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She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So Sarah did what she always did when she had the choicethrew back her head and laughed herself silly. Then dived for the shut-off valve at the base of the toilet that was currently overflowing onto the crimson tile floor she had laid herself a year ago.
Once the water flow was cut offand the floor mopped upshe turned to Johnny, the oldest of her five-year-old twins. "Does someone want to explain to me what happened this time?"
"Pirate Jack was a bad, bad pirate, Mommy," Johnny said in his earnest little boy voice, his blue eyes wide with sincerity. "He had to walk the plank."
"Yeah," Justin said. "He's a criminal, Mommy. He deserves a terrible pun-pun-pu"
"Punishment." Johnny rolled his eyes with all the annoyance of a big brotheras if far more than five minutes separated the two of them.
"Walked the plank?" Sarah shook her head in amazement. "Into the toilet? Again? I thought we talked about this." Over and over and over again, they had talked until she felt like a broken record. Or worse, a useless one.
"That's where Jasper went when he died, Mommy. Remember? We gave him a hero's funeral."
Of course she remembered. Her brotherher wonderful, irresponsible, fun-loving brotherhad been babysitting the twins when the fish had died and, for whatever reason, had decided to give the goldfish a "proper" funeral. Complete with a burial at sea, accomplished by flushing him down the guest bathroom toilet.
Too bad Tad hadn't thought to warn the twins that not everything that went into the toilet actually made it down the pipes and out to sea. It might have saved her budgetnot tomention what little sanity she had left.
For the past three months, sheand her trusty plumber had rescued everything from superheroes and toy soldiers to the baby's rattle and hair bows from the toilet and the pipes below it. But Pirate Jack, he was a new one. It was definitely his first trip down the flusher.
Turning back to the toilet, she tried to locate some part of the toy still sticking into the bowlan arm, a leg, a head, she wasn't picky. But alas, Jack had made it all the way into the pipes before getting stuck.
"Which Pirate Jack was it?" she asked, feeling the need to clarify as the boys had about twenty variations on the pirate theme. Please don't let it be the big one her brother
"The one Uncle Tad got us."
Of course it had to be that one. That one was larger than her fist and had hard plastic arms and legs shooting off in all directions. She was shocked the thing had actually made it out of the bowl.
With a sigh, Sarah headed downstairs to get the plunger out of the garage. Not that she had a hope of getting the stupid toy outas big as it was, she was almost positive it was well and truly lodged in the pipe. Which meant calling Vince the plumber. She sighed. Which meant at least two hundred dollars she couldn't afford to spend this month, not with the two visits Vince had already paid to their house on top of the unexpected car repairs she'd had to deal with last week. The new transmission had eaten up most of her discretionary income for the month. She really hated to dip into her savings, but it wasn't like she had a choice. Unless, by some miracle, the plunger actually worked.
After wrestling with the plunger for fifteen minutes, Sarah gave up. It was time to call Vince. She reached for the phonewhat did it say about her life that he was number two on her speed dial?
"Boys," she said softly as she checked on them. They were playing in their room, building blocks into huge towers then knocking them down with their trucks. "I'm going to be on the phone for a few minutes. Keep it down, okay? The baby's sleeping."
"Okay, Mommy," Justin said sweetly, even as his brother rolled his eyes.
"She's always asleep," complained Johnny.
"That's what two-month-old babies do, sweetie. They sleep a" She cut off in midsentence as Angie, Vince's full-time receptionist, answered the phone. And how sick was it that she knew the other woman's name?
"Hi, Angie. It's Sarah Martin. My toilet's clogged again."
"What'd the boys flush this time?" Angie asked, laughter evident in her voice.
"Their favorite pirate toy had to walk the plank." Despite the drain on her finances, she had a hard time keeping the amusement out of her voice, as well. Really, who on earthbesides five-year-old boyswould ever think to do such a thing?
"Nice one. Give me a second and I'll see if Vince can get over there this morning."
"No problem. I'll be home all"
The smoke alarm in the kitchen went off. "Oh, no! The cookies!"
Sarah ran down the stairs, her first thought to stop the screeching before it woke the baby. But as soon as she hit the first floor, she realized that was easier said than done. The entire downstairs was thick with smoke as she'd left the cookies inshe glanced at the clock nearly twenty minutes longer than she should have.
Opening the back door and various windows on her way to the kitchen, she waved frantically at the smoke detector in the hallway, trying to clear the smoke from beneath it.
"The cookies are burnded?" asked Justin, lower lip quivering, as she rushed into the kitchen and pulled the blackened treats from the oven.
"Burnded doesn't quite cover it," she muttered to herself. They were so blackened she feared they'd burst into flames any second. With a sigh she dumped themtray and allinto the sink and ran water over them. It was the second batch she'd massacred that week.
"Not again," wailed Johnny over the scream of the smoke detector. "Mommy, you promised we'd have cookies today."
"And we will. I"
"Sarah?" Angie came back on the line.
"Shh." She turned a stern look on her boys, who ignored it and continued to whine about the lack of chocolate-chip cookies in their lives. "Yes, Angie?" she said, straining to hear the receptionist.
"Vince can be there around two o'clock. Is that okay?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"It sounds like you've got your hands full there."
"It sounds likenever mind." Angie laughed. "I'll talk to you later, Sarah."
The phone went dead in her hand as Sarah realized that not all of the noise lambasting her ears was from the boys and the smoke alarm. Some of the screams were coming from her baby girl who was now wide-awake, despite the fact that she should have slept for at least another hour.
"Coming, Rose," she called as she headed up the stairs, the boys trailing behind her. Their tears had turned to shouts of delight the second they heard their sister's cries. The rule was that as soon as Rose woke up from her nap, quiet time was over. Silence was definitely not their natural state.
Sarah burst into her daughter's room, and scooped Rose from the crib, holding the small, trembling body to her chest. "It's okay, baby. Nothing to be scared of. Mama's here."
The baby continued to wail despite Sarah's presence, her cries getting louder with each high-pitched scream from the smoke detector. Would the stupid alarm never go off? To protect Rose's delicate hearing, Sarah covered the ear not pressed to her chest with her hand.
Murmuring to the baby, she went downstairs. She wasn't sure if Rose was hungry yet, but the comfort of a pacifier would do a lot to calm her.
Sarah barely cleared the bottom step when the doorbell rang. Vince must have been able to get away earlier than expected. Before she reached the door the boys rushed past her, their voices raised in war whoops of celebration. They loved watching Vince work, and she was beginning to suspect that they were breaking the toilet on purposea sneaky ploy to see the plumber again and again. Sarah had just enough time to register that Justin's face was streaked with red lines while Johnny's was covered with black ones, before they swung open the door.
Her boys paused in mid-war whoop. Vince wasn't standing on the other side of the threshold.
Reece Sandler was.
She'd never seen her best friend's husband look more uncomfortable, despite his carelessly styled brown hair and the designer clothes that showed off his six-foot-four-inch frame to its best advantage.
On the bright side, the sudden influx of hot September air must have been just what the smoke detector needed as it finally stopped shrieking.
Blessed silence filled the room and Sarah took a moment to compose herself. But a moment wasn't long enough to combat the six and a half months' worth of fury seething inside her.
A better woman might have bitten her tongue before making a comment. A good woman would certainly have made things easier on the man. But Sarah had never claimed to be trying for sainthood, and she had a lifetime of anger and hurt stored up inside of her.
Aw, shit, was all Reece could think as his gaze collided with the baby he'd spent the past few months pretending didn't exist. First, he'd abandoned Sarah for the last half of her pregnancy. Then he hadn't made it to the hospital when the baby was born. And now, over two months had passed and, despite Sarah's insistent phone calls, he'd yet to visit it.
Her, he reminded himself. Not it. The baby was a girl.
His baby was a girl.
Shame ate at him, warring with the anger and guilt and sorrow that had taken up residence in his soul two hundred and nine days ago. This baby was his responsibilityhis aloneyet he'd abandoned Sarah to deal with Rose. The fact that he hadn't wanted her to begin withand still didn't have a clue what to do with herwas no excuse.
"To what do we owe this honor?" Sarah's hostile toneso at odds with her normally sunny dispositionwasn't totally unexpected. Yet it still hurt in a way he was completely unprepared for. This was Van's best friend and what she thought of him mattered. That she had every right to think of him as a total rat didn't make her disgust any easier to bear.
"Well, are you going to answer me?"
"You haven't" His voice gave out and Reece had to clear his throat several times before he was able to continue. "You haven't cashed the checks I sent."
"That's why you're here? Because of the money?"
He pulled his gaze away from the pink-and-purple-clad baby in her arms and met Sarah's. Her blue eyes were filled with rage, brimming with the stuff until he couldn't help thinking it was a miracle he hadn't been struck dead on her doorstep.
"Look, can I come in?" he asked, discomfort giving way to annoyance. He knew he had a lot to apologize for and he was man enough to do it. But he'd be damned if he'd do it in front of the entire neighborhood.
Those indigo eyes darkened even as they narrowed, and he was sure she would slam the door in his face. But finally, when he was really starting to sweat, she shrugged and opened the door wider. Then turned and walked away without so much as a backward glance.
"Uncle Reece, Uncle Reece!" Justin grabbed his hand and yankedat least he thought it was Justin. It had been a long time since he'd seen the twins and with all that paint on their faces, it was difficult to tell them apart. "We missed you."
Guilt hit him again, hard. Before Van's death, he'd spent a lot of time with the boys. Their fatherSarah's husbandhad walked out when they were babies and Reece had been the closest thing to a father figure they had. When Van had died, he hadn't just cut himself off from Sarah and his baby, but also from the boys he'd considered his nephews.
"I missed you guys, too." He ran a hand over each little blond head.
"Did you bring us something?" Johnny asked. There was a time when he and Van would never have considered dropping by without some small present for the boysa couple Matchbox cars, packs of gum, new balls. Yet another tradition that had died with his wife.
"I'm sorry, guys. I forgot. But I promise I'll bring something with me the next time."
"Don't make promises you can't keep." Sarah was back, probably wondering what was taking him so long.
"I plan on keeping that promise." He found himself reluctant to leave the boysthey were a bit of normalcy in a world turned violently upside down.
Her snort was not encouraging.
"Boys, go on upstairs and wash the makeup off your faces."
"But, Mom, we're Indians."
"Still?" She raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Then you'd better go be Indians before Rose needs another nap."
"Aww, Mom! Already?"
"Not yet, but soon. Her nap was cut short, remember."
"Yes." Johnny sighed, hanging his head dejectedly. He looked for all the world like a kid who'd just found out that Santa Claus didn't exist. Then Justin came up behind him and hit him on the head with a makeshift tomahawk. That's all it took to send the two of them running up the stairs, laughing and hollering for all they were worth.
Reece watched them go. Otherwise he would have to look at Sarah. Or worse, the baby.
As he avoided her gaze, he realized the house was trashed. Toys were scattered everywhere, along with sippy cups and baby paraphernalia. Stacks of clean clothes sat at the bottom of the stairs while a pile of clean diapers and a box of wipes graced Sarah's normally immaculate dining-room table.
He cleared his throat, searched for something to say. "Is it always like this around here?"
"So crazy?" As soon as the word was out, he knew he'd made a vital mistake.
"I'm a single mom with twin boys, a home business and a baby I had no intention of having to care for after her birth." Sarah's voice turned virulent. "So, yeah, it's pretty much always like this."
The bitterness made him feel even lowersomething he hadn't thought was possible. Taking a deep, bracing breath he turned to really look at Sarah. And tried to ignore the wholly inappropriate jolt he felt when her gaze met his.
It was the same jolt he'd felt every time she'd looked at him for the past eight years.