Authors: Stephanie Bond
“You owe me about a thousand.” “I’ll let you sleep with Nick the All-Nighter sometime.”
“Promises, promises,” Jo said, then hung up.
Walking to the catalog room, her thoughts lingered on her bubbly friend. A pang of envy flashed through her when she considered Pam’s lifestyle, her personality. Jo fingered the familiar spines of the sample books, searching for the ones she needed.
Her best friend was a leggy blond bombshell, unabashedly sexual, and a fabulous real-estate agent in spite of it—or because of it, Jo couldn’t decide which. Her flamboyance and scatterbrained bearing opposed Jo’s no-nonsense demeanor in a way that defied the laws of friendship. They agreed on little, except to accept each other, which was all that really mattered,
they’d decided long ago. Besides, Jo liked having Pam around. She felt like a more exciting person just for
For Hattie’s reference, Jo logged the catalogs she’d removed, then loaded everything into the trunk of her car. She refused to acknowledge her trembling fingers as she unlocked the sedan’s door. The appointment with the Pattersons loomed over her like an inquisition. Had she lost her mind? How was she going to pass off the Sterling kids as her own?
Jo inhaled deeply as she pulled into traffic. Just this once. She’d pretend to be stepmother to the kids just long enough to firmly implant her momminess in the mind of the Pattersons. From that point on, she’d make excuses for being alone on the job. Suddenly the implication of her assumed role hit her dead center: if she was going to pass herself off as the children’s stepmother, she would also be passing herself off as John Sterling’s wife.
into the kitchen, wrestling with his top shirt button, but alert and wary. Strange smells emanating from the room had convinced him he was needed, or would be shortly.
Billy sat in his high chair, the remnants of who-knew-what down the front of the clean shirt John had put on him only minutes ago. “Daddy funny,” he squealed, pointing to John’s face.
John made a comical face, feeling the tightness where a half-dozen little scraps of toilet paper blotted razor cuts. “Daddy needs a new razor. Billy, do you have to go potty?” John nodded hopefully.
“No!” Billy said earnestly, his eyebrows diving center. “Bad monster potty.”
John turned to Claire, who stood on a step stool at the counter, wearing one of Annie’s old aprons. He smiled. “What smells so…strong?” he asked, gently tweaking the little girl’s ear, then checking the stove for flames. A pan of oatmeal had been cooked within an inch of its life—more of it oozed over the sides than remained in the pot. The cleaning lady, Mrs.
Harris, would need safety glasses to remove the mess from the stove. At least the burner had been turned off.
“Sit down, Daddy,” Claire said, giving him a rare smile. “I fixed you breakfast.”
John took the long way to the table, trying to find the source of the horrific odor. He stopped at the microwave, and opened it Something had exploded. The acrid smell wafted out and scorched his nostrils. He slammed the door shut. “Oh my God, what was it?”
“Eggs,” Claire said solemnly, carrying a loaded plate to the table, her concentration intent. “Jamie tried to scramble them.”
John swallowed. “In the shells?”
“Where is he? Jamie!”
“I’m Peter,” came the loud reply from the den.
“He’s watching for Jo,” Claire said, still holding the plate, a hurt look on her face. “Aren’t you going to eat, Daddy?”
John hurried to sit down. “Of course, sweetie.” He smacked his lips as she set the plate before him. A ball of rock-solid oatmeal sat in the center, with a spoon standing straight up in the middle of the mass. Two pieces of smoking black toast were artfully arranged around the edge. A glass of green Kool-Aid sat nearby, filled to the brim, only a little of it spilled over the sides. His stomach pitched.
“It looks great, honey,” he said convincingly, and took a bite out of a charred slice of toast to prove it. “Mmm-mmm!” He was rewarded with a big grin. Claire covered her mouth with her hand, giggling.
“Jamie, come and eat your oatmeal,” John yelled into the den.
“Peter Pan has to keep a lookout,” came the gruff response.
“We already have a lookout, it’s called a doorbell. Now, come and eat.”
“Do I hafta?”
“Get in here.”
The tone must have worked, because Jamie came shuffling in, dragging his feet. “I don’t like oatmeal,” he whined.
John sighed and frowned. “You love oatmeal.”
“Not when it’s as hard as a baseball,” he said sourly. “I want pancakes like Granny used to make us.”
A flash of self-reproach stabbed John. The children missed Annie’s mother, whom they’d lived near in Atlanta. She’d taken over the mothering role after Annie died, but her health had begun slipping a few months ago. John suspected that watching the kids had taken its toll on her. Savannah was still close enough for his in-laws to visit and really enjoy their grandchildren now, instead of sharing the burden of raising them.
“I know Granny was a good cook—” The ringing doorbell cut John off.
“Jo’s here,” Jamie yelped, tearing from the room.
John’s pulse thrummed faster, and he had a hard time swallowing the dry bit of toast stuck in his throat. He could hear his son murmuring an excited greeting, and Jo’s lilting voice responding. Wiping his mouth, he stood, preparing to greet her. Jamie came rushing into the room carrying a white bag with both hands.
“Look—McDonald’s!” he cried. “Jo brought pancakes!” He jumped around like a pogo stick.
Jo hung back from the kitchen entrance, holding a second bag. John’s stomach jumped, but he wasn’t sure if the reaction was triggered by the wonderful smells emanating from the bag, or by the sight of Jo Montgomery in her leggy little outfit.
breakfast.” Claire’s voice was clouded with hurt John looked at his daughter and saw her lower lip trembling slightly.
Jo took one glance at Claire’s wounded face and realized her mistake. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have called first to check.” Awkwardness swirled in her stomach, combined with an odd queasiness at seeing John Sterling again. He wasn’t quite ready for work yet, his top shirt button open enough for a plain cotton T-shirt to show. Even standing in
his sock feet with a toilet paper-spotted face, he looked out of place in the kitchen, the calm nucleus in the chaos around him. She sniffed. What was that god-awful smell?
“Between Claire and Miss Montgomery, we’ll have a feast,” John proclaimed cheerfully. “Right, Claire?”
Claire worked her mouth from side to side, then relented with a little nod, and busied herself mining a chunk of oatmeal from the lump on her plate.
Jo recognized the retreat and said, “Claire, I brought chocolate milk.”
The little girl’s wide green eyes swam with tears behind the thick glasses, and she perused Jo thoughtfully. “No, thank you,” she said quietly, then lifted her glass of green Kool-Aid to her mouth for a sip.
Without meaning to, she had undermined the girl’s attempts to take care of her family. Jo tried not to analyze the troubled feelings Claire’s dismissal aroused.
“Thank you, Miss Montgomery,” John said with a grateful incline of his head. He reached to take the bag she held. “I’ll pay you for the food.”
“That’s not necessary,” she said hurriedly.
It’s the least I can do for the use of your kids.
She felt a guilty blush crawl up her neck.
Jamie tore into the bag, sending packets of condiments flying. Within seconds, he was devouring a stack of pancakes, drenched in butter and syrup. Billy drank his fill of chocolate milk, disproving the claim of the spill-proof cup he used. Even Claire relented and nibbled on a biscuit. John made a big show of finishing his ball of oatmeal and most of the toast before rounding it out with some of the fast food.
Jo took in the happy, domestic scene at the circular pickledoak table from the safe distance of the bar that separated the kitchen from the den. She leaned her hip against the counter and munched on a muffin, smiling. Breakfast with her father remained one of her happiest memories of growing up. Dressed in his navy blue policeman’s uniform, he always looked so handsome and smelled so good. He’d let Jo wear
his hat while he listened to her read the comics from the morning newspaper.
“Jo,” John said, startling her out of her reverie. “Why don’t you join us?” Hearing her name on his lips stirred something inside her, then panic rumbled in her stomach. She felt out of place in his home—she certainly didn’t belong in the middle of it. She straightened. “Thanks, but I need to go back out to the car for some supplies so I can get started right away.”
“I’ll help!” Jamie offered, standing and sending his chair flying back. Syrup trailed off his chin.
“You, eat,” John said pointedly. “I’ll help Miss Montgomery.” He wiped the syrup from his own chin and stood.
Already on her way out of the kitchen, Jo tried to wave him off. Despite her protests, he followed her, slipping on dark dress shoes at the door, then walking alongside her, close enough to scatter her nerve endings. What was wrong with her? After all, he was just a client.
Just a client who made her legs so weak she had to lean against the trunk of her car for support.
“Nice day,” he observed.
She nodded her agreement as she lifted the lid, then proceeded to fill his arms with bulky catalogs.
“Yes?” she asked, surprised at the hesitant tone of his voice.
He looked extremely uncomfortable, and lifted his free hand to finger his loose collar. “This may be a bit premature, but…oh, what the heck! Would you have dinner with me this evening?”
Jo felt her face flush from an unexpected rush of pleasure. She looked into his expectant eyes, and found herself intrigued by the interest she saw there. The scraps of white tissue dotting his face gave him a boyish air, earthy and appealing. She opened her mouth to say yes, then she remembered Alan, and her heart dipped. “I’m very flattered, J-John,” she said, stammering over his first name, “but I already have plans.”
He looked disappointed, and nodded his understanding. “I see. And if I were to ask again, would you have plans that night, as well?”
Never before since she’d been dating Alan had she been tempted to see another man. John Sterling affected her in a way she couldn’t describe, and for a split second, she desperately wanted to explore the chemistry between them. “I—”
“Daaaaa-deeeeeeee!” Jamie yelled from the front door. “Susan the witch is on the phone. She told me to come and get you.”
One glance at the way he held the phone verified Susan had heard every word.
“Where on earth did he hear that?” John muttered, then more loudly, “Tell her I’ll be right there.”
Jo swallowed guiltily. She’d have to watch her mouth around the three little Sterling sponges.
“About dinner—you were going to say…?” he prompted.
She took a deep breath. No doubt, John Sterling was a very tempting man, but Jamie was a timely reminder that John had little room in his life for a love interest, and she had no room in her life for a ready-made family. So why jeopardize her stable relationship with Alan over a lost cause?
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m involved with someone.”
He eyed her thoughtfully for a few seconds, then to her amazement, he juggled his load, reached forward and lifted her left hand, his thumb closing over the knuckle on her bare third finger. “Either you’re being untruthful,” he said slowly, “or the man’s an idiot.” He dropped her hand, and walked back to the house.
His words bolted through her like an electrical connection searching for a ground. Jo remained rooted to the spot for a full minute, fighting to regain her composure. The vague thought surfaced that she should be angry with him for what he’d said, but she couldn’t seem to conjure up any feeling except…Jo swallowed…
She grabbed a few loose brochures, then reentered the house. John was just hanging up the phone. “Have you seen
the entire house?” he asked. The awkwardness of the previous moment had vanished.
“Not all of it,” Jo said, thankful to get back on business footing.
“How about a tour before I leave?”
She nodded agreeably, and grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil. John instructed the kids to finish eating, then turned to Jo with a smile and motioned for her to follow him. She did, trying not to focus on the athletic way he carried himself. He was a big man who was clearly comfortable with the space his body occupied.
John showed her the laundry room between the garage and the kitchen, then explained he’d like to make better use of the snack bar that separated the den from the kitchen. He also expressed his displeasure at the light fixtures in the stark, empty dining room.
“Do you still have furniture in storage?” Jo asked, assuming he owned a dining-room suite and den furniture she hadn’t seen.
“No,” he said. “My house in Atlanta was smaller than this one, and I gave most of my furnishings to my in-laws before I moved to Savannah. Some of the pieces were heirlooms from Annie’s family, and I wanted the furniture to be kept out of harm’s way until the children are old enough to inherit it.”
A tiny shock wave moved through Jo at the sound of his wife’s name. Annie was a lovely name…Jo knew the woman must have been lovely, as well. Probably blond, based on Claire’s and Billy’s coloring. A woman with everything: a loving husband, three bright children. John looked at her, and Jo saw distant pain in his eyes. He must have seen the question in hers, because he said quietly, “My wife was killed in a car accident two years ago.”
Jo analyzed his voice for longing, for desperation, but heard only acceptance. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, her heart constricting. In the seconds that passed in silence, she felt as if they had taken a giant step toward…something. The sensation left her head spinning with possibilities.
He nodded wordlessly, then walked across the den, through a set of French doors and into a study. This room was almost fully furnished, and Jo nodded in approval at the clean lines of the heavy desk, chair and armoire. “I could use a couple more pieces in here, too,” John noted. “Maybe a chair or two, and a table—whatever you think.”