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"Snookums!" Thirty-four pounds of OshKosh overalls hurled himself at Zoe, effectively dislodging her ribs for all time. "What'd you bring me? Where's your suitcase?"
Wishing she could protect them both from an exceedingly nasty world, Zoe Anderson simply held the recently orphaned little boy close. "I came here so fast that I didn't have time to bring you a present, but we can shop for something together, okay?" Slowly, she unwound the sticky fingers from around her neck and let Aaron slide to the floor.
"Sure. Did you bring Mommy and Daddy?"
That fast, her heart jumped in her throat. For an instant, she couldn't even speak. "No, honey." She took a breath. "So where's your brother? And your grandma?"
"Grandma's in the kitchen, and Parker's in the bathtub with Uncle Rafe. You don't want to see my brother," Aaron informed her. "You want to see me."
"I want to see both of you," Zoe said pleasantly, and gave him another quick hug.
"Grandma said she was going to have a really nice lady come to live with her here, did you know that? Are we going somewhere with you and Uncle Rafe? Guess what we had for dinner!"
"Macaroni and cheese!"
"No kidding?" Feeling emotionally out of control and overwhelmed, Zoe swallowed. Belatedly noticing that the front door was letting in a cold March wind, she closed it, took off the rakish red felt hat that was one of her favorites and started unbuttoning her coat. Her gaze skimmed the living room. She'd been here for Christmas. At Christmas, Janet and Jonathan had been alive.
Janet had been compulsively neatnow two lampshades hung crookedly; toys were strewn from wall to wall; and a TV set blared, although no one was watching it. One of the twinsundoubtedly Aaronhad recently taken a magic marker to the wall by the stairwell.
"Zoe?" Mrs. Gregor appeared in the kitchen doorway, leaning heavily on her walker. The twins' grandmother looked tired from the inside out. Her soft complexion was dangerously pale, and tears blurred her eyes when Zoe surged toward her for a hug. Loss and grief dangled between them for that moment; neither said anything.
"I'm sorry I couldn't get here yesterday," Zoe said fiercely. "I felt so bad, but I was out on the water. I never got the message until the night before, and then"
"Zoe, I understand about your work, you know that. Just thank heavens you're here now," Mrs. Gregor said finally.
"You're all right?"
"Of course she's all right," Aaron said irritably. "She's Grandma. Now that Snookums is here, can we stay up late?"
Zoe glanced past Mrs. Gregor's shoulder. Janet's kitchen had always been spotless. Now debris littered every surface, and the counter was piled high with dishes, a measure of how impossible it was for a woman who used a walker to deal with two active four-year-olds. Despair racked her. Decisions had to be made quickly that she simply wasn't prepared to make. "Mr. Kirkland"
"Yes, Rafe. He managed to get here yesterday?"
"Yes," Mrs. Gregor confirmed. "He spent most of the afternoon at the lawyer's, Zoe. You'll have to talk with himhe's upstairs with Parker."