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Phoenix, Arizona Six months later
Royce fumbled with his keys. Things came harder these days, even those he was accustomed to doing with one hand.
"You're sure you're up to living alone? You're welcome to stay in the guesthouse." His sister, Becca, pushed her honey-blond bangs out of her eyes. Even nearing forty, she reminded him of an exuberant cheerleader.
"Absolutely not. You've turned your life upside down for me long enough." He silenced her protest with a pointed look.
At last, he maneuvered the key into the lock. He turned the knob, opened the door and gestured expansively with his good hand. His only hand. "My palace awaits."
She strode inside and crossed her arms. "This apartment looks exactly like what it is. A furnished place to hide out and feel sorry for yourself. You need a home. You need my home."
"Like hell I do. It's about as restful as Grand Central Station. There are kids and pets and old people all over the place."
"Those old people are my in-laws and they're very sweet. My kids can be a pain in the rear, but they'll grow on you."
He couldn't allow her to see how tempting he really found her offer. Wife, mother, businesswoman, caretaker-the last thing she needed was her injured brother taking up space with the rest of her strays.
Touching her arm, he said, "I appreciate the invitation. Really. But I need to do this on my own."
"So why not get an apartment close to me? Or close to Dad in Florida?"
"Dad's started a new life with Evelyn. He spent enough time raising us, he deserves this second chance. Anyway, Phoenix was home before I started the expat life. Maybe I can figure some stuff out here. Besides, you know, the old McIntyre stubbornness."
Becca blew out a breath that ruffled her bangs. Her eyes sparkled with amusement. "I have a passing acquaintance with it. Fortunately, the family curse seems to have passed me by completely."
"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that. I bet Gabe has a whole 'nother story."
"Don't you dare compare notes with my husband. He's hard enough to handle as it is. It's going to make me very uneasy with you clear across the country. Won't you at least let me stay a few days to get you settled?"
Becca sighed. "Then allow Tess to come visit for a while?"
"No way. The last person I need in the middle of my catastrophe is my ex-wife. I have no intention of wrecking her second marriage."
Tilting her head, she asked, "You're not the tiniest bit jealous?"
"No." The truth was, Royce was a bit relieved that Tess had remarried. Knowing she had finally moved on and found happiness put his guilt on a bearable level.
"I don't think I could be as easygoing if Gabe ever remarried."
"Then don't get divorced in the first place." He glanced at his watch. "Speaking of which, I bet your husband is eager for you to get home to start your anniversary festivities. Don't you have a plane to catch?"
Becca touched his cheek with her fingertips. "Royce, I quit being fooled by the tough guy act a long time ago. I know you're hurting, physically and emotionally. I hate leaving you like this, but I guess I understand wanting to do it by yourself. If you need anything, call. Anytime, day or night."
Royce cleared his throat. "You bet. Now get back to your own life."
Becca kissed him on the cheek. "Goodbye, Royce." Then she turned and walked out the door. Royce dropped to the couch, fighting emotion. The silence echoed louder than the explosion.
Jake tried to appear innocent. He looked his mom straight in the eye, though it took all his courage. He didn't want Sally to get in trouble. And he didn't want his mom to worry.
"You be good for Sally today, okay?" She handed him his favorite Diamondbacks baseball cap.
"I'll be very good." There. It wasn't really a lie. He'd just left out the Sally part. She'd called the night before while his mom was in the shower. He'd listened to the voice mail, then deleted it.
"Be sure to ask her to help with your math homework because I might be late."
Jake nodded. A nod wasn't a lie, either. "Are you sure you don't want me to drive you to school?"
"No. You can drop me off at the bus stop, though."
"You bet." She had that same sad expression when his dad didn't show up to take Jake for the weekend. Like she blamed herself for all the sucky stuff that happened.
He flung his arms around her neck and hugged her hard. Before she could hang on to him and get all mushy, he pushed away and ran to get his backpack. "Let's go."
"Sure, honey. Let's go."
Royce cranked open an eye and glanced at the
clock. The numerals told him it was four o'clock, even if he hadn't already suspected the fact. And the infernal tapping had been going on for at least fifteen minutes.
He should get a broomstick and bang on the ceiling so his upstairs neighbor would get a clue. But he doubted it would work. The noise had started promptly at three forty-five yesterday, too.
Cocking his head, Royce decided it wasn't tap dancing. It sounded almost like Morse code.
Damn. If he didn't know better, he'd think his pain medication was making him hallucinate again. But he'd quit taking the meds months ago.
Royce listened intently while he removed a bowl from the kitchen cupboard. Then a spoon from the drawer. He poured cereal and milk.
And who said the one-handed guy couldn't be self-sufficient? Certainly not his physical therapist, Gus, who led him to believe he'd be as good as new with a space-age prosthesis and a crapload of physical and occupational therapy.
The series of taps intruded on his thoughts. One-handed man. "One-handed man," he murmured, looking heavenward. Was it possible?
Now he was really losing it. He was imagining an upstairs neighbor tapping out a take-out order in Morse code. And addressing it to the man with one hand.
Last time he'd checked, Royce had been the only one-handed man in the apartment building. Possibly even for miles.
What other explanation could account for the mystery message? There was that cute redhead he'd seen on the elevator. More likely, it was the kid she'd had with her. The boy who looked enough like her to be her son.
Definitely bring treats. Royce booted up his laptop and did an Internet search to refresh his memory of Morse code.When the taps started again, he noted their order, then translated.
"One-handed man. Bring Rice Krispies Treats to 472."
Royce was in apartment 372. But he wasn't interested in playing games with the kid. Was he?
Royce thought back to all the afternoons he and Becca had spent home alone while his dad worked. They'd had each other, but it still had gotten old quickly. Wouldn't it have been nice to have someone new break up the monotony?
Then another thought occurred to him and he was slightly ashamed. But chatting up the kid could lead to meeting his mother.
More tapping. Another request for Rice Krispies Treats.
It kind of tickled Royce's sense of the ridiculous. And the redhead was cute.
He grabbed a pencil and paper and figured out the Morse code for what he wanted to say. Then he got the broom from the closet.
Grasping the bristles, he tapped on the ceiling. Four-seven-two, you want treats?
When the tapping started a few moments later, Royce grinned.
"Rice Krispies Treats."
As the tapping continued, he scribbled down the pattern. It translated to, Homemade.
He chuckled. "Picky, aren't you?"
But he had to admit, the idea of humoring the kid appealed to him-harmless entertainment to distract both of them.
Royce checked his kitchen cupboards, just to make sure marshmallows hadn't magically appeared. They hadn't. By the time he walked to the corner store and back, he wondered why he'd decided to do this. After the first batch tanked because the bowl kept scooting and he couldn't stir fast enough, he was ready to admit defeat. But dammit, he'd do it no matter what. It was, after all, a simple chore.
And finally, four hours later, he stood outside apartment number 472. He knocked and waited, balancing the covered plate on his left forearm.
He knocked again.
No sound of movement, no strains of a television program. He was too late.
Royce set the paper plate outside the door, trying to ignore his disappointment. It was only a silly game to pass the time.
Katy breathed a sigh of relief as she unlocked the apartment door. It had been one intense Wednesday.
"Hi, Mom." Jake glanced up from his handheld video game.
"Hi, honey. I missed Sally again?"
"Uh-huh. She left five minutes ago."
"I don't like you being here alone, but I guess five minutes won't hurt." She set her purse and keys on the table next to the door and went to give Jake a kiss on the top of his head. "Still, I should probably call her."
"Sally said it was important for her mom to go for dial-um, to get her blood filtered."
"Well, her mother's dialysis is important. But it's important for you to stay safe, too."
"Aw, nothing's going to happen in five minutes."
"You're probably right. But I want to make sure it's not going to turn into more than that." Between school and her ill mother, Sally had too much on her plate. But Katy's first concern had to be Jake. "I'll call her later."
"She's got class tonight. You don't want to get her in trouble at school."
"I forgot she had class. I'll call her tomorrow from work."
Katy went to the kitchen and retrieved water from the fridge. The chill of the bottle was welcome against her palm. It was only March, but in Phoenix the weather was already warm enough for sun-dresses.
Jake came into the kitchen, grabbed water of his own and sat on a stool at the breakfast bar.
"How'd the math test go?" she asked.
"I got an A."
"Good job." She gave him a high five. "You're on a roll."
"You want one of these Rice Krispies Treats, Mom?" Jake peeled the plastic wrap from a paper plate she hadn't noticed.
"Did Sally make these?" She bit into one, enjoying the sweet, sticky goodness.
Jake bit into one, too. "Uh-huh," was his muffled reply.
The redhead barely glanced at Royce when they passed in the parking lot. Though she'd seemed distracted, he'd hoped for some spark of recognition.
Shrugging philosophically, he settled the grocery sack more securely on his hip and headed toward his apartment. Once inside, he went through the now-familiar process of making Rice Krispies Treats.