Jack woke slowly, sense by sense. His neck hurt, it was almost unbelievably quiet, and someone smelled very, very good. Lifting his head with an audible crack, he realized he and Risa had fallen asleep here, on her couch, afraid to move once Grace’s screams had finally subsided. Now, Risa was tucked against him, snuggled in an unconscious intimacy he hadn’t experienced since his divorce. Grace was snoozing in the baby-sling Risa wore. A simple, yet powerful, domestic picture of mother and child, if he hadn’t known Grace was a friend’s baby.
"J-Jack?" Risa stirred, blinking her eyes up at him. Her expression was sleep-soft, her lips parted and kissable.
He leaned closer, telling himself it was so they wouldn’t wake the baby. "Yes?"
Her eyes were more alert now, almost keenly so, alive with what he wanted to believe was answering desire, but also skittish. Like a nervous doe’s.
She sat straight up, away from him. "I was just wondering what time it was. How long we’ve been…like this."
A glance at his watch showed him it was a little after three a.m., but before he could tell her, she’d already checked the digital display on her VCR.
"I’m so sorry to have kept you this late," she told him. "You’ll be dog-tired in the morning."
"Nah." He tried a smile. "I caught some sleep here."
"Yeah, but the couch isn’t all that comfortable." She frowned. "I’m not even sure why I bought it. Does this furniture look like me?"
Weird question, but now that he thought about it, a valid one. "Not really. It’s all very…sleek. Um, not that you aren’t I guess, but you’re softer. Cozier. Like that wacky nightstand. That looks like you."
Her brows rose, the apprehension in her eyes replaced with humor. "You’re calling me wacky? Fair enough, considering I once hoisted myself onto your balcony in my pajamas. I think I bought this furniture as a knee-jerk reaction to the house I grew up in, which was all polished antiques I was supposed to treat with care. So when I got my own place, I went too modern and contemporary and I’m not sure the end result was any more comfy than my childhood home. Over compensation. What was your home like, growing up?"
He grinned. "Noisy. There were lots of us crowding the place, and my sisters were forever mad that they couldn’t get more time in the bathroom."
Risa sighed wistfully. "Sounds lovely."
"Yeah." His smile fell away. He’d dreamed of having an equally loud and loving family, and now here he was living alone in an apartment downtown.
She stood into a full-body stretch, and he tried not to look, very aware that the owner of that body was engaged. Instead, he rose, too, and walked around the room, finding other things to capture his interest.
"This yours or the kids’?" he asked, pointing to a terrarium on an octagonal side table.
"I bought it for them, and we’ll keep it here if Janine doesn’t want him."
Jack squinted at the turtle on a rock inside his glass home. Was the turtle blowing bubbles as he breathed? "He doesn’t look so good."
"How are turtles supposed to look?"
They watched in silence for a few minutes before Risa offered, "We’re calling him Yertle. Like the book."
"Sure, I know Yertle. My nieces and nephews are versed in the classics, and I’ve read lots of Dr. Seuss while staying with them. My favorite was always Where the Wild Things Are."
She grinned over top of the sleeping baby she supported. "Mine was Curious George. I envied his ability to get into trouble."
"Envied? You mean you wanted to get in more trouble?"
"I wanted to stop being so afraid of getting in trouble." A soft, wistful sigh escaped her. "I wanted to just be, without worrying I would do or say the wrong thing. Or be friends with the wrong kids, date the wrong guy. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this."
"I don’t mind listening." On the contrary, he wanted to know all about her but was afraid she’d withdraw if his questions got too personal.
Risa took a deep breath. "I don’t think the Judge ever wanted kids, but when he fell for my mom, I came as part of the package. Things were so strained between the two of us that my mother regretted the marriage within months, told me once that she always fell in love with the wrong men and that her heart was not to be trusted. She died a few months later, and the Judge was stuck with me. He’s a good man, really, just not….an easy one."
The revelation that she hadn’t been wanted hung painfully suspended in the air between them. Jack didn’t know what to say. As uncomfortable as family gatherings had been for him since the divorce, love among the Wolfes had always been abundant and unconditional.
"I’m sorry about the loss of your mother." They weren’t rote words of sympathy. He had a big, boisterous family, and couldn’t imagine losing a parent or sibling.
"It was a long time ago, but I still miss her. For years I’ve felt like I didn’t have a family, but that’s going to change. Phillip and I will start our family as soon as we’re married."
Jack’s gut clenched at the idea, although he could see more clearly now why being engaged to Phillip might seem like a good idea to Risa. If she’d grown up in a home devoid of love, maybe she didn’t see its lack in her almost businesslike relationship with her fiancé.
A relationship that was none of his business. Right now, Risa needed a friend, not criticism.
He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. For a split-second, her muscles tensed, then relaxed under his hand. They stood in companionable silence, watching Yertle slowly make his way to his pool of water. Once in the water, the turtle promptly fell over to one side, his other half sticking up in the air.
Jack frowned. "That can’t be right. I think your turtle is sick. Maybe you should check with the pet shop where you bought him."
Her cheeks reddened. "I, um, didn’t get him at a store."
"You didn’t find him outside, did you?"
"No. A guy was selling them out of the back of his truck."
He smothered a laugh. "Well that sounds reputable."
"It’s a turtle, not a pure-breed like Pierpont. I didn’t ask to see his papers. I’ll look up vets tomorrow."
"You want me to come by tomorrow? The offer still stands of borrowing my nephew’s video games. I would have gone ahead and done it but I…wasn’t sure you wanted me to come back."
She smiled. "Jason will love you forever."
And you? he wanted to ask. But he got the impression Risa Alexander was uncomfortable with love, wanted to tell herself she wouldn’t make her mother’s mistakes. Wanted to spare herself the risks.
"Hey, little brother. Long time, no see." Angela shuffled aside so that Jack could enter the Gwinnett County suburban home.
Jack smiled at his towheaded nephew Tyler, still in his Buzz Lightyear pajamas despite the lunch hour. "Not in Pre-K today?"
"I have a bad cold." The four year offered a pathetic cough. "D’you bring me a present to make me feel better?"
"Tyler." Angela’s voice reverberated with maternal reproach. "What you need is rest."
Her son grimaced.
"Get all better, sport, so that we can have fun on Saturday," Jack advised. The whole family was convening at his parents’ place on Lake Lanier—barbecue, boating, kids running around with squirt guns.
Tyler nodded, scooting off toward his room. He stopped long enough to admit, "You don’t have to bring me gifts, I like it when you come by just ’cause I get to see you."
"Thanks." Jack was almost embarrassed by how much the words meant. When his nephew had disappeared from earshot, Jack told his sister, "You and Greg are raising a couple of great kids."
She smiled. "I know. I remind myself of that every time they do something that gives me a new gray hair."
"I don’t see any," he assured his older sister. "You may be going on forty, but you look twenty-five to me."
"You always were my favorite brother. Come on, the game system is in the kitchen, all bagged up with a couple of cartridges you can borrow."
He followed her. "Risa really appreciates this."
"And Risa’s just a neighbor?" The hopeful innuendo in her voice was clear.
"Of course." He hefted the bag off Angie’s kitchen table, not meeting her eyes.
"You’re sure? When you told me about her and mentioned you were helping her baby-sit this week, you sounded so…You’re not leaving anything out?"
"If you’re implying there could be romance brewing, I should tell you she’s engaged."
"Oh. Mom will be crushed."
"Mom?" He nearly dropped the bag of video equipment.
"I mentioned talking to you. Might have mentioned that you already seem pretty fond of the girl next door…"
"Angela Rachelle! How could you do this to me? Mom’s been fretting since Amy left, worrying whether or not I’ll remarry. "
"She wants you to be happy, Jack. We all do. You’ve had such a tough time of it."
The unwanted pity roiled in his stomach like something greasy and indigestible. Everyone had been so sympathetic since the divorce that, for the first time in his life, Jack was uncomfortable around his family. At every gathering, there were barely discernible whispers of poor Jack. It struck him that a small part of him wasn’t looking forward to this weekend. Although… Maybe he could invite Risa? Once his family knew she was engaged, they wouldn’t put any pressure on her, and the kids were bound to have a blast. He knew Janine was returning late Saturday night, so why not take their minds off missing their mom by having them tag along? And if Risa and the kids provided a buffer between him and his family’s well-intended pity, all the better.
The expected knock sounded at the door, and Risa sighed. She’d been glad Harry the super called that morning to say he’d finally be fix the door, but she was currently busy trying to lull Grace into a nap and on hold with the vet’s office. Turned out there were special turtle vets. Who knew?
"Door’s open," she called.
Harry lumbered inside, greeting her with a comment on the hot weather—probably. The obnoxious rendition of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" used by the vet’s office forced her to rely on nonexistent lip-reading skills. And Grace, sensing she didn’t have Risa’s undivided attention, was shrieking intermittently.
While Harry busied himself with the malfunctioning door, Risa put the baby in a folding bouncy seat and turned on the television, hoping it would entertain the infant. A muscle-bound actor with soulful brown eyes and an atrocious fake Spanish accent was pledging to some scantily-clad woman named Celeste that Victor’s death had been an accident.
"Don’t you believe him for a minute, Celeste." Risa aimed the remote control, and the man was replaced by a cast of puppets counting to ten. Much more appropriate. Unfortunately, with everything calm for the moment, the guilt Risa had been battling finally surfaced. This kiss brought to you by the letter K, she thought, watching an on-screen phonics skit.
It wasn’t a kiss. Nothing actually happened.
But when she’d come awake next to Jack in the middle of the night, huddled against him, wondering what it would be like to have his lips on her… Engaged women should not wonder stuff like that. It had been exactly the kind of illogical, passionate impulse Maggie had cautioned against. Don’t be like me, baby girl—you’re smarter.
Well, Risa had tried to be smart, but she’d never felt for Phillip Donavan what she’d felt for her neighbor in that unguarded moment.
The doorbell rang, and Risa’s knees almost buckled in relief. She didn’t care if the person on the other side was selling Amway, she was just happy for the distraction. She swung the door wide open, and felt her smile harden and crack like cement.
"Phillip! W-what are you doing here?"
"What sort of greeting is that, Clarise?" He cocked his head to the side. "Is something wrong?"
"No." Would Phillip somehow divine that she’d had an inappropriate reaction to another man? Would he hate her?
"Aren’t you going to invite me in, darling?"
"Of course, sorry. I thought you were in court."
"Jury returned early." He beamed. "Another victory! I wanted to celebrate, and felt bad for not being able to help with the children the other night. How about we pack up the baby, you change, and I buy us lunch at that French bistro we like?"
French bistro he liked, actually. She thought it was slightly over-priced and disliked the way the waiters sneered if she mispronounced her order. "A nice thought, Phillip, but I’m afraid I can’t. Grace is just nodding off, and if I disturb her now, she’ll be impossible. It’s not the sort of establishment where they tolerate a baby crying—"
"Can’t you just bring a pacifier?"
Yeah, it’s that simple. Babies always magically quiet the second you give them a pacifier. "That apparently doesn’t work with Grace when she’s cutting teeth—something about the pressure on her gums making sucking painful. Besides, I only have a little while before I take the kids’ turtle to the vet."
"A rain-check, then." He studied her. "You’re planning to change before you go out, right? You have lovely legs, but those shorts are practically indecent." Glancing to where Harry was realigning her balcony door, Phillip lowered his voice. "In fact, I’d prefer you didn’t traipse around like that when the serviceman’s here."
"His name is Harry, and I’m not ‘traipsing.’ It’s over ninety degrees today!" She actually was planning to change, but this was her apartment, not his mother’s bridge club. The déjà vu of the moment struck her, the too many times as a teenager when she’d felt unfairly judged. She wasn’t fourteen. And she didn’t need Phillip’s blessing on her wardrobe.
If she shouldn’t repeat Maggie’s past and be blinded by love, nor should she repeat her own past and let desperation for acceptance guide her actions.
"I’m sorry, Phillip, I can’t marry you." Until the words were out, she hadn’t known for sure whether or not she was strong enough to say them. A tiny bud of pride blossomed within her.
His face registered shock. "Because I complained about your clothes?"
"Of course not. I care about you and I’m flattered you asked me to be your wife, but…we’re a bad match." Since he very rarely experienced any kind of failure, she held her breath, wondering if he’d be furious.
He merely stared. "What did I do wrong? We can talk about it."
"It’s more like what I did. Almost. I came close to kissing a man last night."
"You want someone else?"
I don’t know. "It’s not that. It’s just that feeling that for someone else made me see you and I aren’t right for each other, that I’m not truly as committed as you deserve." She tried a smile to soften her abrupt announcement. "I’ll still vote for you."
"Absolutely. You’ll be a great senator."
He brightened somewhat. "You think the Judge will still endorse my candidacy?"
"Not a doubt in my mind." The Judge would be furious…but not with Phillip.
She’d really done it this time—the disapproving wrath she’d always feared would no doubt materialize. Best to worry about that later.
Pulling off her engagement ring, she said softly, "This belongs to you."
He palmed the sparkling piece of jewelry, then gave her a sheepish smile. "I guess I can use the refund money to help defray campaign costs."
He was gone moments later, and she wasn’t sure what emotion was stronger—the exhilaration of feeling free for the first time, or sheer terror over what the heck she was supposed to do with her life next.