?” she said, showing no mercy.
Jack stared back. What did he think? Her hair, once drab and lifeless, now seemed almost iridescent, the shade a dazzling blend of Christmas tinsel shot through with gold dust. Had it always been that sparkly? And her eyes, once as mesmerizing as muddy water swirling down a storm drain, now reminded him of melted honey. How could a few dollars worth of cosmetics make such a huge difference?
“Do I look presentable?” she asked, firing another volley of smiles.
Surrendering without a fight, he mumbled, “Uh, yeah. You look―terrific.”
Once the words fell out of his mouth, both blushed, aware his positive response took their relationship out of one realm and into another.