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Authors: Stephanie Bond

Kids Is A 4-Letter Word (8 page)

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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John knelt on a corner of the blanket and opened the basket. He lifted out container after container of great-smelling food from Houchin’s Deli.

Jo inhaled and groaned appreciably, sinking to her knees a few feet away from him. “I see you’ve found the best deli in our fair city.”

He turned his face toward her and smiled faintly, rocking back on his heels and resting his big hands on his thighs. He studied her until she became fidgety, then his grin widened. “I seem to have found all the best the city has to offer in a relatively short time.”

The tingle started in her ears, quickly enveloped her head, zigged through her torso, then zagged out to her extremities. Her pinkies had grown quite numb. She shouldn’t be surprised, she chided herself. He’d made it clear this morning he was interested when he’d asked her to dinner. She knew she shouldn’t indulge this flirtation…but she’d come along on the picnic anyway. What did that say about her?

John cleared his throat and bent forward to remove the lids from the containers. “Well,” he said, his voice animated, “how were the kids this morning?”

“Not bad,” Jo said uneasily, trying to put Jamie’s neardriving incident out of her mind. “Claire has her heart set on a strawberry-red kitchen.” She reached into the basket, carefully dodging his hands and forearms to withdraw a vinyl tablecloth and silverware.

John’s mouth tightened. “Annie always talked about a strawberry-red kitchen.”

“I heard,” Jo said sympathetically. “I can make some modifications if that’s what you want.”

He shook his head and gave her a wry smile. “I don’t think
that would be a good idea. I’ll talk to Claire,” he promised. “It’s really been tough on her, first losing Annie, then moving away from her grandmother.”

“I can only imagine.”

“She needs a woman around the house,” he continued, then shrugged and smiled, glancing over at her. “I guess we all do.”

Her pulse quickened at his forthright implication. “I’m sure you’ll remarry someday,” she said softly.

He studied his children at play for a few seconds, and Jo turned, too. For once, they were all playing together and laughter abounded as the Frisbee bounced along the ground. “Yes,” he said confidently. “I’m sure I’ll remarry. I owe them that much.”

Jo swallowed audibly. How had they gotten onto such an intimate subject when all she’d mentioned was the kitchen decor? “Well,” she said, withdrawing her notebook, “Claire was a big help. We did get a lot accomplished this morning. Were you busy at the office?” Instantly, she bit her tongue at the wifely question.

“Swamped,” he said quickly, but for some reason couldn’t meet her eye. She suspected he, too, was caught by the domesticity of her simple question.

Hurriedly she reviewed the color schemes she’d chosen and talked about one or two pieces of furniture she envisioned for each room, just to get a feel for his tastes.

“I’ll leave it all up to you,” he said, raising his hands in acquiescence.

“That could be expensive,” she told him, laughing.

“I trust you to do a good job and to give me value for my money,” he said. “If it suits your taste, then I’m sure it will suit mine.”

She averted her eyes from his clear green ones. “I’ll work up the design on my computer this weekend. Can you come by on Wednesday to take a look at it?”

He nodded. “I’d be glad to.”

Jo snapped her fingers in recollection. “Do you have a sitter lined up for next week?”

His face collapsed into a worried frown. “No.”

“I talked to the director at KidScape on Morrow Road this morning—that was the errand I had to run.” She swallowed her guilt, and brushed at a fluff of blanket fuzz on her sleeve. “The director said she’d be willing to take them for the week until school resumes, and Billy after that.”

John’s head came up and he straightened. “Really?”

Jo grinned. “You sound like your kids.”

He was visibly relieved. “I can’t thank you enough. That’s one huge load off my mind.”

“No problem,” she said.

He looked at her, and she blinked under the intensity of his stare. The wind ruffled his hair, lifting it and tossing it over to one side. He studied her mouth intently. Involuntarily, her lips parted and she moistened their dryness with the tip of her tongue. John leaned forward, his face stopping scant inches from her face, inviting her. As if drawn to him by some invisible force, Jo leaned toward him, her mouth suddenly parched. She stared into his eyes, narrowed and dark with desire. The bill from her cap shadowed his nose. She could feel his breath on her lips, she could see the gilded tips of his eyelashes.

Suddenly the Frisbee bounced off John’s forehead. She heard Jamie giggle and ask, “Are you gonna kiss her, Daddy?”

5

“H
OW ABOUT
a welcome-home kiss?” Alan asked, lowering his mouth to hers.

For a split second, Jo didn’t respond while his lips moved soft and familiar upon hers. She couldn’t help thinking that John’s two near misses had evoked more passion in her. She recovered, though, and kissed him back hard, trying to conjure up a stab of desire.

At her intensity, Alan’s eyes widened. He lifted his head and leaned back to give her an appraising look, chuckling. “I guess I was gone longer than I realized.”

Jo smiled, feeling sheepish. “Ten whole days.”

“I asked you to go with me to Atlanta,” he reminded her, his tone faintly shaded with annoyance.

“I know,” she said quickly. “But I’ve been working. Yesterday I picked up a big residential account, and the Pattersons agreed to let me bid on the KidScape account, as well.”

He gave her arm a squeeze and angled his blond head indulgently. “Sounds like yesterday was an eventful day.”

An understatement of gigantic proportions. She nodded shakily. “You might say that.”

Suddenly, he squinted at her, and reached up to smooth a thumb over her cheek. “If you’ve been working so hard, how did you get the sunburn?” he asked in a teasing voice.

Jo swallowed. “I, uh…that is, I sat outside with a client to review preliminary ideas.” It was
sort of
the truth.

“Did it happen to be a man with a white goatee?”

Jo frowned, puzzled.

“You smell like fried chicken.”

Her mind raced, then she forced herself to relax. “We had a box lunch while we went over the prep work.” It was
sort of
the truth.

“This would be your new residential project?” he asked, not probing, but out of courtesy, Jo felt.

She nodded, adopting what she hoped was a convincing smile.

“Anyone I know?” He dropped his hands to her waist, and leaned against the back of the couch.

“N-no,” she assured him. “The man is an architect from Atlanta. New in town.”

He nodded pleasantly. “What’s his name?”

“John. John Sterling,” she said, nodding with him. “K-kids,” she stammered, lifting her hand in an awkward wave. “He has lots of kids.”

Alan pulled a comical face. “A repeat of the Tyndale fiasco, huh?”

“Well, they’re not
that
bad, I guess,” she said, frowning slightly. “But it’s a lively place, that’s for sure.” She was still nodding. “It took longer than I expected—th-that’s why I’m running a little late.” She glanced at his impeccably creased slacks and collarless dress shirt, then down at her greasestained tunic and leggings. “Just give me a few minutes to change.”

Alan looked at his watch. “Sure, but we need to hurry.”

Jo gave him a tight smile and made a hasty exit to her bedroom. She closed the door behind her and leaned heavily against it, sighing in exasperation. Normally she wouldn’t mind Alan letting himself in to wait, but for some reason anger had flared through her when she’d pulled into the driveway and spotted his Mercedes. Of course, being annoyed with Alan was completely unreasonable considering she’d been late because she was having such a good time with another man.

Victor roused, lifting his head from the rug to greet her with a nose twitch.

“Oh, Vic,” she whispered, stepping forward and sinking to her knees to ruffle his silky ears. “I’ve been a very bad girl.”

His groan sounded comforting, his brown eyes moist and sympathetic.

“There’s this guy who has three kids—don’t look at me like that, I realize I’m nowhere near mom material, but this guy is so…I don’t know how to explain what happens to me when he’s around.”

Victor blinked and yawned.

She laughed wryly. “Okay, I get the hint.” Jo rose and walked over to the mirror and leaned in close. With a small amount of relief she noted the absence of a forehead banner reading, Alan, Your Girlfriend Has The Hots For Another Man. Yet she was terrified her body language might somehow betray her before the night ended.

Jo stepped into the bathroom and turned on the shower, then inspected her closet with a thoughtful eye. At last, she withdrew a snug-fitting full-skirted yellow dress and navy high heels. She was in and out of the shower in two minutes, dressed in another two, dusted on powder to tone down her picnic glow, then slicked a layer of bright color on her lips. Bending forward, she brushed her hair upside down, then swung back up and fluffed the layers with her fingers.

The low whistle Alan emitted when she walked into the living room was gratifying. He drew her into his arms for a brief turn around the living-room floor to imaginary music. She fought to banish the stiffness from her body—Alan didn’t deserve to have his evening ruined just because she was feeling out of sorts.

“You look wonderful,” he said, wagging his light eyebrows. “If I didn’t trust you so much, I’d be afraid someone might snatch you up while I’m traveling.”

Jo forced a laugh to join his, then spun around to retrieve her purse. “Ready?” She maintained a tight smile while she slipped her arms into the coat he held for her.

“You know, Jo,” Alan murmured as they walked to his silver roadster. “I could stay over tonight.”

She shivered involuntarily.

“Chilly?” He held open the passenger door of the twoseater.

“A little,” she said, lying.

He frowned. “It’s still so warm, I was hoping we could leave the top down.”

“By all means,” she said hurriedly, smiling wide. “I’m not that cold, after all.”

Alan looked perplexed, but hopeful, as he shut her door. “Are you sure?”

She gave him a big nod, still smiling. “Absolutely.”
There goes my hairdo.
She opened the glove compartment to pull out the scarf she kept inside and instead withdrew a long black satiny glove.

When he swung into his seat, he glanced over at the glove dangling from her raised fingers and shrugged good-naturedly. “Lower your eyebrows—it’s Pamela’s. She left it in here after the Chef’s Gala last month.” He inserted the key, turned over the ignition, then waited until her seat belt was fastened and her scarf tied in place before shifting into gear.

“Did she call you?” Jo asked as they turned out of her neighborhood.

“She called,” he confirmed, giving her a lopsided grin. “I’m just a tux for hire. Don’t you want to do something together tomorrow night?”

“Actually, the Pattersons want to see my presentation Monday afternoon, so that’ll give me a chance to work on it tomorrow evening. Go—I don’t mind at all.”

“If you’re sure…Pam said Daniel Gates will be there and I’ve been trying to wangle a meeting with him for months to talk about replacing his mainframe computers.”

“Then you should definitely go.” For a moment, Jo studied Alan’s perfect profile in pure appreciation. There was no denying he was a very handsome man, with Ken-doll good looks and an enviable wardrobe. And very charismatic. His blue eyes sparkled behind tiny wire-rimmed frames, and his blond hair was cut in a trendy, precision style. He was almost as beautiful as Pamela. They probably attracted every eye in the room
when they went places together. Her mother had been incredulous when Jo mentioned that Alan often escorted Pamela to special events. “Are you mad?” she’d demanded. “The woman’s a man-eater.”

Jo had laughed then and chuckled now. There were no two people on this planet less compatible than Alan, the uptight obsessive-compulsive, and Pamela, the ditzy nymphomaniac. Alan had made it clear what kind of woman he was looking for: career-minded, poised, successful and above reproach—not to mention willing to share a childless marriage. Jo had always felt fortunate that she fit the bill and shared many of Alan’s goals—she’d never relished the thought of trying to juggle a career and family.

John Sterling and his half-pint gang galloped into her mind. T-R-O-U-B-L-E. Trouble she did not want or need. She pushed them from her thoughts, then reached over to cover Alan’s hand with hers. He lifted her hand to his mouth for a kiss, and grinned. She laughed and nodded to herself in affirmation. Alan was one of the most eligible bachelors from one of the finest families in the old coastal town. Thousands of women would trade places with her in the blink of an eye. She was a very lucky woman.

It was
sort of
the truth.

“B
UT
M
OM WANTED
a red kitchen with strawberries,” Claire whined, her voice and chin trembling.

John sighed and nodded. He lowered himself to sit on her narrow bed and wrapped an arm around her shoulder to draw her close. “I know she did, sweetheart, but Mom’s not here anymore, and I don’t think it would be such a good idea.”

Claire stared at her hands. “Would it make you sad?”

“Probably,” he admitted.

“Her furniture and paintings made you sad, didn’t they?”

His chest squeezed. Either he’d been wearing his heart on his sleeve, or his nine-year-old was more perceptive than he’d imagined. “Yes, sweetie, they did make me sad.”

“Do you want to forget her?” Claire whispered, her voice barely audible.

John’s throat clogged with emotion, but he swallowed heavily. His and Annie’s personal relationship had had its pitfalls, but she was an impeccable mother, and he’d loved her. “I could never forget her.”

She placed her small hand in his. “I don’t want to, either, but sometimes I can’t remember her face and that scares me.”

He tipped her chin up and kissed her on the nose. “All you have to do is look in the mirror, sweetie, because you look just like her.”

At last, a tiny smile appeared. “Mommy was pretty,’ wasn’t she, Daddy?”

“Very pretty.”

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

He pulled her into his lap and tickled her. “I think you’re Miss America.”

She giggled. “You’re funny, Daddy.”

“Claire,” he said gently, studying her fair face, “wouldn’t you like to have a new mother someday?” She stiffened, her eyes wide, and John held his breath.

“Who?” she asked, a slight note of accusation in her voice.

“No one,” he said quickly, keeping his tone light. “I mean, no one yet. But I need to know how you feel about having another woman in the house, just in case.”

Her green eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “Jo already has a boyfriend—she told me today they’re gonna get married.”

The air left his lungs as if he’d been kicked. Was Jo that seriously involved? “I wasn’t talking about Jo,” he insisted.

“Then why did you almost kiss her?” Claire asked, struggling to get up.

John let her go. “I didn’t kiss her.”

“You would’ve if Jamie hadn’t butted in,” she said, and pouted, arms crossed.

“Maybe,” John admitted. “But I didn’t know she had a
serious boyfriend, and now I do.” He leaned toward her, softening. “Don’t you like Jo, Claire? I know she likes you.”

She mulled over his question, hugging herself and working her mouth. “I guess she’s okay. She said she’d give me her Nancy Drew books for helping her with decorating the house.”

He felt a little relieved. “That’s great. How about let’s go downstairs and watch television with the boys? That is—” he grinned at her “—if they haven’t killed each other by now.”

She grinned, too, and took his hand as they left the room.

“Dad!” Jamie yelled from the bar as they walked into the den. “Billy drank two whole cups of cola!”

John nearly staggered with the knowledge of the effect the caffeine and sugar would have on his already active toddler. He’d be bouncing off the walls. “He’s not supposed to be drinking it this late.”

“I know,” Jamie said in a grave tone that announced he was really gleefully waiting for John to pronounce Billy’s punishment.

Billy looked up from his seat on the floor, his chin stained dark from the sweet drink. “I drink pop,” he said, holding up the cup for John’s inspection.

John pressed his lips together, trying to hide his frustration. “Jamie, how did he pour soda into that little cup from that great big bottle?”

Jamie didn’t hesitate. “He’s too little, so I had to help him.”

“I see. Well, I’ll let you clean up this mess while Billy and I visit the potty.”

Billy’s eyes widened. “Bad potty.”

But John didn’t give in to his toddler’s resistance this time. When Billy succumbed to tears, John scooped him up, talking to him in a low voice, but heading to the downstairs bathroom off the foyer.

John set Billy on his feet just inside the closed bathroom door and squatted to talk to him. “Billy, don’t you want to be a big boy?”

Billy nodded, sniffling through his tears, but calming.

“Then you have to learn to pee-pee like a big boy.”

“Daddy a big boy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Jamie a big boy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Billy a big boy?”

John pointed to his son’s diaper. “Big boys don’t wear diapers. Big boys pee-pee in the potty.”

Billy’s lower lip protruded and the tears welled again. “Billy want to be big boy.”

John sighed in relief. “Good. If you learn to use the potty, we’ll throw away the diapers and then you’ll be a big boy, okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed happily.

“Okay, so here we go.” John took him by the hand and led him toward the commode and the bright red and blue potty-chair sitting next to it. They’d gone less than a step when Billy froze and began to howl, yanked his hand loose and ran back to press his face against the door.

“Bad potty,” he cried. “Monster get Billy.”

“No,” John said soothingly. “Good potty. Watch Daddy.” As John unzipped his pants, he smiled over the age-old fatherson lesson. “See,” he said patiently. “Daddy’s a big boy.”

“Mean, monster potty,” Billy insisted, grabbing at the doorknob to escape.

Exasperated, John zipped up, then declared, “I know you have to go after all that cola. Come over here and stand by Daddy.”

Billy shook his head wildly. “Billy no be big boy.”

He strode to his son and lifted him, but Billy stiffened and shrieked hysterically when they neared the commode. Finally, John relented and carried him out of the bathroom. They were both exhausted.

“Claire, why is Billy so scared of that darn potty-chair?”

She looked up at him from her cross-legged position in front
of the television and shrugged her thin shoulders. “He’s difficult.”

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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