Read Kids Is A 4-Letter Word Online

Authors: Stephanie Bond

Kids Is A 4-Letter Word (7 page)

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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Jo took a deep breath and knelt in front of the little boy, her hand on his shoulder. “If the car had gone out into the road, you eould have been killed, Jamie.” Her voice was shaking. “Do you know what that means?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Like my mom was killed by a car.”

Jo hesitated, then said, “That’s right. And you know how sad your daddy was when that happened?”

He nodded solemnly. “Daddy cried.”

Her heart was getting an aerobic workout this morning, she thought as it squeezed tighter. “I’m sure he did. But if something happened to you or Claire or Billy, your daddy would
never
stop crying. Do you understand?”

Jamie nodded, tears welling in his eyes. “Don’t tell Daddy, okay, Jo?”

She sighed, then pulled the little boy to her for a hug.
“Okay, but if you
ever
do this again, I’m going to give you time-off for a jillion years, got it?”

He sniffed, then giggled against her neck. “It’s time-
out
, Jo.”

His small body melted into hers, his arms going around her neck like a vise. “Whatever,” she mumbled, her insides turning over at his touch. When he loosened his grip, Jo glanced at her watch and gasped. “We’re late!” She dashed back into the house to rustle up light jackets for everyone and to grab her purse from the hall table. Mrs. Harris was pulling in when she came out carrying Billy’s car seat. The kids ran to the buxom gray-haired woman and received hugs and kisses in return. Jo introduced herself and chatted for a few minutes before hurrying the kids into the car. This time she instructed Jamie to sit up front, and put Billy in the back where Claire could tend to his needs if necessary.

Jamie turned around and stuck his tongue out at Claire. “I get to sit up front!”

“And Claire gets to on the way home,” Jo interjected smoothly, sticking her tongue out at Jamie. In the back seat, Claire giggled.

Aside from stopping to make Jamie apologize for throwing a wad of bubblegum onto the windshield of the police car behind them, the trip to the day care was relatively uneventful.

A row of four-foot-tall red lockers lined the walls of the entryway for the day care, colorful coat sleeves hanging out here and there. A big-boned brunette woman dressed in chinos and a sweatshirt greeted Jo. She looked to be in her mid-forties. At first, she presented a wide smile to the group, then her eyes swept the children and the smile froze beneath her bulging eyes.

Jamie lifted his hand in a wave. “Hi ya, Cap’n Hook.”

Already nervous, Jo’s stomach dived and her eyes darted to his impish grin. “Jamie, do you know this nice lady?”

“He should,” the woman said sourly. “He did everything short of cutting off my hand the week he was here.” She looked at Jo, then straightened, as if suddenly remembering
her place. “I’m Carolyn Hook,” she said, “the director here at KidScape. As I explained to Mr. Sterling and to his
last
nanny, the boys are too disruptive to attend our day care.” She smiled tightly and angled her head in a sympathetic gesture. “I’m sure you understand, Ms…”

“Jo Montgomery.” Jo extended her hand, fighting a frown. Some bedside manner for a day-care director. She didn’t love kids herself, but at least she hadn’t made it her career. “But I’m
not
Mr. Sterling’s nanny.” She paused for a few seconds to let the woman ponder her role in the Sterling household. “My design firm is going to bid on redecorating all the area KidScape day cares. Mr. and Mrs. Patterson said it would be all right if I stopped by to have a look around.” She hesitated, but the woman’s bearing bit into her, so she delivered the kicker. “And they asked me to bring the children along for feedback on how things are run.” A smile tickled her mouth as she watched realization dawn in the woman’s eyes.

“I beg your pardon, I had no idea Mr. Sterling had gotten mar—I mean…”

Say nothing that can’t be explained away later,
Jo reminded herself. She donned a tolerant smile and bent to set Billy on his feet, then took his hand firmly in hers. “I’m still getting used to the children myself, Ms. Hook.”

Cap’n Hook straightened and for a moment Jo thought the woman might salute. “Right this way, Ms. Montgomery. Mrs. Patterson is in the storytelling room.”

Melissa Patterson sat on a tiny stool, reading aloud from a bright storybook to a group of preschoolers on the floor. She winked at them, then wound up the story with a flourish, and the children clapped their hands. Rising from her stool, she smiled and addressed Jo. “I’m so glad you brought the children,” she said, then bent over and patted Jamie’s arm. “You’ll like it here.”

“No, I won’t,” he said simply. Jo winced.

Mrs. Patterson recoiled in surprise and said, “But you just arrived.”

“Me and my brother and sister were here for a while when we first moved here,” he explained in a bored voice.

“Why did you leave?” she asked, concern on her face.

Jamie jerked his thumb toward Carolyn Hook. “Ask Cap’n Hook.”

“Um, Mrs. Patterson,” the woman began nervously.

“Yes, Carolyn?”

“These are the Sterling children,” she said politely, but distinctly.

“The Sterling children?” Melissa Patterson looked confused.

“Remember?” Cap’n Hook asked, her eyes wide with meaning. “The flood in the boys’ bathroom? The
huge
insurance claim?”

Mrs. Patterson’s eyebrows went up. “Ohhhhh, you mean…” She pointed to Jamie, and Cap’n Hook nodded.

Great,
Jo thought
I’m playing stepmother to impress these people and I pick the kid who nearly destroyed their day care.
Jo sighed. “Jamie, why would you do such a thing?”

“Because,” he said, shrugging, “it’s boring here. All they do is tell stories.”

But before Jo could apologize, Mrs. Patterson raised her hand. The woman clasped Jamie’s hand and asked, “Would you come with me and tell me the kinds of things you’d like to do at day care?”

Jo allowed herself a small smile at Jamie’s accidental coup.

An hour later, Melissa Patterson followed Jo out to the car. Once the children were inside with seat belts fastened, she said, “I would appreciate it if you would incorporate some of your stepson’s ideas into the design bid—a multimedia room, a stage, a nature room—all of them. He’s a very creative boy…and that Peter Pan act is adorable.”

Guilt tugged at Jo’s heart as she looked in the car at the children. “They’re all special,” she agreed.

“I didn’t realize you’d married John Sterling,” the woman said, startling Jo. “I assume you still go by your maiden name?”

Jo nodded numbly, then, very near panic, asked, “Do you know John?”

“I spoke with him once over the phone about the flood incident, and he was a wonderfully gracious man.” She pursed her lips and frowned slightly in recollection. “In fact, I would have allowed the boy to come back, but poor Carolyn said she couldn’t take it, and I couldn’t afford to lose her.” She smiled apologetically, then brightened. “I’ll have a talk with her and see if we can work out something.”

“That would be very helpful,” Jo said, smiling gratefully. “Mr. Ster—I mean, John a-and I—” she felt heat suffusing her cheeks “—would appreciate taking the kids to a place we feel good about, at least for the next few days until school starts again. After that, it’ll just be Billy.”

“Consider it done,” Mrs. Patterson assured her in a professional tone, then changed the subject with an inquisitive tilt of her head. “Your husband just moved here from Atlanta and took over as head architect for Wilson Brothers, didn’t he?”

Jo’s mind raced, then she remembered the firm name from his business card. “Yes, that’s right.”

“Whirlwind courtship?”

Jo laughed nervously. “You could say that.”

Mrs. Patterson’s eyes narrowed slightly. “He must be a very persuasive man.”

“I
PICKED UP LUNCH
on the way home,” John said, holding the basket high. “It’s such a warm day, I thought we’d go to Forsythe Park and have a picnic.”

Jamie and Claire cheered, and Billy chimed in.

“Jo, too, Daddy?” Jamie asked, his eyes shining.

John turned his gaze on Jo. “I hope so.”

Jo tingled under his stare. She was still reeling from her morning of pretending to be Mrs. John Sterling, mother of three. The merry slant of his eyes tempted her. She could think of worse ways to while away the afternoon than sharing a sunny picnic with John Sterling. But her anticipation scared her. Two days ago she didn’t even know the Sterlings—in an
alarmingly short time, she’d become tangled in their lives. “I really can’t,” she said. “I need to get my notes together so we can talk about the contract.”

“There’ll be plenty of time to talk at the park,” John said.

A very persuasive man.

“Please, Jo?” Jamie hugged her waist and pulled at her hands, his eyes soft and expectant.

“Well…” She wavered and her stomach growled audibly.

John must have heard it. “Fried chicken,” he prompted, angling his head and lifting one side of the basket to allow a wonderful spicy aroma to escape.

What could it hurt? she wondered, other than her cholesterol count. It would give her a chance to review her notes with him. Alan would understand—it was strictly business. It had nothing to do with the fact she found John breathtaking in jeans and a pale blue sweatshirt. And how intimate could it be with three children along?

“Maybe just for a little while,” she agreed softly, but added, “I’ll drive my car in case I need to leave early.”

Jamie and Billy clapped their hands. Claire looked at Jo, her tiny green eyes neither friendly nor adversarial, just questioning. For an instant, Jo wondered how much the girl might have picked up on this morning at the day-care center. “Want to ride with me, Claire, and keep me company?”

The little girl nodded listlessly, and everyone piled into the cars. When they were under way, Claire remained quiet, sitting forward in her seat, engrossed in the passing landscape. At last, she seemed to relax, and settled back in her seat.

“Were you smart in school?” Claire asked, fingering a loose thread on the seam of her pants.

Surprised by this odd, lone question, Jo nodded cautiously. “I guess so.”

“Did you wear glasses?”

Jo smiled. “As a matter of fact, I did. I switched to contact lenses when I started high school.”

Claire pondered this bit of information for a few seconds.
“Did you have a boyfriend before you…you know—” she stabbed at her glasses “—started high school?”

Another heart tug. These kids had a knack for causing tugs. Apparently, Claire had heard the old “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” saying. Jo fastened her teeth on her lower lip. But nine years old was a little young to be interested in boys…wasn’t it? She glanced at Claire’s troubled eyes. “Well,” she began, keenly aware of the girl’s fragile confidence, “David Knickerbocker followed me around trying to carry my books, so I guess you could call him my boyfriend.”

Claire giggled, a tinkling sound. “Was that his real name?”

Jo nodded, grinning. “He was shorter than I was and his ears were as big as dinner plates.”

They both laughed, then Claire asked, “What happened to him?”

“I gave him a black eye in the sixth grade on the playground and he didn’t talk to me again until we were sixteen. By that time he’d grown into his ears and was very, very cute.”

Riveted, Claire murmured, “What did he say when he talked to you again?”

Jo leaned toward her conspiratorially, “He said he thought I was prettier wearing my glasses, but he asked me to the sweetheart dance anyway.”

Claire looked hopeful. “Really?”

“Really,” she said, and Jo looked back to the road.

She poked at her glasses. “Is he still your boyfriend?”

Jo hesitated when she thought of Alan. “Uh, no, I have a different boyfriend now.”

“Are you going to get married and have babies?”

Squirming, she reached to fiddle with the radio knob and tried to tamp down her irritation. It wasn’t Claire’s fault that her father was causing her feelings for Alan to short-circuit. And to think she was having dinner with him tonight after spending the afternoon with John. “Alan hasn’t asked me to marry him yet.”

Claire tipped her head back and looked up at Jo. “But what if he does?”

“Then I’ll…I’ll give him an answer.” Relief flooded through her when she spied their turn. “Oh, look, here we are.”

From the parking lot, Jo saw colorful blankets dotting the green expanse of sunny lawn of Forsythe Park. Other couples and families were already enjoying the break in the January weather. She retrieved a Frisbee from the trunk of her car, along with a jacket and ball cap for herself. Predictably, Jamie wanted to know why she had the Frisbee. “I bring my dog, Victor, here all the time to play catch,” she said. The children froze.

“You have a dog?” Jamie asked, his eyes huge.

“A real dog?” Claire asked.

“Puppy?” Billy piped in.

“Oh, no,” John groaned. “They’ve been after me for months now to get them a dog.”

“What kind is he?”

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“Puppy?”

Jo laughed and described her collie. “He’s kind of old,” she said. “I’ve had him since I was little, but he’s still pretty spunky.”

“Can we see him?”

“Does he do tricks?”

“Puppy?”

She looked at them and burst out laughing. “The next time we come to the park, I’ll bring Victor, okay? Meanwhile, you can play with his Frisbee, if your dad says it’s okay.”

John nodded. “For a few minutes while we get the picnic out. Don’t go far,” he warned. Jo handed the orange toy to Claire and watched them scamper off to an empty strip of grass and begin flipping it back and forth.

“I give them five minutes before at least one of them is crying,” John said, spreading the blanket he’d brought on a smooth patch of grass.

“Maybe six,” Jo said, biting back a smile.

It was a glorious day, a southern breeze whispering through the limbs of the nearly naked trees on the park’s perimeter. In the distance, behind the fountain, a game of touch football was under way. They were only a few miles from the ocean, so the air smelled and tasted vaguely of salt.

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
3.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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