Read Kids Is A 4-Letter Word Online

Authors: Stephanie Bond

Kids Is A 4-Letter Word (9 page)

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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John’s prediction about the combination of caffeine and sugar on his youngest son proved to be hair-raisingly correct. After an hour of chasing, catching and reprimanding, John wearily dropped onto a bright green beanbag chair and watched little Styrofoam balls pop out of the splitting seams. “We need furniture,” he said to the ceiling. A paper airplane sailed over, scant inches from his nose. He blinked, but remained otherwise motionless. Children were like an anesthetic, numbing a parent’s normal reflexes.

“What are those, Daddy?” Claire asked, pointing to the television.

John lifted his head and glanced at the screen, then froze. A perky brunette was extolling the virtues of a new and improved tampon design. He watched as the device expanded impressively when dipped into blue water. All moisture left his mouth.

By his estimation, it would be at least two, maybe three years before Claire would begin her cycle. Isn’t that what Annie had told him once?
Oh, God, help me.
He cleared his throat. “That’s a…thing, yeah, a thing that…women use…in the bathroom…when they’re, uh…old enough to…have a baby.” Not bad.

“Oh,” was her only comment. The commercial had ended, and she turned her attention back to the teenage situation comedy she’d been watching.

He lay his head back and mentally patted himself on the back for handling the matter so smoothly. But he’d call his sister, Cleo, tomorrow and ask her to talk to Claire when they went shopping next weekend, let her know what she could expect to happen over the next few years. His gut tightened at the thought of his little girl maturing, and boys buzzing around her like little bees with big stingers. He groaned and pushed the tormenting thoughts from his mind. He had enough to worry about in the present without heaping on future problems.

His thoughts skipped around, searching for a more pleasurable resting place, and settled on Jo Montgomery. Despite his insistence to Claire that he wasn’t entertaining thoughts of marrying Jo, he had to admit the idea of wedding and bedding a gorgeous woman who liked his kids held more appeal with each passing millisecond. Smiling, he absorbed her image fully into his mind, remembering their close encounters of the day. If he had kissed her, would she have kissed him back? He puckered involuntarily. Those velvety dark brown eyes, that wonderful dimple, that luxurious mouth.

Which was probably kissing another man right now.

John frowned. His dream woman was most likely sharing a romantic dinner with her boyfriend, discussing plans for having their own family someday soon.

“N
O KIDS
,” Alan told the maître d’. “Smoking is fine, but no kids.”

The balding tuxedoed man nodded quickly and consulted his seating chart. He frowned in concentration, then gave the hostess a table number. “Right this way, sir.”

Jo squashed a twinge of annoyance at Alan’s words as they were led to a table partially hidden by miniature palms and giant ferns. She, too, had had more than one good meal disturbed by rowdy children. She just wished he wouldn’t announce his disdain for kids quite so often and so publicly.

Alan looked around the table suspiciously, pulled out Jo’s seat for her, then took his own.

“Don’t you want to check under the tablecloth?” Jo asked, her voice slightly sarcastic.

Alan grinned, then reached to cover her hand with his. “I don’t want anything or anyone to spoil our dinner.”

“Tell me about Atlanta,” she said, opening the menu. While he talked about his business in the city, Jo forced herself to concentrate on his words. John’s face kept appearing in her mind and she couldn’t seem to find anything on the pricey menu that looked as good as fried chicken from Houchin’s Deli. A waiter appeared and took their wine and food order,
then left them alone. Jo realized she had never felt so uncomfortable around Alan—and hoped he wouldn’t notice.

“Is everything all right?” he asked, leaning forward.

“Oh, sure,” she said, conjuring up a smile. “I guess I’m just preoccupied with the Patterson account.”

“Baby-sitting, isn’t it?”

“Day cares,” she corrected. “Twenty-one day cares.”

“I can’t believe there’s so much demand for that kind of service,” Alan said, shaking his head. “Why do people have children if they’re not willing to raise them?”

The waiter arrived with the wine, so Jo bit back her retort. As the pale liquid splashed into their glasses, she gathered her thoughts, but saved her reply until the man had moved out of earshot.

“Some people have to work, Alan,” she said tightly, lifting her glass to take a sip. “So they have to place their children in day-care centers.” The wine tasted sharp and slightly bitter.

“If it takes both parents working to make a living, then they shouldn’t have children,” he said matter-of-factly.

“What about single parents?” she pressed.

He took a long drink, then held up his half-empty glass to inspect the wine, nodding in satisfaction. “With both people working and kids to deal with, too, no wonder the divorce rate is so high.”

Jo felt her ire rising by the second. “What if one of the parents has passed away and the survivor has no choice but to work to feed his children?”

“This is starting to sound personal.”

Jo shrugged and looked away.

“This new client of yours—Mr. Extra Crispy—is he by chance a widower?”

Her pulse vaulted, but she tried to sound nonchalant. “As a matter of fact, he is.”

His expression softened and he nodded congenially. “And you feel sorry for him. That’s understandable.” He stroked the back of her hand, smiling. “I’m just glad we’ll never have to worry about it.”

Toying with the hem of her linen napkin, Jo spoke quietly. “Alan, just because we don’t want to be parents doesn’t mean you should hold it against other people who do.”

He propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward in a conciliatory manner. “You’re absolutely right—if other people want rug rats underfoot, it’s nothing to me, right? Just as long as they don’t insist on bringing their monsters to nice restaurants.”

As if on cue, something flew through the wall of ferns and smacked Alan on the temple. In disbelief, he watched a buttered dinner roll bounce onto their table and stop beside the silver candlestick holder. A woman’s big blond head appeared immediately through the same opening. She smiled apologetically, her eyes shining.

“I’m so sorry, sir. Preston got carried away and threw his bread.” She poked an arm through the foliage and swiped a napkin at the trail of butter on Alan’s head, then grabbed the roll and disappeared with a smile.

Alan clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes dangerously in the direction of the ferns. “Of all the—”

The reappearance of the woman’s head cut him off.

“Tell the man you’re sorry, Preston,” she said in a pleading voice. She held a small boy horizontal by his waist and thrust him into Alan’s face.

“No!” the boy yelled, and stuck his tongue out, nearly licking Alan’s nose.

“Say it,” his mother cajoled. “Say you’re sorry and Mommy will buy you a toy on the way home.”

“I sorry,” the little boy snarled.

“There,” his mother said brightly. “He’s such a good boy.” And they promptly disappeared again.

Jo maintained the silence for a full minute as she watched Alan slowly wipe the remains of the greasy mess from his cheek with shaking hands. “That,” he said with venom in his voice, “is a prime example of a parent who doesn’t know the merits of discipline. Imagine, that child will be operating a vehicle one of these days.”

She tried to keep her eyes down, but her shaking shoulders must have given her away.

“Josephine,” he said in a shocked voice. “This is
not
funny.”

“I’m s-sorry, Alan,” she said, fighting to keep down the giggles. “But if you could have seen the look on your face—” She erupted into laughter, holding her napkin over her mouth to muffle the sound.

“Oh, and what kind of message are we sending these pintsize terrors when we laugh at their antics?”

Dabbing at her eyes, Jo said, “Lighten up, Alan, he’s just a little kid.” A movement across the restaurant caught her eye and she glanced over, then froze in horror.

Melissa and Monroe Patterson were striding toward their table, all smiles.

6

J
O’S STOMACH
somersaulted. She jerked her head over to look at Alan, who was wiping his face so intently, he hadn’t yet noticed the couple.

“Alan!” she gasped, holding the cloth napkin to her forehead. “I feel faint—please get a pitcher of ice water.”

He glanced up, frowning with worry. “You’ve never felt faint in your life.”

“Well, I do now!” she said desperately, lurching forward. “Would you just find the waiter and get me some water?”

“Okay,” he said, his eyes wide. “I’ll be right back.”

He had just walked out of earshot when Melissa Patterson glided up to the table. “Ms. Montgomery,” she exclaimed coolly, extending her hand. “What a nice surprise.”

Jo shot to her feet and yanked a smile from thin air. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Patterson.” Pumping their hands furiously, Jo angled her body to block the couple’s view of Alan’s receding back.

“We were just leaving,” Mr. Patterson said with a smile, “when Melissa looked over and saw you sitting here.”

Mrs. Patterson craned her neck to peer around Jo. “I see we just missed your husband, John.”

Jo nodded emphatically, then changed directions abruptly, shaking her head just as emphatically. “No, that’s just a friend—a friend of mine and John’s, actually,” she said cheerfully. She used the napkin to dab at the perspiration on her forehead. “John is…home with the children, of course.”

Smiling tightly, Mrs. Patterson said, “I hope you enjoyed
the visit this morning—your stepchildren are just so adorable.”

Jo couldn’t stop nodding. “John’s children are adorable, aren’t they?” Then she cleared her voice, and glanced over her shoulder, alarmed to see Alan returning. She swung back to the Pattersons. “Well,” she said brightly, “don’t let me keep you.”

“Hello,” Mr. Patterson said to Alan as he walked up and stood next to Jo.

“Hello,” Alan said politely, extending his free hand, holding a pitcher of ice water in the other. He looked to Jo for an introduction.

“Oh,” she said, straightening. “Alan, this is Melissa and Monroe Patterson. And this is Alan Parish.”

“Nice to meet you,” Melissa said, smiling wide. “I hear you’re a friend of John Sterling’s.”

Alan looked confused. “Well,” he said with a small laugh, “Jo knows him a little better than I do.”

The Pattersons laughed uproariously, and Jo joined in belatedly, elbowing Alan into a small bewildered smile.

“Well, we’d better be going,” Mr. Patterson said, and his wife nodded, waving as they walked away. “We’re looking forward to the presentation Monday.”

Jo slid into her seat and heaved a sigh of relief.

“I see you recovered,” Alan said, setting the pitcher of water on the table.

“Not quite,” she mumbled, ignoring the water and downing her glass of wine.

He sat down. “Did I miss something?”

“N-no,” Jo stammered, unable to meet his gaze.

“What’s the connection between the Pattersons and your other client?”

She opened her mouth and let the words fall out, hoping they would make some sort of sense. “Remember I told you the man has kids? Well, they go to the Pattersons’ day care I visited this morning, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Alan said, already losing interest.

But Jo’s anxiety had reached dizzying proportions by the time their entrées arrived. Although her salmon smelled delicious, she did little more than push it around on her plate.

“Jo,” Alan chided, “you’ve hardly eaten a bite. Are you still feeling ill?”

“Yes,” she said truthfully, the full weight of her lie wallowing heavily in her stomach.

“Should we go?”

“No,” she said quickly. “My appetite’s gone, that’s all. Enjoy your meal.” It took her a few more minutes to convince Alan they should stay, then, to distract him, she asked him to tell her more about his business trip. With an air of satisfaction, he described the deal he’d arranged with a former competitor, punctuating the details of the final meeting with a flourishing twist of his fork. When he finished, she asked, “Did you get to have any fun?”

He shrugged. “A couple of dinner shows that were pretty good.”

“Were you able to find the watch you were looking for?”

Alan shook his head and smiled, a beautiful picture of curvy lips and straight, white teeth. “No, but I did find something for you today.”

Her heart blipped. They’d often joked about looking for a ring, but surely he hadn’t bought one—not
today.
“S-something for me?”

He grinned. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but you know I can’t keep surprises. I left it in the car—I can’t wait to give it to you.”

“What is it?” she asked, smiling tremulously and raising her refilled wineglass for another deep sip.

Alan tilted his head and gave her a sly smile. “Let’s just say it’s something you’ve needed for a long time, something we’ve both been putting off. I bought one to match for myself.”

She inhaled sharply, choking on the wine sliding down her throat. Collapsing into a seizure of coughing and sputtering, she quaked in her chair, aided in no way by the backslapping,
arm-jerking actions of Alan and a nervous waiter. When she’d finally regained composure, Jo asked again, “What did you buy?”

But he only shook his head. “Let’s wait until I take you home, I’ve already given away too much.”

Jo sweated through dessert, and fretted through cappuccino. By the time they pulled into the driveway of her duplex, she was nauseous with dread.

“Go on in,” Alan encouraged with an engaging grin. “I’ll get the surprise.”

The few steps into her living room seemed like her last, taking her to the pit of doom. Jo’s head spun. What was she going to tell him when he gave her the ring? Her mother’s face popped into her head. “Tell him yes, Josephine, what else?” Then Hattie’s face appeared, her finger wagging. “Is he the man who floats your goat?” Then John Sterling’s face appeared. “Either you’re being untruthful, or the man’s an idiot.”

Her heart was nearly leaping out of her chest when she heard Alan enter the room.

“Don’t turn around,” he warned. Paper bags rustled behind her.

“Okay,” he said. “You can look.”

Jo turned around ever so slowly, her throat closing in anticipation. Alan’s grin was blinding as he proudly presented matching tan lizard-skin briefcases. Her knees weakened in relief.

“Do you like it?” he asked excitedly, thrusting the more streamlined version toward her. “The leather is virtually indestructible, the combination lock is solid brass and the handle is guaranteed for life.”

“It’s beautiful,” she murmured, fingering the nubby finish and feeling somewhat foolish. How like Alan—so practical.

Alan smiled happily, stroking his own briefcase. “Now I can toss my old one and you can get rid of that worn-out black bag you’ve been carrying for years.”

Jo bit back a frown. Hattie had given her that worn-out
black bag for college graduation—it was the same leather briefcase Hattie had used for most of her own professional life, and it meant a lot to Jo.

“Don’t you love it?” he pressed. “It’s made out of topquality lizard—look, hardly any seams at all.”

“Mhmm,” she agreed, grasping for some level of enthusiasm for his thoughtful, expensive gift. “It’s just lovely, Alan,” she said, walking into his arms for a hug and a quick kiss.

“I wish you were feeling better,” he murmured. “I could be talked into spending the night.”

She drew back from him, both surprised and annoyed he’d chosen today of all days to become so amorous. Had she last seen him naked on Halloween? “Maybe next time,” she said softly. “Thank you for the briefcase, it’s beautiful.”

“I knew you’d like it,” he breathed, making her feel a little worse. He gave her a sweet, lingering kiss, then said, “I’ll call you on Sunday and let you know how Pam’s banquet went.”

Jo nodded, then walked him to the door. She waved as his car lights passed over her when he backed out of the driveway. Sighing, she hugged herself tight and leaned against the door frame, trying to sort out the jumbled thoughts in her head. Why had John Sterling’s name been on the tip of her tongue all night? Why had she seen his face instead of Alan’s every time she glanced across the table? And why had she been so terrified when she thought Alan was going to propose?

Hoping Hattie was home, Jo stepped out onto her tiny porch and pulled the door shut behind her. A slight breeze had kicked up, chasing dried, dead leaves across the small lawn. She walked down the steps and all the way around the side of her house to the other housefront nearly identical to hers. Except where her shutters and door were dark green, Hattie’s were bright yellow. While Jo’s fall mums were long gone, Hattie’s double-bloom pink and white camelias were lovely in the winter moonlight. And where Jo’s doormat read simply Welcome, Hattie’s read, Don’t Bother Knocking, Come On In.

Only Jo did knock, because she knew Hattie’s penchant for late-night meditation—in the nude.

Within a few seconds, Hattie answered the door, predictably knotting the belt of a housecoat at her waist. She smiled wide. “Jo, my dear, come in.”

“Am I interrupting something?”

Her aunt scoffed as she stepped aside to admit Jo. “I don’t have a man in here, if that’s what you mean.” She grinned, smoothing her silver hair, and added, “Darn it.”

Jo shook her head and laughed. “Hattie, you’re shameless. I’m surprised Herbert can keep up with you.”

“He can’t,” quipped Hattie, “which is why I’m waiting for my soldier to come home. Has Alan already gone home?” At Jo’s nod, Hattie winked and said, “Since he’s been out of town for so long, I figured the two of you would be celebrating all night.”

Smiling wryly, Jo said, “I wasn’t feeling well.” She followed Hattie into a modest-size country kitchen decorated with a rooster motif, and sat at the table while her aunt poured greenish tea into two stoneware cups.

“You do look a little flushed,” Hattie said, squinting at her and sitting down.

Jo winced sheepishly. “It’s a sunburn.”

“Oh?” Her aunt’s eyebrows rose over the cup she lifted to her mouth. “Do tell.”

She shrugged, avoiding Hattie’s gaze. “Nothing to tell.”

Hattie sipped loudly. “Would there happen to be a client of yours sporting the same sunburn?”

Jo sipped. “Maybe.”

Hattie sipped. “And would this happen to be the same man with whom the Pattersons think you share three children?”

Jo sipped and looked up into her aunt’s bright blue eyes. “Maybe.”

Hattie set her cup down. “So tell me about this John Sterling.”

Shifting in her seat, Jo contemplated her answer, and decided to go with the innocent version. “He’s a widower—”

“Jo,” her aunt chided gently, “skip the résumé and tell me why he has you so flustered.”

Sighing, Jo said, “Okay, he asked me to dinner.”

“And?”

“And I told him I was already involved with someone.”

“So what gives with the sunburn?”

“When I brought the kids back from our visit at the day-care center, he had a picnic packed and asked me to go so we could discuss plans for his house.”

“Ah.” Hattie nodded, satisfied, then retrieved her cup for another sip.

“What’s ‘ah’?” Jo inquired defensively.

Hattie shrugged. “Go on.”

“There’s nothing else to tell.”

“So are you interested?”

Jo nearly choked on her tea. “No!”

“Why not? Is he hard on the eyes?”

Taking a calming breath, Jo spoke carefully. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Hattie nodded agreement. “And do you behold him?”

Jo couldn’t help smiling at her aunt’s persistence. “I suppose he’s handsome in a rugged sort of way.”

“Ah.”

“What’s with the ‘ah’?”

“Why don’t you go out with the man?”

Jo pretended to ponder the question. “Let’s see,” she said, holding up one hand to count. “He has three children, I have a boyfriend, and he has three children.”

“Well—” Hattie grinned “—at least you know he can get it up.”

“Hattie!”

“Which brings us back to your second point—of having a so-called boyfriend.”

“Hattie, I know you’ve never been crazy about Alan, but—”

“I only want what’s best for you, Jo, and Alan Parish is so much like his dad, he couldn’t be very good in bed.”

Jo’s jaw dropped. “Hattie, you mean you and Aldred Parish actually…”

Hattie clucked. “Call it two weeks of insanity before I found your uncle Francis, and while I was still mourning my soldier, Torry.” She sighed dreamily. “Ahhh, Torry. Now
there
was a lover. A Frenchman had sold him this fuzzy little contraption—”

“Hattie,” Jo interrupted, trying to steer the conversation back to the present. “I’ve never complained about Alan’s…virility.”

“You didn’t have to,” Hattie drawled. “The man’s always gone by ten o’clock.”

“He respects me,” Jo said, frowning slightly.

“Which is a good thing,” Hattie agreed, studying the dregs in the bottom of her cup. “But the real question is—” she raised her eyes, suddenly turning serious “—does Alan
move
you?”

Jo allowed the words to sink in, turning them over in her mind, dissecting and analyzing them. Alan was gorgeous, successful, intelligent—everything a woman could want, everything she’d ever wanted. So why was she suddenly feeling so…restless? Straightening her shoulders, she said, “Hattie, it takes more than great sex to make a relationship work.”

“Maybe so,” her aunt relented with a nod. “But you can’t have a good relationship without it.” She smiled at Jo. “The nighttime secrets you share are the memories that make you feel close to your lover even when you’re apart. I think that’s why Torry is still so strongly on my mind after all these years.” Her grin deepened. “I simply can’t wait to see him again.”

Jo’s eyes bulged. “You’ve heard from him?”

“No, but the detective called me this afternoon and said he had some promising leads.”

While fairly sure this “detective.” Hattie had hired to find her lost soldier was a bit of a swindler, Jo nonetheless tried to mirror her aunt’s enthusiasm. “That’s wonderful, Hattie. I’m sure you’ll find him soon.”

Hattie nodded happily, then said, “Life is short, Jo—don’t settle. Wait for the man who warms your heart
and
heats your bed.”

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