Read Kids Is A 4-Letter Word Online

Authors: Stephanie Bond

Kids Is A 4-Letter Word (15 page)

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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Squashing her anxiety, Jo laughed nervously and said, “Well, you certainly surprised me.”

Alan smiled. “To be honest, I should call your friend John Sterling and thank him.”

Jo’s head snapped up. “John? What does he have to do with this?”

“I’m not blind, Jo, I can see the guy has eyes for you. Besides, he said something last night about commitment that hit home.” Alan shrugged, palms up. “I called a jeweler first thing this morning.”

Jo conjured up a watery smile.

“Do you have any feelings about a wedding date?”

“Soon,” she whispered. “As soon as possible.”

“Great,” he said. “That will keep both of our mothers from making a big production out of the whole thing.”

Jo nodded. “Yeah.”

“So,” he shouted into the night air, “thank you, John Sterling, wherever you are!”

“W
ELL
, it’s about time!” Helen shouted, pulling Jo close for a suffocating hug. “Let me see the ring.” She pursed her lips as she inspected the diamond, nodding her satisfaction. “Looks like a carat and a half, what do you think, Madden?”

Jo’s father squeezed her hand, smiling. “I think it’s none of our business how much the stone weighs, Helen.”

From her perch by the sink, Hattie held up a glass of iced tea. “Here, here.”

Helen frowned at her sister, then turned back to Jo. “A spring wedding would be nice, don’t you think, dear? I’ll call first thing tomorrow to book the string quartet that played at Margaret Fitch’s wedding. Remember the little crab quiches they served?”

“Whoa, Mom,” Jo said, holding up her hands. “I hate to disappoint you, but Alan and I have decided on a small church wedding in the very near future.”

“How near?”

“Three weeks.”

“What?” Helen screeched, clutching her chest. “It’s impossible to organize a wedding in three weeks, Josephine.”

“No, it isn’t. Alan and I compared our work schedules and it’s the best time for both of us. It’ll give me time to finish a
residential job I’m working on.” She felt a pang in her side. “When I come back, I’ll start a big commercial job that will probably take at least a year to finish.” Another pang, this one worse.

“Where are you going on your honeymoon?”

“Fort Myers Beach.”

Her mother’s face crumpled. “But that’s so common! With Alan’s money you could go to Hawaii, or Europe!”

Jo felt for her mother, she really did. Her only daughter was marrying a wealthy man and she was being robbed of the social recognition that accompanied a glamorous wedding. “Mom, we discussed it, and neither one of us wants to be too far away from our business in case there’s an emergency.”

“What does it matter?” Hattie asked. “All a couple needs is a bed and a remote control.”

Jo’s mother shot her sister an annoyed glance while Jo flushed and pressed her lips together to conceal a smile. Hattie swept over to Jo to scrutinize the ring, then whispered, “Or in Alan’s case, just a remote control will suffice.”

Jo pinched her aunt on the back of her hand. “Behave,” she said.

Sunday dinner was even more stressful than usual, with Helen making suggestions and Jo gently shooting them down. Exasperated, her mother finally said, “Josephine, will I be invited?”

“Of course,” Hattie said quickly. “With that hair, Helen, you’re the something old
and
the something blue.”

“Mother,” Jo said softly, “why don’t you meet me for lunch tomorrow and we’ll pick out invitations?”

Somewhat assuaged, Helen nodded morosely.

Later, Jo’s father followed her outside to wait for Hattie.

“This is a big step, sweetheart,” he said. “Are you sure you’re ready for it?”

Jo looked up into her father’s warm eyes and nodded. If nothing else, her experience with the Sterling family had proved to her that her personal life had reached an impasse.
She needed to move on. “Dad, did you always want children?”

He crossed his arms. “I think so, yes.”

She bit her bottom lip. “Did you ever regret it?”

“Not for one second,” he said, drawing her into a hug. “Besides,” he added, pulling away to smile at her, “that would have left me with just your mother.”

Jo laughed, poking her dad in the ribs.

On the drive home, Hattie was quiet—not meditating as usual, just studying her hands in silence.

After the first mile, Jo sighed. “What, Hattie?”

Her aunt’s eyes widened in innocence.

“Out with it,” Jo said. “You haven’t said twenty words since I broke the news.”

“I was wondering what your Mr. Sterling thinks about you getting married.”

“He’s not
my
Mr. Sterling, and it doesn’t matter what he thinks.”

“You haven’t told him, have you?”

“Alan only asked me last night, Hattie. Anyway, after the way I used John and his kids, I’m sure his reaction would be ‘good riddance.’” And that wasn’t the worst of it, she thought as scenes of their lovemaking flashed in her mind.

“Did you tell John you played along with the Pattersons because you were close to defaulting on your loan?”

Jo nearly swerved off the road. “How did you know that?”

“I know how much it takes to keep the office running, much less make that hefty loan payment every month.”

Jo winced. “Do you think I made a bad decision?”

Hattie sighed. “Jo, my dear, some of your decisions are questionable, but the software was a good investment—it helped you land the Patterson account.”

“No,” Jo said painfully. “The Sterlings helped me land the Patterson account.”

“Which brings me back to your questionable decisions.”

“You’re right. If I had it to do over, I’d never have let the Pattersons believe I was a supermom.”

“Jo,” Hattie said, and sighed impatiently, “not
that
decision. I’m talking about your decision to marry Alan.”

“Hattie, we’ve been over this ground before—”

“And I would keep my mouth shut if I thought you were completely happy.”

Frowning, Jo asked, “Don’t I look happy?”

“No,” Hattie murmured softly. “You don’t. I think you’re more attached to those children than you care to admit.”

Alarm ballooned in Jo’s stomach. “Y-you must be imagining things, Hattie. I’ve never wanted children.”

“Have you ever thought that could be because you’ve never met a man you wanted to have children
with?

Jo swallowed, wanting her jumbled feelings to go away, to be replaced by confidence that she was doing the right thing. “John doesn’t love me, Hattie,” she said. “He’s attracted to me, but he’s looking for a woman who can be a full-time mom to those kids. At least I know Alan loves me and I can be my own person with him.”

After a few seconds of silence, Hattie said, “If you’re sure.”

Inhaling deeply with resolve, Jo said, “I’m sure.”

“Well, I was hoping Torry would be here for your wedding, but three weeks might be a little optimistic, even for me.”

Her tone cautious, Jo asked, “Have you heard from him?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“He spoke to me in a dream last night—he said we’d be together soon.”

“Oh. That’s nice.”

Hattie clasped her hands together. “Jo, that’s the kind of love I want for you—the kind you don’t have to question—a love for all time.”

“I’ve made my decision, Hattie.”

Her aunt clucked. “You’ve made your bed, but you still have time to decide who’s going to lie in it with you.”

10

F
RIDAY AFTERNOONS
were normally low-key around the office. As with every day this week, she’d spent the morning with the painters at John’s house, careful to arrive after she was sure he was gone, and leave well before everyone came home. The workers had accomplished a lot in five days, but there was still plenty to do in the two weeks that remained. Jo was determined to cut all ties with the Sterlings before she walked down the aisle with Alan.

She had just put down her purse and switched on her computer when the phone rang. “Montgomery Group Interiors, this is Jo.”

“Miss Montgomery, this is Mary Avondale, the school nurse from Brookwood Elementary.”

Her mind spun as to why she should know the woman. “Yes?”

“I’m with a student, Claire Sterling, who insists she needs to talk to you.”

Sitting up straight, Jo said, “Put her on.”

“Jo?” Claire sounded tearful and frightened.

“Claire, what’s wrong?”

“Can you come and get me? I’m very sick.”

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“I can’t tell you over the phone—it’s real bad. I need for you. to come right away.”

“Did you call your daddy?”

“No!” Claire exclaimed. “He can’t know. Promise me you’ll come instead of Daddy.”

Jo’s heart wrenched at the fear in the little girl’s voice. “I’ll
be there as soon as I can. Put Miss Avondale back on the phone.”

“Hello?”

“Miss Avondale, do you know what’s wrong with Claire?”

“No, ma’am. She said she wouldn’t talk to anyone but you.”

Phone crooked under her chin, Jo scribbled directions to the school, then hung up, yelled to Hattie, and ran out the door.

Biting her nails on the way over, Jo chastised herself for not informing John that Claire looked flushed last Saturday. For all she knew, she could have spinal meningitis by now. Some mother she’d make—she couldn’t even tell when a child was sick. She depressed the gas pedal harder, sliding into a parking space in the school lot at an odd angle.

Running from office to office, she finally found the nurse’s station, relieved to see Claire hugging her knees, sitting on a low padded bench in the small reception area.

“Jo!” She jumped up and threw her arms around Jo’s waist “I knew you’d come.”

Kneeling, Jo felt the girl’s forehead. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“I’m pregnant!”

Jo nearly swallowed her tongue. Thankfully, her closed throat kept her from screeching her surprise. Taking a deep breath, Jo wiped the alarm from her face. “Claire, has anyone ever touched you anywhere you didn’t want them to?”

Claire frowned, looking completely puzzled. “No.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Jo bit back the smile that threatened to break through. “What makes you think you’re pregnant?”

The little girl shifted uncomfortably, then leaned forward, tears in her eyes. “My boobies hurt. Stacy Whetter told me that’s how her older sister knew she was pregnant.” Her bottom lip trembled, and she fell against Jo, sobbing. “Oh, Jo, I don’t want to have a baby!”

Jo hugged her close, patting her back, trying to help her regain her composure. She wouldn’t subject Claire to further
indignities by laughing at her misguided concerns. “Shh, sweetheart, don’t cry—you’re not pregnant.”

Claire pulled back and hiccuped. “I’m not?”

Smiling, Jo shook her head. “No, you’re not I suspect, however, that you are beginning to develop, um, boobies, and that’s why they’re hurting. Do you have any training bras?”

Eyes wide, Claire shook her head gravely.

Tilting her head, Jo wiped Claire’s tears and said, “Then we’ll fix that.”

Claire sniffed, then grinned and poked at her glasses:

Consulting her watch, Jo said, “It’s only another hour before you leave. I’ll see if I can sign you out.”

Predictably, the school secretary wouldn’t allow Claire to leave with a nonfamily member, so Jo dialed John’s office from a pay phone in the corner. Susan put her through to John with minimal drilling.

“Jo?”

His voice was so deep and so…welcome. Jo squashed the flash of lust she felt, spinning her engagement ring round and round. “John, I’m at Claire’s school. She called and asked me to come pick her up.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice escalating.

“Well, nothing medical exactly,” Jo said, looking over her shoulder to make sure Claire was out of earshot. “But your little girl is developing breasts and it scared her so much she thought she was pregnant.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“I don’t think so, because I heard you say the words ‘your little girl,’ ‘breasts’ and ‘pregnant’ all in the same sentence.”

“John, I don’t suppose you’ve talked to Claire about the birds and the bees?”

“She’s only nine years old!”

“And she’ll be able to conceive a child in about three years.”

“Aaagggh! Don’t
say
that.”

“Sorry to be the bearer of unwanted news,” she said wryly.
“Since I’m here, I thought I’d take her out to get a few underthings she’ll be needing—or would you rather do it?”

“No!” He cleared his throat noisily. “I mean, no, I’m sure she’d rather you pick out her…underthingies.”

“Fine. Just call the school back and give them permission to let her go with me, and I’ll drop her by the house in a couple of hours.”

“Sure,” he said. “Oh, and Jo…”

“Yes?”

“Um…thanks.”

A
FTER HE CALLED
the school, John sat back in his desk chair and scrubbed his hand over his face. It was a sad, sad day…his little girl had breasts.

John sighed, then slowly reached over to open a desk drawer, and pulled out a cigarette. Then, shaking his head, he put it back in the package and relaxed into his chair. From the same drawer he pulled a photograph—the five of them collapsed in the stiff chairs at the mall food court He and Jo were looking at each other, and the children were all looking at them. Such a neat little fit of scattered puzzle pieces. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he forced himself to remember that Jo Montgomery had used him and the children to gain a lucrative decorating account. She wasn’t attached to him and his family; she’d been pretending all along.

Or had she? He might be a little rusty, but he’d bedded enough women to know an enthusiastic response when he felt one. And she’d seemed happy to take Claire shopping last weekend, plus take time out of her work schedule today. But then again, she could be doing it to make up for her little game of deception.

Leaning back in his chair, he banked miniature paper wads into his wastebasket until it overflowed. Sighing, he stood and stretched, unwilling to dive into the paperwork for the new airport hotel. He was restless now, and he ruefully acknowledged it probably had something to do with the fact that Jo
Montgomery would be coming to his house this evening, if only to drop off Claire.

He couldn’t wait to see her.

“You’re pathetic, Sterling,” he mumbled.

Susan walked into his office and knocked at the same time. She held a newspaper in her hand. “I’ve been meaning to show this to you all day, but I’d forgotten until Jo Montgomery just called.” She carefully unfolded the paper, then turned a couple of pages. “There,” she said, pointing. “Nice picture, eh?”

John’s breath froze in his chest. Jo Montgomery smiled back at him, and the caption beneath her photo heralded Montgomery and Parish Announce Forthcoming Vows.

J
O’S PULSE
beat more erratically the closer her car got to John’s home. Claire sat in the passenger seat, clutching the bag containing six new Comfort-eeze stretch training bras, identical to the one the little girl wore under her Mickey Mouse shirt.

Suddenly Claire leaned across the car seat, staring in awe. “Is that an engagement ring?”

Laughing nervously, Jo nodded and held it out for Claire to see.

“Wow! Does that mean you’re getting married?”

“Uh-huh. My boyfriend asked me last weekend.”

Claire bit her bottom lip. “So I guess my daddy won’t be trying to kiss you anymore?”

Jo pressed her lips together and nodded. “That’s right.”

“Jo, don’t you think my daddy is nice?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why don’t you marry
him
instead?”

Jo sighed. “Because I’m marrying Alan.”

“What if something happens and you don’t marry Alan,
then
would you marry my daddy?”

John was right—his children had grown attached to Jo and now they were in for a letdown. Her heart ached. “But nothing’s going to happen.”

Claire frowned. “Will you still come and see us sometime?”

Looking over at her dejected face, Jo felt like the lowest life-form. “Sure, sweetheart.”

She pulled into the driveway, then hesitated. Perhaps she shouldn’t go in.

Then Jamie bounded out the door. “Jo! My room’s painted all blue—it’s nice! Want to see?”

She hesitated, then nodded. “Okay.” After she emerged from her car, the children each grabbed a hand and pulled her toward the front door.

“Just Plain Jo!” Billy yelled a greeting from the den where he sat among a stack of building blocks.

“Hi, Billy.” Jo waved. Where was John?

“Look, Jo, your picture’s in the newspaper,” Jamie said, reaching up to the snack bar and carrying the paper to her.

Frowning, Jo took the paper, then her eyes widened. She sighed in annoyance, then muttered, “Well, Mom, I hope you’re happy.”

“What does it say?” Jamie asked, tugging on her sleeve.

“It says Jo’s getting married,” John said, walking into the room. He leaned over to hug Claire. “Hi, sweetheart.”

Jo’s stomach vaulted at the sight of him. And the fact that he knew about her engagement affected her breathing in strange ways. His hair was slightly mussed, as if after he’d pulled the holey jersey over his head, he hadn’t bothered to comb it again. He wore white gym shorts that revealed his disturbingly familiar muscular legs, and stood barefoot.

“Look at Jo’s ring, Daddy. Isn’t it pretty?” Claire asked.

He looked at Jo and pursed his lips, then reached forward and lifted her hand, fingering the knuckle of her third finger much as he had only days ago. “Hmm, nice,” he said. “I guess the man’s not as big an idiot as I thought.”

Jo smiled and shrugged lightly. “He said all your talk about commitment the other night hit home.”

John stared at her, then crossed his arms. “Well,” he said, his voice deceptively soft above the ears of the children, “the
least you could have done was let me in on it—remember me, your
husband?

Straightening her shoulders, Jo changed the subject. “Claire has the things she needs for now, but if I were you, I wouldn’t postpone the talk I mentioned for very long.”

“Oh?” John asked, his eyes flat. “And you’re the parenting expert now?”

The remark hit her like a slap in the face. She wasn’t mommy material—not now, not ever. “N-no,” she stammered. “I…I have to go.”

She turned toward the door and Jamie yelled, “But Jo, don’t you want to see my room?”

Blinking furiously, Jo tried her best to smile. “I’ll see it tomorrow, Jamie, okay?” She walked across the foyer as fast as she could. As she closed the door behind her, she heard Jamie mumble, “I’m Peter. Daddy, why is Jo crying?”

On the way home, Jo rolled down the window and drove slowly, welcoming the bracing breeze, wishing it would blow away all her problems, all her fuzzy feelings. She owed it to Alan to stay away from John Sterling, but their paths kept crossing. It was impossible to disappoint the children, especially Claire, but she’d have to steel herself the next time one of them called. She simply could not keep riding this emotional roller coaster—front car, no hands.

She dialed her office voice mail to check messages. The third caller was Melissa Patterson. “
Miss
Montgomery,” she said in a cool tone, “I was looking through the paper today and spotted something rather interesting. I think we should talk.”

“M
RS.
P
ATTERSON
will see you now,” the young woman said gravely, sweeping her arm toward the door. She gave Jo an apologetic half smile.

Jo halted before the closed door, her heart thudding against her chest. She took a deep breath and turned the knob. Mrs. Patterson turned in her tall swivel chair and offered her a chilly smile. “Come in, Miss Montgomery.”

Nodding and smiling, Jo took the seat she was offered, trying desperately to calm her rolling stomach. Her palms were wet with perspiration. Inside her purse was a check for most of the advance the Pattersons had given her. If they insisted on full repayment immediately, she’d have to swallow her pride and go to Alan.

“Mrs. Patterson,” Jo began, laughing nervously, “I suppose you would like an explanation for the announcement in the newspaper.”

The woman pursed her thin lips. “I’ve narrowed the explanations down to two—either you’re a bigamist, or you’re a liar.”

Clearing her throat, Jo said, “Um, yes, well—”

“I don’t have all day, Miss Montgomery, which is it?”

She took a deep breath, then said, “Well, I guess if I would have to pick one—liar.”

“That’s fortunate since it’s the only legal option. And may I ask why you felt it necessary to weave such a fantastic lie?”

Jo cleared her throat again, then spoke softly, carefully. “The day I first met you and Mr. Patterson, you assumed the children were mine. After you mentioned it would help my chances for getting your account, I simply let you go on believing it.”

“You mean you played us for fools.”

“I certainly didn’t mean—”

“And were the children and Mr. Sterling in on it—I suppose to wangle their way back into the day care?”

“No, they’re completely innocent.”

“The children seemed very attached to you.”

Jo took a deep breath and nodded, her lips pressed together. “I’m redecorating the Sterling house. I suppose they latched on to me as a mother figure.”

“But the other night in the restaurant, I distinctly heard Mr. Sterling refer to you as his wife.”

“We weren’t together,” Jo said, feeling like a dolt. “Our dates had excused themselves from the table when you appeared.
John didn’t know what was going on—he covered for me.”

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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