“I won’t be here on Wednesday,” he said. “But I can program in a code for you to use. I’ll text it to you in the morning, sound good?”
“Fantastic,” I said, feeling almost desperate to get away. “You’re busy, I don’t want to keep you. Night!”
I darted out the door before he could respond, then stopped on the porch. Shit. As much as I wanted to get the hell away, I needed to apologize. What I’d said about his room and Heather had been so wrong on so many levels … I turned to face Reese, meeting his eyes directly.
“That comment about your bedroom? That was wrong. I have no right to say anything about your home or your room—or your wife. I’m sorry. It was thoughtless and hurtful.”
Reese didn’t respond right away, just studied my face. Then he nodded his head slowly. Good enough for me, so I turned and moved quickly toward my van. The woman I’d seen inside leaned against her car, smoking and watching me with openly concerned eyes.
“Fine,” I said. “No worries.”
She shrugged, throwing down the butt and twisting it under her foot. She walked back to the house as I loaded my supplies. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her go to Reese. He guided her into the house, shutting the door behind them. I started to climb into my vehicle, then glanced over at the butt on the dirt.
I couldn’t. Being a neat freak is a curse sometimes, but darned if I could just drive away and leave that nasty little thing lying there. I gave the house a quick glance to make sure I was all clear before stomping over to pick it up. Clutching it carefully between two fingers, I carried it around the side of the house to the trash can.
It took two seconds to toss it in, and then another for a quick squirt of hand sanitizer from the little tube in my pocket.
So what if I couldn’t control Jessica and I felt awkward and uncomfortable around Reese? At least that particular cigarrette butt wouldn’t pollute anything today. I decided to count it as a victory.
“She has a gift, you know.”
I glanced over at Maggs, the new volunteer coordinator at the community center.
Maggs nodded, her messy blonde hair styled exactly the way I’d tried to get mine that unfortunate time that I’d cut it all off. She looked sort of like Meg Ryan at her cutest. I’d resembled a horrific clown who’d been attacked with scissors. I glanced across the room at my little cousin, watching her crawl around on the floor with a little girl.
“I haven’t seen her before,” I said, nodding toward the child.
“She’s new, only been coming for a couple weeks now,” Maggs said. “Family just moved to the area. She’s got a shunt—congenital hydrocephalus. Jessica has taken a special interest in her.”
My breath caught. Of course she had …
“Jess is hell on wheels, but she’s a good volunteer,” I said, which was the truth. No matter how crazy everything else got, Jess never missed a shift at the center. “She loves working with the kids.”
“Has she considered going into early-childhood education or a related field?”
“I don’t think she’s considered anything beyond her next party.”
Maggs cocked her head.
“That’s unfortunate,” she said. “Because she’d be really good at it.”
“I know,” I replied, smiling. “Hey, Jess! You ready?”
Jess looked up at me and smiled, hopping up and offering the kid her hand for a high five. The little girl jumped up to smack her, obviously thrilled to get such attention from a big girl.
“See ya on Wednesday,” Jess told her, then loped across the game room floor toward me. “Sorry, I lost track of the time. Hey, they’re having a party for the kids and their families on Wednesday night. I signed you up to bring chicken and dumplings. They want it here by six.”
“Thanks for asking first,” I replied, my tone dry. She grinned at me.
“Would you have said no?”
I shrugged and she giggled, sounding young and carefree.
“Ha! I know you too well. You always come through.”
That was the truth …
“So, I thought you were going to be done early today? Seemed like you weren’t quite ready to leave after all.”
“Yeah, I planned to get out early, but then we got caught up in a game,” she said, shrugging. “I do want to go home, though. Mellie’s coming over. We’re going to a movie tonight out in Hayden—she’s got her mom’s car. You said you’d pay for a movie with her this week, remember?”
“I remember,” I said, figuring Mellie deserved something nice after what she’d been through last weekend. Jess had blown up at her for calling me, although they’d made up again by Sunday night. That’s the thing with Jess. For better or for worse, she doesn’t hold on to things. Every once in a while that worked out so the good guys won.
“Do you have plans for dinner?” Jess asked casually as we started across the parking lot. Too casually. What was she up to now?
“Not really. I was thinking we could have soup and sandwiches.”
“How about pizza?” she asked, and my mouth watered. I hadn’t gotten the smell of the pizza at Reese’s house out of my mind since I’d left. So I’d been intimidated by him … but I’d also been hungry.
“Not sure that’s in the budget,” I said slowly, mentally calculating where we were in the month. Between the mortgage and the medical bills, there wasn’t much extra.
“Who said you’re paying?” Jess asked, pulling out a wadded green bill from her pocket. She stretched it out and waved it triumphantly in my face.
My eyes widened.
“Where did that come from?” I asked, stunned. Dear God, was she picking pockets now?
“It was a thank-you gift,” she said, grinning broadly. “You saw that little girl I was playing with? Well, her mom talked to me last week and she really likes how I’m working with Ivy. She’s behind the other kids developmentally, and it’s hard for her. I know how that feels, so I’ve been spending extra time with her. Today her mom gave me this and thanked me. She asked if I do babysitting, too!”
“Jessie, that’s fantastic!” I said, pulling her in for an impulsive hug. She tugged away from me immediately, scowling, but I could see the pleasure in her eyes. This was a huge win for her.