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Mattie eyed the tall, scruffy-looking man who knew her name. She was certain she'd never seen him before and found it disconcerting that he was asking for her.
"You're Mathilda Keith?" he asked again.
"Yes." She heard a shriek from upstairs and wondered just what sort of mischief the kids could get into while she played twenty questions with a stranger on the porch. "How can I help you?"
He thrust an envelope into her hand, said, "You've been served," then turned and hightailed it down the walk.
Mattie went back inside the house, closed the door against any other unexpected visitors and opened the envelope.
There was another shriek and she identified the voice as Abbey's. "Kids, don't make me come up those stairs," she called, channeling her mother.
Normally, she'd laugh at the comparison, but right now, her focus was on the envelope she still clutched in her hands. She opened it and skimmed the legal document, trying to interpret the formal-sounding words.
Mattie sagged against the wall as their meaning sank in. It seemed to boil down to the fact that Finn Wallace was suing her for custody of the kids. She was no lawyer, and the papers were full of practically unrecognizable legalese, but that was definitely what it looked like.
"Aunt Mattie, I'm done." Six-year-old Abbey nodded, her red braids bobbing against her shoulders. "Let's go."
Mattie shoved the papers back into the envelope, dropped it on the table and tried to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She knelt by the youngest of her three wards and asked, "You finished cleaning your room already? The whole, entire thing?"
"I didn't see you bring down any dirty clothes." When Abbey didn't respond, Mattie prompted, "So maybe you should go finish cleaning your room."
"No." Abbey stomped her foot. As far as six-year-olds went, it was a declaration of war.
Mattie didn't say anything. She wasn't a child expert by any stretch of the imagination, but the previous months of helping with her best friend's kids, especially the last one dealing with them on her own, meant she discovered that sometimes less was more. She hoped that this was one of those times.
The tiny redhead stomped her foot again. "I said, no, Aunt Mattie."
Mattie continued to stare down her youngest charge.
Abbey's lip started to tremble. Her foot stood firmly on the tiles that lined the small entryway. Tears welled in her bright blue eyes. "I want my mommy."
Those four small words were all it took for the battle of wills to collapse. Mattie leaned over and embraced her goddaughter. "I know, sweetie, I know."
She scooped the little girl into her arms, and sank to the floor. She cradled Abbey in her lap, though Abbey had long since stopped fitting with ease.
Mattie gently rocked her, murmuring the words, I know again and again. She did understand Abbey's pain because she wanted nothing more than for her friend, Bridget Wallace Langley, to burst through the door and take over comforting her daughter.
Mattie wanted Bridget to dry Abbey's tears and still manage to make her go get her dirty clothes.
Really, Mattie wanted Bridget to be back in charge of her three children so Mattie could pack up and leave town. She wanted to kiss everyone goodbye, promise to visit again soon, hop in her car and drive until she saw a town or city that made her want to stop.
And with the way she was feeling, Mattie might not stop until she hit California.
Tears spilled down her cheeks, too. She wanted Bridget to be here.
What would Bridget do? She asked herself that question on a daily basis.
Bridget would know what to do about everything. About FinnBridget's brothersuing Mattie. About how to ease Abbey's pain. She'd also know how to comfort her other children, Zoe and Mickey, as well.
When Bridget's husband had come into the hospital after she'd given birth to their third child, Abbey, he'd taken a look at the baby, then looked at Bridget and told her that he was tired of being married and being a father. Bridget had shown so much strength as she signed the divorce papers and had him sign papers that gave up his parental rights. She'd taken on the role of mother and father, worked as a teacher and juggled everything with apparent ease.
Now that Mattie was in charge, there was no ease, apparent or otherwise. Instinctively, she just didn't know what to do for the kids. And she certainly didn't feel as if she was juggling work and their needs very well.
The secret fact of the matter was, Mattie didn't want to be here. She felt guilty admitting it, even to herself, but there it was. She didn't want to be the responsible one. She longed to be in a new city where no one knew her. She wanted to try her hand at a new job. New experiences. New people. And no responsibilities whatsoever.
She yearned for freedom and independence. Being home in Valley Ridge felt like a straitjacket.
Mattie thought about the papers sitting on the table.
Right after the funeral, when Bridget's will had been read, Finn had looked shocked when the lawyer said that Bridget had named her guardian. Hell, Mattie had known it was coming, but she felt shocked, too.
Finn had asked Mattie for custody and she'd said no. She'd known when he'd made the offer that it was her one and only out. If she said yes, she could take off.
But Bridget had asked herspecifically asked Mattieto stay and look after her kids. Love them for me, she'd instructed. Tell them stories about me, and keep me alive in their memories. And never, never let them forget that I loved them. Love them for me. Be here for me.
Mattie told Finn no, no, she wouldn't give him custody of the children. Now he was suing her for it.
What judge in the world would pick her over Finn to raise Bridget's kids?
Dr. Finn Wallace was a first-class surgeon, with all the money and power that usually entailed. Mattie was a well-traveled woman who hadn't lived in the same city or held the same job for more than a year since she graduated from high school. She didn't have a college degree or an unlimited bank account. She did have her nest egg, the money she'd set aside to invest in her dream business if she ever found one.
Looking for the perfect fit, she'd yet to find it. But she was sure that all her looking wouldn't impress a court.
No judge in his right mind would give Mathilda Keith custody over Dr. Finn Wallace.
She should call him and tell him he'd won. He could have custody. Who would blame her for avoiding a long, messy trial? Finn was so obviously the right choice.
Maybe she should let him have his way?
Abbey snuggled closer, still crying, but finding peace in Mattie's arms.
This was why. She stroked Abbey's long, red braid.
Try as she might, Mattie couldn't picture Finn sitting on a floor, holding a crying child and comforting her.
He was a good man. A smart man. And when he first asked for custody of the kids, she'd seriously considered it. Then he started talking about nannies and day care, and when Abbey had cried at the funeral he'd done nothing. Not one pat, or hug, or word of kindness. He'd simply looked ill at ease.
No, Finn was a good man, but the kids needed more than a good man. They needed someone to hold them, to love them someone to tell them everything would be all right. Someone who would do everything in their power to make everything all right.
Mattie might be her family's screwup, but she could do those things. She was doing those things, day in and day out.
Bridget wasn't coming back and Mattie couldn't leave. Wouldn't leave, even though Finn was again offering her an out. She'd promised Bridget that she would look after her kids, and she would. She'd fight Finn if she had to.
She rocked Abbey, hopefully making the little girl feel better, and maybe herself, as well.
Mattie swiped the tears that had escaped from her eyes as Abbey's sniffles finally slowed. The little girl whispered, "I don't wanna pick up my clothes, Aunt Mattie. Mommy wouldn't make me."
Mattie stopped rocking and eased Abbey back so she could look her in the eye. "Sweetie, you and I both know that's not the truth. Your mother made you help her. She thought everyone who lived in the house should pitch in. When I used to come for a visit, she'd make me do it, too. Remember that time your mom decided I should give you a bath?"
Mattie knew the odds were good that Abbey couldn't really remember the incident. The little girl had only been around three when it happened. But Mattie and Abbey's bath party had grown into a family story that Mattie knew Abbey had heard countless times.
Abbey nodded, and her braid bounced on Mattie's arm. "Yeah. I was cooking in the backyard."
"You were cooking with mud," Mattie clarified. "You had mud everywhere. I had to drain the tub twice because the mud kept turning the water gray. Your mother kept checking in and laughing at us both. When I was done bathing you, I had to have a bath, too."
Abbey laughed. "You let me use your lotion after. I smelled like you."
Abbey hugged her. "Do you think we could get some lotion like Mommy used so I could smell like her after my bath? I really miss her."
Tears welled up in Mattie's eyes, and she blinked to keep them from falling. "That's a great idea. When we get the housework done, we need to go to the grocery store, then we'll go to the drugstore and buy some of your mother's lotion." Bridget didn't go for expensive department store lotions. She used a store brand. When Bridget was sick, Mattie had used the lotion on her atrophied limbs countless times.
"Okay, Aunt Mattie. I'll go get my clothes."
"And finish picking up?"
Abbey nodded. "Can I dust then?"
Mattie knew that if Abbey dusted she'd have to go over it again after the little girl was in bed, but that was a small price to pay for Abbey's enthusiasm.
"That would be great. Make sure you tell Zoe and Mickey that I need their clothes, too. If they don't come down to the laundry room, everyone's wearing dirty clothes to school this week."
"Mickey wouldn't mind. He likes bein' dirty," Abbey called as she sprinted up the stairs.
Mattie silently agreed. Abbey's eight-year-old brother seemed to have an allergy to things like showers and baths. Given the late-March thaw and the quantities of mud outside, his aversion was apparent and problematic.
Mattie wondered how Bridget would have handled it.
"What would Bridget do?" she whispered to herself.
Well, whatever Bridget would have done, it would have been perfect. Bridget Wallace Langley was meant to be a mother. She'd had a knack for saying the right thing, and doing the right thing.
Mattie didn't have the knack for either.
Most of the time, Mattie just winged it.
Her mother was a phone call away and had great advice, but Mattie didn't want to start relying on her mother, because ultimately, she had to find a way to make this work on her own. She had to build a new relationship with the kids. She was no longer good-time Aunt Mattie who breezed in for visits and fun. She was their guardian, Aunt Mattie, who had to balance the fun with real life. It was something she didn't feel well equipped for, but she was determined to do her best. If she slipped, she'd vowed to get up and try again.
She hoped that the kids would give her points for the attempt.
Mattie rose, picked up the envelope and glanced at the front door. Bridget's brother, Finn, wasn't merely asking for custody. He was demanding it. Suing for it. Mattie could avoid getting tied up in a court case. Let him have the kids, and then she could leaveguilt-free.
It would be easy.
People would understand, and some would even feel sorry for her.
But as she toyed with the thought, she knew in her heart it was only a fantasy. She couldn't leave. She was trapped by a promise.
Who was she kidding? Even if she hadn't promised Bridget she'd care for her children, Mattie would have stayedtrapped by love. She loved Zoe, Mickey and Abbey. Somehow, she'd find a way to be who they needed her to be.
She would have to get some legal advice because she didn't know what to do about Finn's lawsuit. Bridget's will should trump anything else, but Mattie knew she didn't look good on paper. She'd spent her entire adult life as a vagabond, whereas Finn was a doctor. A man who had deep roots in the community.
Mattie had had jobs, Finn had a career.
And he paid a price for that career. He'd hardly ever been around when Bridget was so sick.
Anger twisted in her stomach as she remembered Bridget making excuses for her brother. There was no excuseFinn should have been there.
But Mattie couldn't afford to be angry any more than she could afford to think she'd win a battle with Finn, even though she was the one Bridget wanted to raise her children.
Mattie tried to figure out how she was going to pay a lawyer and not completely deplete her small nest egg as she took an empty basket and walked through the living room, picking up toys, clothes, shoes, schoolbooks and other clutter that had accumulated throughout the week. She'd started the Saturday pickups not long ago and was pleased with the results. Adjusting to a new job and sole responsibility for her eleven-, eight- and six-year-old godchildren meant that weeknights went far too fast for any serious cleaning to happen.
But with all of them working together, it went faster.
Mattie had taken the first step up the stairs with thoughts of attorneys and their fees on her mind, when the doorbell rang again. She had a sense of foreboding as she put down the basket and opened the door. Good news didn't come to the front door on Saturday mornings.
Her premonition was validated when she saw who was waiting on the porch now. She didn't need a mirror to know her smile of greeting hadn't simply fadedit immediately evaporated. "Finn."
For one brief moment, she was twelve again and fifteen-year-old basketball star Finn Wallace was the focus of her heart's desire. But high school Finn had never noticed middle school Mattie, and truth be told, now that she was older, she was boggled by her childhood crush, because the only crushing she wanted to do at this moment involved the door she still firmly held in place, and Finn's designer shoe.
But she resisted.
Finn had no such compunction. "Mathilda."
She hated her name and he knew it. He'd meant to annoy her, and he'd succeeded with that one word. She corrected him immediately. "It's Mattie actually."
Her crush on the six-foot giant had lasted for a mere blink of an eye. After which, she'd only had sympathy for Bridgethaving a brother like Finn was a trial. Mat-tie had two brothers of her own, but Finn was worse.
Finn Wallace was too smart and way too handsome for his own good. His black hair was always perfectly styled, unlike her own wild blond hair. The fact he needed glasses couldn't even be considered a flawthey only served to call attention to his sky-blue eyes. She'd loved those eyes once. She'd studied her own watery blue ones in the mirror and wished they were his stunning blue instead.