The knock against Jack’s door was surprisingly urgent. He’d just arrived home, had been changing and checking email before going to Risa’s, so it shouldn’t be her. Why come over when she expected him in fifteen minutes?
Bang, bang, bang!
Uneasy, he opened the door. "Jason!"
The little boy stood in the hall, brown eyes frantic. "I thought I should get you. Aunt Risa’s crying."
Panic gripped him. "Is she all right? Is Grace?"
"Everyone’s fine—’cept Yertle. He went to heaven, but that’s okay. He can keep my daddy company. Daddy would probably like a pet. And since I have the aquarium already, maybe Mom will let me get another turtle. Or fish. Or—"
The door to 7-H swung open and Risa charged into the hallway, Grace in her arms, Natalie following behind with a thumb in her mouth.
"Jason Matthew Griggs!" Risa’s tone was that parental combination of relief and rage. "Sweetie, never, never leave the apartment without asking me! Do you have any idea how worried…"
She lifted her head, casting Jack an apologetic glance. Jason had been right about the crying, her golden eyes were indeed red-rimmed. "I’m so sorry. I was, um, in the restroom, only gone a minute. They were watching a video. Jason, it’s not safe for you to leave the apartment. Most strangers are nice people like Jack, but when I think about—"
Jason’s lower lip quivered, and Risa was white as a sheet, probably stricken by all the sinister possibilities she didn’t want to mention to the kids.
Natalie popped her thumb out of mouth. "Hi, Mr. Jack."
"Hi, beautiful. You know, kids, I’ve never noticed before, but there’s kind of a funny smell in the hall. Maybe it’s from Pierpont the poodle." Natalie giggled, and he continued, "Why don’t we all go into Risa’s apartment where it doesn’t smell funny and sort this out?"
Once they were inside, standing in the white carpeted space between Risa’s living room and the breakfast bar that separated her kitchen from the rest of the apartment, Risa focused on the kids. She knelt in front of Jason, careful to hold Grace far enough away that the infant’s tiny grasping hands couldn’t tug her brother’s hair. "It’s been a tough day so I won’t send you to your room, just promise me you’ll never do anything like that again."
"I promise," the little boy mumbled.
"Good. Then maybe we can order a pizza and play video games tonight," Risa said, straightening. "I’m going to look for my delivery coupons."
The kids were all smiles as they resumed watching their movie, and Jack followed his red-eyed hostess into the kitchen.
He noticed her hands trembled as she shuffled through discount offers. "Yertle shuffled off his mortal coil?"
"I have a turtle in my freezer next to the frozen peas." Then she burst into tears.
"You okay?" He felt like an imbecile; people who were wailing and trying to muffle it with a dish towel were not okay.
"Fine." She lowered the towel. "Incompetent, but fine. I buy milk formula for a lactose-intolerant baby, I lose one of my charges, I get the kids a pet and the thing’s dead inside a week. It could’ve at least had the decency to kick the bucket before the ridiculous vet bill, which cost more than the turtle and all its housing in the first place. Apparently, the little guy had pneumonia. The vet pumped him full of expensive antibiotics, and assured me as I was writing out the monstrous check that the turtle would show signs of improvement by tonight."
Jack bit down on his lip, struggling not to see any morbid humor in the situation.
"He didn’t even last the entire drive home!" A small giggle tore out of her. "Oh, heavens, I shouldn’t be laughing. That’s just wrong."
"You seriously have a turtle next to your peas?"
"In a sealed baggie. The kids wanted to properly bury him, but since I don’t have a yard, we’re preserving him till Janine gets back. I was worried she’d be mad I bought them a pet. Now I’m worried what she’ll think when she finds out I killed it in a matter of days."
"Risa, it wasn’t your fault—all turtles meet their Maker eventually. And the kids are coping."
She rolled her shoulders, and he recognized the action as someone trying to relieve tension. His fingers itched to massage her tight muscles, to offer comfort it wasn’t his place to give. He bounced Grace at his hip, watching her adorable baby grin because it was safer than watching her more-than-adorable babysitter.
"I guess that after losing their father," Risa said, "they have some perspective on the turtle. Nat told me she was glad Yertle wasn’t sick anymore, and Jason thinks the idea of having a funeral is cool. I suspect he plans to tell his class about it next week for circle time. He mentioned that an actual funeral would be much cooler than the time Mikey Baxter flushed a goldfish."
Jack shifted his weight, rearranging Grace in his arms. "Um, I understand being upset about Yertle and worrying you let the kids down, but…"
"I wasn’t bawling over the turtle. It’s just been a very long day."
He noticed her hand—the bare left finger—at the same time she blurted, "Phillip and I broke up."
Broke up? Shock numbed him. He plunked into one of the kitchen chairs before he either lost his balance or dropped Grace. His first impulse was to be jubilant, but Risa had been crying. "If you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t pry."
She sniffed. "No, it’s okay. It was my doing. Phillip was just the wrong man for me."
Yes! "I see."
Narrowing her eyes, she said, "I suppose you do. You and Janine both saw, hinted, tried to get me to see it. Phillip’s a nice man, but it wouldn’t be right for me to marry him"
"Did he take it okay?" Though Jack hadn’t personally known her that long, he’d feel her absence like a void if she weren’t in his life.
"He did, actually, but I’ve been too much of a coward to call my step-father. Lord knows how he’ll take it, which is probably why I’m such a mess. It was one of my mother’s last wishes that he and I get along, be a family."
Jack thought that she deserved some time around a real family, one that griped and fought and made up, without its members worrying that they weren’t allowed to make mistakes. If she was free of her engagement to Phillip, free to pursue a life in which love played a part, she should have a closer look at how unconditional affection worked.
"Are you and the kids busy Saturday?" he heard himself ask.
"Are we there yet?" Risa asked teasingly.
Jack smirked. "Isn’t that supposed to be the kids’ line?"
The children were being angels. Jason and Natalie had been playing the Alphabet Game and Grace was zonked out in her car seat. It was Risa who was edgy, wondering what Jack’s family would make of her, wondering how he’d described her. His neurotic neighbor who had a habit of staring at his mouth and getting distracted?
"Um, Risa?" He tapped the control panel above the steering wheel—she’d suggested he drive the van since he knew the way. "When was the last time the engine was serviced?"
She laughed. "Because of the light saying something’s wrong with the engine? The engine’s fine. Something shorted with the light, is all."
"Good to know. I didn’t want to break Janine’s van. Seemed rude, since I’ve never even met her."
"I’ll have to introduce the two of you. Janine would love you." What woman wouldn’t? Gorgeous, funny guy with no known vices and he adored kids. Now that she thought about it, Risa couldn’t imagine why he was divorced. Why would a wife have let him go? "So…tell me who everyone is again. I’ll never keep your family straight."
"That’s okay, I have two brothers and two sisters and stopped being able to tell them apart years ago. I just call all the girls ‘gorgeous’ and the men ‘bro’."
"Liar. I know how close you are to your family."
"Yeah, we’re close." But something about the way Jack bit the words off more sharply than normal made her think that there was something wrong. Was he fighting with one of his siblings?
"Everything okay? You sound…"
He sighed. "I should just tell you since it will probably come up today. The joke in the family has always been ‘Wolfes mate for life.’ I’m the first one in four generations to get a divorce. It’s…awkward at times."
Her heart squeezed. "Oh, Jack, that has to be tough. I know what it’s like to be in your own home and feel like you stand out or don’t belong somehow."
"Thanks. It’s nice to have empathy and not just pity. I know they mean well, but they started feeling sorry for me even before the marriage, so the div—"
His handsome face colored, then became deliberately neutral as he pointed toward an exit sign. "Good news, everyone, we’re almost there!"
Risa couldn’t remember ever feeling so blissfully content, and it wasn’t just because of Mrs. Wolfe’s sinfully delicious chocolate silk pie. The entire day had been like a fairy-tale…or at least, her version of one, dreamt up in the Judge’s spacious but unwelcoming home. There were no people alive more welcoming than the Wolfes, as far as Risa was concerned.
Jason and Natalie had fit right in, accepted into the clan’s various children, and Jack’s siblings had been delightfully entertaining, the way they affectionately ribbed one another and showed honest interest in what Risa did for a living. It was easy to see how Jack had become such a wonderful man, coming from warm, funny people like these.
She watched him now, from her folding lawn chair, as he stood on the beach, holding a sparkler for Natalie. "He is so good with kids."
Jack’s youngest sister, pregnant and practically glowing even in the falling dusk, nodded with a wistful sigh. "Just one of life’s weird ironies, isn’t it? That a man like that can’t father—"
"Sasha Marie!" This from Angela, accompanied by a smack on the back of the head.
"Hey! Be gentle with the pregnant lady," Sasha complained.
Angela, having survived pregnancies of her own, wasn’t that easily chastised. "I think we’ve probably talked Risa’s ear off enough, don’t you? Let’s go see if Mom needs any help loading stuff up for the night."
Though it took some effort to pull herself out of her chair, Sasha toddled after her sister. Risa wasn’t an idiot, though, and could piece together the rest of Sasha’s words. Jack had said his family felt sorry for him—because he couldn’t have children? Surely that wasn’t why his wife had left? There were other options available to couples who couldn’t conceive, but very few men like Jack.
Almost as if he could feel his gaze on her, Jack looked up, smiling at her in a way that made her heart somersault and her sun-warmed skin heat even more. She returned the grin with one of her own, shy, but not trying to hide what she felt. She didn’t know if she could trust it yet, these emotions that were more instinct than pragmatism, but at least she was free to find out now. With that thought drifting through her mind like a refreshing breeze, she rose, walking toward him.
He straightened, too. The last of the sparklers had exhausted itself, and he left the kids to try to spot the first stars of the evening, meeting Risa halfway on the beach, out of earshot of anyone else.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi yourself." She felt like a girl at her first dance, hoping the boy she liked would ask her for a turn around the floor. If he didn’t, would she have the guts to ask him?
"I hope you had a good day," he said.
"The best. Thank you for sharing this—them—with me."
Pleasure etched itself in his boyish expression, his obvious delight that she liked his family. "You’re welcome. I’m just glad it was at the beach, where Mom couldn’t pull out twelve albums’ worth of naked baby pictures."
She swallowed, feeling strangely free and bold with the wind off the water rippling her hair and the sand cool and smooth beneath her bare feet. "I can think of worse fates than seeing you naked."
His eyebrows shot up. "Well…I…well."
A laugh rippled out of her. "And here I thought you were too much of a smart aleck to ever be at a loss for words."
"I suppose it’s only fair that I return the favor." He took a step closer, bending his head so that she could clearly see the mischievous expression that had replaced the shock. "Although maybe it’s not technically putting you at a loss for words, I can think of a few ways to keep you from calling me names."
"I take back the ‘smart aleck,’" she said, her heartbeat thundering in her ears.
"Too late." His lips brushed against hers. "Besides, I am a smart aleck. I’m also…a very…good…kisser."
It might have been bragging, except that, in reality, he was a great kisser.