After the Rain

After the Rain

by Karen White

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From New York Times bestselling author of the Tradd Street novels comes the sequel to Falling Home, a novel set in the picaresque town of Walton, Georgia, where one woman is about to discover that the best journey is the one that brings you home.…

Freelance photographer Suzanne Paris has been on her own since she was fourteen—and she has no intention of settling down, especially not in a tiny town like Walton. She’s here to hide out for a little while, not to form connections. Her survival depends on her ability to slip in and out of people’s lives, on never staying in one place for too long.

But Walton is a town where everyone knows everyone else—and they all seem intent on making Suzanne feel right at home. She can’t help but feel drawn to this tight-knit community—or to the town’s mayor, Joe Warner, and his six kids. But Suzanne can’t afford to stick around, even if she’s finally found a place where she belongs. Because someone is looking for her—someone who won’t stop until her life is destroyed…  


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101611630
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/31/2012
Series: A Falling Home Novel
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,589
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Karen White is the New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty novels, including the Tradd Street series, The Night the Lights Went OutFlight PatternsThe Sound of GlassA Long Time Gone, and The Time Between. She is the coauthor of The Forgotton Room with New York Times bestselling authors Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig. She grew up in London but now lives with her husband and two children near Atlanta, Georgia.

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Tides change. So does the moon. With the unfailing constancy of brittle autumn closing in on bright summer, things always changed. If Suzanne had ever had faith in anything, it was in knowing that all things were fleeting. And for good reason. The highway of life was littered with the roadkill of those who didn’t know when to change lanes.

Almost asleep now, Suzanne brushed the pads of her fingers across her forehead, then down the bridge of her nose to the small, pointed bone of her chin. Yes, it was still her. One thousand miles, a quick dye job, and the surgical removal of her life had not completely obliterated her. Just smudged the edges.

The hissing of the bus’s brakes brought Suzanne awake from her almost doze. She pushed herself away from the images of a soft bed and dark Italian suits and opened her eyes wide to stare out at the anonymous highway rolling outside her window. A waxing moon smiled down at her with a crescent grin, and she touched the glass as if to bring it closer. “God’s smile,” she whispered to no one, recalling something her mother had once told her. Absently she let her fingers fall to the charm on the gold chain around her neck, finding comfort in touching the small heart through her shirt.

A sign on the overpass above them beamed at her through the murky glass: WELCOME TO WALTON. WHERE EVERYBODY IS SOMEBODY. She craned her neck as the bus slid under the overpass, partially obscuring the sign, but wanting to make sure she had read it right. The bus slowed to a stop, and the door opened with a loud gasp. An older woman, wearing red high heels and with hair puffed out in a tight bouffant like a halo, stood at the back of the bus and began walking forward.

The driver followed the woman off the bus, and Suzanne listened as the luggage compartment was opened. With a squeal, the woman greeted somebody who had been waiting. Suzanne listened as a deep male voice, definitely not that of their Hispanic driver, greeted the passenger. His voice carried an accent that would have placed him in rural Georgia no matter what corner of the world he might travel. Suzanne smiled to herself, content not to be so burdened.

The driver seemed to be taking a long time pulling out the woman’s luggage. From the snippets of conversation, Suzanne gathered that there was a piece missing. She rested her head on the back of her seat and continued to listen. She heard the Georgia man speak again, and there was something about his voice that pulled at her, something thick and rich like dark syrup. It soothed and cajoled, as if the voice had had years of practice.

Disturbed by the effect the man’s voice was having on her, she turned away, but only to catch sight of the sign again. WELCOME TO WALTON. WHERE EVERYBODY IS SOMEBODY. She sat up, watching as the light trained on the sign dimmed, then brightened, flickering at her like a winking eye. With a hand that trembled slightly, she pulled at the chain around her neck until the charm fell on the outside of her T-shirt. Tucking in her chin to see it better, she turned the gold heart over in her hand to read the tiny, engraved words. A LIFE WITHOUT RAIN IS LIKE THE SUN WITHOUT SHADE. With short, unpolished nails, she scraped the charm from her palm and flipped it over. R. MICHAEL JEWELERS. WALTON.

She pressed her forehead against the window, forcing herself to breathe deeply and recalling the woman who had given her the necklace. Walton. The name shifted her jaw, as if moved by her mother’s invisible hand, but she shook her head. It was a million-to-one shot that it was the same town. It would take sheer luck—something that had always run on a parallel with her life, never intersecting.

As she stared out the window, a small shape darted from the grass on the other side of the highway and onto the shoulder of the road. Headlights from an approaching car appeared on the horizon, two pinpoints gradually growing larger. The shape moved into the arc cast by a streetlight, and Suzanne recognized the pointed head and thin, whiplike tail of an opossum.

Pushing her hands against the window in an impotent offer to help, she glanced again at the approaching car, then back at the animal, its quivering nose pointing into the road. Don’t, Suzanne mouthed, but slowly the animal waddled into the lane and stopped, watching as the car bore down on it.

The entire scene was too much like her mother’s fascination with the bottle, complete with Suzanne’s own helplessness, and she shut her eyes on the inevitable, only opening them when she could hear the dying strains of a country song from the radio of the car as it passed. Peering out the glass, she could make out the small animal in the middle of the road, curled into a tight little ball under the crescent moon. It wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t doing anything to prevent another onslaught, either.

Abruptly she stood and announced to no one in particular, “I’m getting off here.”

The driver looked up in surprise as she stepped off the bus, the gravel crunching under the heels of her flip-flops. “Your ticket goes all the way to Atlanta.”

She gave him a half smile. “I’ve changed my mind.” Spotting her one compact piece of baggage sitting on the pavement with the rest of the unloaded luggage, she stooped and picked it up. Holding the oversized canvas bag by her side and adjusting her backpack-style purse over her shoulders, she glanced at the other two people standing with the driver. She recognized the lady with the big hair and nodded briefly. Standing behind her was the man who had to have been the owner of the voice.

He towered over the two people in front of him, standing somewhere around six feet four. He wore a button-down white oxford cloth shirt tucked into wrinkled khakis that looked as if he’d slept in them. A red whiteboard marker and a pencil protruded from his shirt pocket. She raised her eyes to study his face and was surprised to find him staring at her chest.

Shifting her suitcase to her other hand, she sneaked a glance down at her shirt and noticed that she hadn’t tucked her necklace back in and it was now dangling over the mound of her breasts, calling attention to their size. Disgusted, she twisted away from him and turned toward the driver.

“Can you tell me if there’s a place around here to call a cab?”

There was a brief silence before the tall man drawled, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

Suzanne frowned up at him, wondering how he knew that about her. She briefly thought about stepping back onto the bus and its cool anonymity. But then she remembered the petrified opossum awaiting its chance to be roadkill, and she ground her heels a little deeper into the gravel.

“No, I’m not. Could you recommend a cab company to call?”

The older woman stepped forward, her perfume reaching Suzanne first. “Sugar, are you visiting somebody in Walton? Joe and I could give you a lift—”

Suzanne cut her off. “No, thank you. I’ll take a cab.” She looked around, spotting a service station across the two-lane highway. She didn’t have a cell phone—too expensive and too easy to trace. Surely there would be a phone at the gas station, and she could call a cab to take her to the nearest hotel. Someplace sterile and impersonal, where she could get her thoughts together and figure out what she would do next. With a brief nod good-bye, she headed across the road, avoiding looking at the opossum and making sure she checked for oncoming traffic first.

As she neared the service station, she stared at the large neon sign stuck on a pole on the edge of the highway. It read BAIT. GAS. CAPPUCCINO. Then, underneath the first line, in different lettering as if it had been added at a later date, the word DIAPERS. She hesitated again, wondering what kind of place this Walton was. She could hear the rumbling of the bus behind her as it waited on the side of the road. It wasn’t too late to get back on and head to Atlanta. A big city would make it easier to disappear. Then again, they’d never think to look for her in a small town stuck in the middle of nowhere. With a deep breath of resolve, she crossed the parking lot.

The tinkling bells over the door as she entered were the last peaceful sounds she heard. A towheaded girl of about four streaked past her wearing only a shirt. Suzanne got a glimpse of the stark-naked behind of the little girl as she darted down an aisle.

“Amanda! You quit it right now or I’m gonna jar your preserves!” A tall teenage girl ran past Suzanne in hot pursuit of the pantless child, forcing Suzanne to press herself against the door so she wouldn’t get run over. The girl held a small boy of about two or three against her hip, who seemed happily oblivious of the pursuit and grinned a drool-filled grin as he flopped by, apparently glad to be along for the ride.

Suzanne stayed where she was, afraid to move as the sound of more running feet approached from the second aisle. Three more children raced by, two girls and a boy, the youngest girl swinging bright red braids down her back.

Suzanne had just managed to move against a tall rack of MoonPies and drop her bag when the procession of half-naked child and pursuing teenager ran by her again. The teen paused for a moment as she spotted Suzanne, then, without preamble, handed the little boy to Suzanne. “Hold him. I can run faster.”

Caught by surprise, Suzanne stuck out her arms and felt the heaviness of the child as he was placed in her hands. He looked as surprised as she was and blinked large blue eyes at her. She kept her arms extended, not knowing where to put him. Never having held a child before, she wondered briefly if it would be the same as holding a puppy. It had something to do with the scruff of the neck, but as she’d never held a puppy, either, it was all pretty vague.

The little boy let out a huge wail and began pedaling his legs as if he were on a tricycle. Just then the front door opened, and the woman from the bus and the man she had called Joe entered the store. They pressed back as the running stream of five children ran past them, the redheaded girl now carrying the pants of the escapee.

Staring after the running children, Suzanne asked, “Don’t they have leash laws in this state?”

At the sound of the jingling bells, the child in her arms stopped screaming and turned his head toward the man and woman. “Daddy!” he shouted, and launched himself into the outstretched arms of the tall man.

With one smooth movement, Joe reached forward and grabbed the arm of the undressed child as she tried to make it down the MoonPie aisle again. In a stern voice he said, “You go put your pants on right this minute, young lady. And don’t give your sister any more trouble, you hear?”

The little girl stopped and looked up at him with somber blue eyes. “Yes, sir,” she mumbled as the redheaded girl caught up and dragged her back to the bathroom.

Joe straightened and looked at Suzanne with eyes that were less than friendly. With a brief “Excuse me, ma’am,” he moved past her down the aisle and toward the counter.

The older woman smiled through her reproachful glance as she followed in the man’s wake.

Suzanne picked up her bag and followed them to the front counter. “I’m . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t know those were your kids.”

The man cut her a sharp look, effectively silencing her. She bit her tongue to hold back a retort. She’d had enough of silent, brooding men to last her a lifetime, but she couldn’t make a scene. Arguing with a stranger in a gas station was not the best way to disappear into the scenery.

Instead, she hung back while she waited for them to settle up at the cash register. The man placed a case of beer, six MoonPies, a six-pack of RC Cola, and a package of diapers on the counter to be rung up. The old man in overalls behind the counter kept sneaking glances at Suzanne as if he should know who she was. She shrank back, trying not to be noticed.

But she couldn’t help staring at the man in front of her. Even with a baby on his hip, there was something in the way he stood and held himself that spoke of a man comfortable in his own skin. He moved easily and with confidence—a man who knew and liked who he saw in the mirror each morning.

But his clothes were a mess, as were the mismatched ensembles of the younger children. For the first time, she looked at what the little boy was wearing—cowboy boots, a swimsuit bottom, and a pajama top with bears on it—and she surprised herself by grinning.

Unexpectedly, she raised her eyes and found the man staring back at her with hazel eyes that were more brown than green. His eyebrows lifted as if he was expecting her to make another remark about children and leash laws.

He accepted his change from the old man, then moved back to put his money in his wallet. Suzanne stepped up to the counter. “I need a cab to take me to the nearest hotel. Can you send me in the right direction?”

The white-haired man blinked bright blue eyes at her as if trying to translate a foreign language, but his smile stayed warm. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

That was the second time in less than an hour somebody had said that to her, and she looked down at her flip-flops and toe ring, then up to her gauze skirt and T-shirt, and wondered what it was that made her seem so different. “No, I’m not. But I need a place to stay and a way to get there, if you could just give me a couple of numbers to call.”

“Well, ma’am . . .” He paused long enough that she wondered if he had forgotten the question. “Let’s see. The nearest hotel is in the town of Monroe. It’s about a forty-five-minute drive, but there’s no local cab service to take you there. Unless you want to ride with Hank Ripple in his truck when he takes his load of peaches. He normally passes through here around five a.m.”

Suzanne smelled the heavy perfume before the woman spoke. “Honey, do you have people in Walton? Maybe somebody we could call to come get you?”

The sound of the bus rumbling past outside the store made them all turn and watch. Looking at what was probably her last chance to escape, Suzanne felt her stomach drop, thinking that maybe she had changed lanes too soon, heading right into the headlights of a Mack truck.

She shook her head. “No. I’m just passing through. Thought I could find a place to stay for a while . . .” Her voice trailed away, and she felt embarrassment as her voice trembled. It must be because she was so tired from running, exhausted from crying, and so damned mad at herself for getting off the bus. And the woman’s voice was so warm and caring, and Suzanne had the most ridiculous impulse to lay her head on that sequin-covered shoulder.

The woman turned to the younger man. “Joe, there’s room in the truck for one more, so we could take her into town. I figure Sam could let her stay in the old Ladue house until he’s got it ready to sell.”

The willowy teenager who had been eyeing Suzanne with interest stepped in front of her father and shouted, “Great idea!” at the same time Joe said, “No way.” Suzanne felt nine pairs of eyes on her, but the hazel ones held her attention. They were neither warm nor inviting, and the scrutiny made her square her shoulders. Sucking in whatever pride she had left after nearly thirty years of changing lanes and saying good-bye, she said, “I’ll pay you. Cash.”

To her utter embarrassment, her lower lip began to tremble. She looked down at her canvas bag, neatly and efficiently packed after years of practice. It reminded her of who she had become and how she had never needed anybody’s help. With a deep breath, she grabbed the strap and lifted her head. “Never mind. I’ll walk.”

She stomped by the cluster of people, clumped together like the caramel popcorn balls sold on a display by the register. Barely hearing the tinkling bell over the door as she pushed through it, she walked out into the parking lot, past the gas pumps, then up the small, grassy rise to the road. She looked for the Walton sign on the overpass and began heading in the opposite direction, staying on the shoulder. As soon as she was out of sight of the people in the store, she’d stop to regroup, but right now she just wanted to disappear and be by herself again.

The sound of tires on loose gravel traveled up to her, but she ignored it and kept walking. A pickup truck sped by, the driver and passenger staring at her with open curiosity through the window. She didn’t look up again until she heard the blow of a car horn. Glancing around, Suzanne spotted a large green SUV, Joe and the older woman in the front seat. The window of the truck eased its way down, and Suzanne recognized Joe’s unsmiling face. She didn’t stop but pushed forward.

His voice hinted of annoyance. “You’re going the wrong way.”

“Who says?”

“Well, Monroe’s the other way.”

She stubbed her toe on a large rock and stumbled but kept moving. “Maybe that’s not where I want to go.”

“Are you lost?”

Suzanne stopped then to change her bag into her other hand. “All who wander aren’t lost, you know.”

He pulled the truck to a stop behind her on the side of the road, got out with a loud slam, and began following her. The wailing cries of a small child carried on the deserted stretch of road toward them. His voice definitely had an edge to it. “Look, I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, and frankly, I don’t care. But I just can’t leave you here on the highway.” She heard him trudge a few more steps in her direction. Then, as if he’d given away too much of himself, he added, “And Aunt Lucinda will not let me rest tonight until I’ve managed to bring you into town and seen to it that you’ve got a roof over your head.”

She didn’t slow down at all but called over her shoulder, “That’s your problem. Now go away. I don’t need your help.”

He jogged to catch up to her and grabbed her suitcase. Reluctantly, she stopped and put her hands on her hips. He sounded as mad as she felt. “The baby’s crying, the rest are hungry, and I’m getting cranky.” He pushed a hand through dark brown hair in a show of frustration. “God’s nightgown, woman, would you just get into the damn truck and let me drive you somewhere?”

She opened her mouth to make a retort but stopped when she realized he was staring at her chest again.

His voice softened. “Where did you get that necklace?”

Realizing her charm had fallen out of her shirt again, she immediately tucked it back in. “Somebody gave it to me. A long time ago. Now can I please have my suitcase so I can be on my way?”

In answer, he turned on his heel and headed back toward the truck. “No. You can have it back when I get you to Walton.”

She jogged after him. “Hey, you can’t do that! Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to accept a ride from a stranger?”

He popped open the back window and threw in her bag. “In case you didn’t notice, you’re the stranger here. Besides, the only danger you’re likely to encounter in my car is insanity from too many potty jokes.” He walked in front of the truck and held open the passenger door, the baby’s crying finally stopped.

Lucinda got out so Suzanne could squeeze into the middle of the front bench seat. Feeling defeated for the second time in as many months, she stepped up on the running board and climbed in.

As they pulled out onto the road, Suzanne caught sight of the opossum. It had unfurled itself but remained in the middle of the road, as if unsure which lane was safest. She pressed forward, watching him as long as she could until the truck pulled away. I know how you feel, she thought, then leaned back in the seat for the remainder of the ride.

The slurping sounds of a small child sucking on a sippy cup filled the quiet interior of the truck. Suzanne sat very still, trying not to touch the man on her left, whose stiffness made it clear he didn’t want her anywhere near him, either. Her nose began to tickle and she sneezed, to the quick response of seven “God bless yous.” Joe didn’t even turn in her direction, so she pointed her thank-you to him.

The woman next to her turned to face Suzanne, the miniature disco balls hanging from her ears doing the hustle in midair. “I’m Lucinda Madison, and this here’s my nephew-in-law, Joe Warner, and his kids.”

She paused, as if expecting Suzanne to follow suit. Reluctantly, she said, “I’m Suzanne.”

Lucinda blinked eyes cradled by false eyelashes, waiting for Suzanne to continue.

“Um, Suzanne L . . . Paris.” The name flew out of her mouth before she had a chance to figure out where it had come from. The fleeting image passed through her head as quickly as the scenery disappeared on the side of the road. It was of a page torn from an ancient magazine, with creases and holes that neatly bisected the picture of the Eiffel Tower. It had once hung on her mother’s refrigerator, until it had been permanently relegated to an inside pocket of Suzanne’s canvas tote, when anything as permanent as a mother or a refrigerator had disappeared from her life.

Lucinda smiled, her eyes warm but not at all guileless. With wisdom born of experience, Suzanne knew this would be a woman to be wary of. She gave the impression of being soft like a feather pillow—a nice place to lay your head. But inside, this Lucinda had a rod of steel for a spine. Her eyes saw the truth through the words, as if she’d had a great deal of experience in pulling out the weeds in the garden of her family.

“That’s such a pretty name, isn’t it, Joe?”

He didn’t even turn his head. “Hrum.”

The oldest, whom Suzanne had heard called Maddie, rested her elbows on the back of the front seat. “Where are you from, Miz Paris?”

Suzanne looked down at her sensible nails, neatly trimmed and filed. “No place in particular. I move around a lot.”

The girl shifted her elbows so she could crane her neck to see Suzanne’s face better in the overhead light that Lucinda had just turned on before ransacking her handbag. “Cool. What kind of job have you got that moves you all over the place?”

Suzanne moved in her seat to see the young girl better. She was pretty, with a narrow face and high, arched brows. Her clear skin was devoid of makeup, and her medium-brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. But it was her eyes that transformed an otherwise average face into something spectacular. They were the color of moss, accentuated by a black line around the iris. They sparkled as if holding back a joke, but there was something else there, too. Something sad and uncertain that didn’t have anything to do with the everyday life of a girl on the verge of womanhood.

“I . . . I take pictures.” Taking a deep breath and realizing that telling the truth about this wouldn’t give anything away, she continued. “I’m a freelance photographer.”

“You’re kidding! Anything I might have seen?”

Suzanne shook her head. “No. I mostly work for regional newspapers and periodicals. Some ad work. But nothing around here.”

Maddie pressed forward over the back of the seat. “Where’s all your equipment?”

There was a long pause when Suzanne tried to figure out how much she could tell, then decided on only a partial lie. “I sold most of it. I kept my Hasselblad, though, and a few lenses to get by, but that’s it. I’m not here on a job.”

“You have a Hasselblad? Wow. I’ve only seen those in photography magazines. Is it digital?”

Suzanne smiled, impressed with the girl’s knowledge. “No, it’s the old V System, and it’s my pride and joy.”

The young girl’s voice sounded incredulous. “Why’d you have to sell all your other stuff?” Something smacked the back window, and Suzanne turned to see the redheaded girl retrieving the empty sippy cup from the seat next to her.

Lucinda’s sharp voice called out a reprimand. “Maddie, I think you’ve forgotten your manners while I’ve been gone. Please apologize to Miz Paris for being so nosy.”

“Sorry, ma’am,” Maddie mumbled as she sat back into her own seat.

Joe angled his head toward the back without taking his gaze from the road. “You shouldn’t be leaning over the front seat anyway. Put your seat belt on.”

The baby screamed once before the sound was replaced with loud slurps. Maddie spoke quietly, but her annoyance was clear. “I’m not a little kid anymore, and I don’t need one.”

This time Joe glared directly into the rearview mirror, into the face of his oldest daughter. “As soon as you stop acting like a little kid with ants in her pants, I’ll start treating you like a grown-up. Now you do as I say without arguing. Do you understand?”

Her voice was completely deflated now. “Yes, sir.” Suzanne heard the metallic click of a buckle being slid home.

Suzanne felt the tension in the car like a palpable shroud, and she squirmed in her seat, anxious to be alone again and away from all the complexities of family life that had never had anything to do with her.

Lucinda broke the silence and leaned forward to see Joe as she flipped off the overhead light. “My cousin Earl sent you some of his strawberry wine. I think it’s strong enough to sterilize your toilet, but he seemed right proud of it.” When Joe didn’t answer, she continued. “How have things been here?”

Lucinda turned around to look in the backseat, studying the children for the first time. Suzanne followed her gaze to the little boy in the car seat, one cowboy boot mysteriously absent and his pajama shirt now covered with red drool from a lollipop clutched in a grubby fist. Lucinda turned back around and faced Joe. “I can see you’re pulling from the bottom of the drawers. Did the washing machine get broke?”

Joe stared out the windshield, his shoulders hunched in a defensive posture. “Um, not exactly. We, uh, I ran out of detergent and I kept forgetting to stop by the store to get some.” Straightening, he faced Lucinda, his gaze deliberately overlooking Suzanne in the middle. “I’ve been a little busy. It’s hard working full-time and taking care of six kids.”

“Tell me about it,” muttered Lucinda. Then, her eyes widening as if in realization, “But I’ve been gone for two weeks! Please tell me you did laundry at least once while I was gone.”

A small voice piped up from somewhere in the back of the truck. “Daddy said if we turned our underwear inside out they’d be as good as clean.”

A dead silence descended inside the vehicle, and Suzanne did her best to hide a smile. Joe reached over and flipped on the radio, turning up the volume enough to discourage conversation.

Suzanne sat forward in her seat, trying to see more of Walton and wondering distractedly where she was going. There had been so many car trips with unknown destinations for her that it didn’t occur to her to care or worry where they were taking her. It didn’t really matter. She never stayed long enough to make it matter.

They had driven into a residential part of the town, and as they pulled up to a stop sign she noticed a poster tacked to a telephone pole. WARNER IS WALTON, it proclaimed in broad black letters. Underneath was a picture of the man sitting next to her, in the center of six smiling and well-groomed children—none of whom seemed to resemble any of the ragtag children sitting in the back of the truck now. Beneath the picture, in bigger letters, was the admonition REELECT MAYOR JOE WARNER.

As they pulled away, the thought that had been nagging at the back of her mind finally surfaced. There was no wife or mother in the picture on the poster. Where was she? Suzanne sent a look at the man next to her. The streetlight passed light and shadows over his face, like a moving picture. She studied him with the eye of somebody who spent her life seeing the world in quiet pictures—her subjects mute except for the stories they wore on their faces. She preferred it that way because it allowed her to slip in and out of people’s lives without causing a stir in the air they breathed or the lives they lived. It kept her safe.

But this beautiful man with haunted eyes had a story. She just wasn’t sure she wanted to hear it.

The truck turned sharply around a corner, shifting her against Joe’s side. She heard his intake of breath and looked into his face. His eyes were hidden in the darkness, but she could sense the tenseness of his muscles, almost hear the gritting of his teeth. Heat seemed to fill her chest, and she shifted away from him, swallowing quickly to get the taste of whatever that had been out of her mouth.

They passed a white, steepled church with a lit sign at the edge of the parking lot that read LIFE IS FRAGILE. HANDLE WITH PRAYER. She rolled her eyes at the sheer corniness of it and sank back against her seat. Whatever kind of place this Walton was, she’d only be here a short time. Surely she could stand it for that long.

Joe looked down at the woman sitting so uncomfortably close to him. Hopefully, she was serious when she mentioned she was only passing through. What was it about her that set him on edge? It wasn’t the fact that she was obviously hiding something from him, because it had less to do with who she was and more with how she made him feel. Unsettled. Not the sort of feeling a man with six kids, a job, and a mayoral campaign to deal with was used to. Back at the gas station he’d called Sam on his cell phone to okay putting this woman up in the Ladue house. The keys would be in the mailbox, and a guest room was already ready upstairs with fresh sheets on the bed. It was the closest thing to a hotel in Walton that Joe could think of. Sam was in the process of restoring the house and stayed there sometimes when his wife, Cassie, was in Atlanta on business. Joe silently thanked Sam for not questioning him further, knowing that the questions would be forthcoming in the morning when he met with his best friend for their ritual weekly breakfast at the Dixie Diner.

Suzanne stared ahead out the windshield, never once questioning where they were going. For a woman in a town full of strangers, it was odd. Not nearly as odd as the way she clutched her small bag on her lap, as if everything she owned in this life were in it. She was a mystery, all right. And not one he had any interest in trying to solve.

The headlights of his truck lit the facade of the white clapboard house, making shadows from the picket fence dance across the wraparound porch. Suzanne sat staring at the house as if dazed. He parked the truck in the driveway and got out, then waited for her to follow.

Suzanne continued looking at the house for a long moment before Lucinda pulled gently on her arm. “Come on, sugar. Let’s go on in.”

Lucinda called to Maddie to watch the children, then shut her door while Joe stood holding his open. He watched as she hoisted her backpack onto her shoulder and clutched her bag close to her. Ignoring his outstretched hand, she slid across Lucinda’s side, opened the door, and climbed out. Her eyes remained fixed on the small white house.

“Is this where I’m staying?” she asked, her matter-of-fact tone not completely erasing a smattering of what sounded like hope.

Joe shut his door, leaving the headlights on so he could find the key and put it in the lock. “Yep—for the duration. It’s in the process of being renovated.”

“Are you sure it’s all right, then, that I stay here?”

He almost smiled at the look on her face. It reminded him of Maddie when he’d bought her that fancy camera she’d been mooning over for Christmas. She couldn’t quite bring herself to believe that it belonged to her.

“Yeah, I’m sure. I’m good friends with the owner, and he said it’s okay. We don’t have any hotels in town, and I told him it would only be for a little while.”

Her shoulders dropped a bit as she faced him. “I can pay. Don’t think I won’t.”

He looked at her closely. “The thought never crossed my mind. But you’ll need to speak with Sam about rent. He’ll stop by in the morning.”

Lucinda walked up onto the porch, and they followed. The scent of fresh paint and cut wood drifted by them on the summer air as a bullfrog, hidden behind the boxwoods, decided to serenade. The rich bubble of sound erupted in the quiet, making Suzanne jump.

“It’s only a bullfrog,” Joe said. “Reckon you’ve never heard one before, where you’re from.”

She turned, and her soft gray eyes met his while he waited for an answer. She said simply, “No, I haven’t.” She stepped closer to Lucinda while Joe fished for the key in the mailbox, then slid it into the lock.

After turning on the porch light and the foyer light, Joe looked around him. Tools and sawdust littered most of the uninhabitable downstairs, but a quick peek into the kitchen told him that there was plumbing, electricity, and a clean surface on which to eat and wash dishes. Lucinda flipped on the upstairs hall light, then climbed the stairs to fully investigate the second level.

Joe watched Suzanne as she held tightly to her possessions and slowly spun in a circle in the foyer, taking in the small rooms with high ceilings. He studied her long, straight hair, noticing the darker auburn color at the roots that the red dye hadn’t quite covered. Her wary gaze came to rest on him.

“Why are you doing this? You could have left me on the highway.”

He shrugged, not really believing that a person had to ask that. “I was just raised that way. I couldn’t let you alone on the highway any more than I could not feed a stray cat that came to my yard.”

Half of her mouth twisted up. “Gee, how flattering.” They were silent a moment, taking each other’s measure. Then she said, “You didn’t have to. I could have made it on my own.”

He looked at her tall, slender form and the way she threw her shoulders back, and knew she was probably right. Still, there was a vulnerability about her that he’d first noticed in the store, that guaranteed he wouldn’t leave her struggling alone on the side of the highway. Not that he’d tell her so. He had a strong feeling that she kept that one weakness hidden carefully away, and it made him shy away from her. There was something soft and tender at her core; he knew it; he could feel it. But he didn’t want to get close enough to see it.

He stared back at her blankly. “Yeah, I figured as much.”

As if unused to the words, she stumbled over them. “Thank you.”

Lucinda’s heels interrupted as they clicked down the wooden stairs. “There’s a nice little bedroom and bath up there that should do just fine. Let me go check the refrigerator before we leave, in case we have to make a trip to the grocery store tonight.”

Suzanne turned to watch the older woman as she disappeared into the kitchen, her eyebrows drawn into a V. Unable to stop himself, Joe said quietly, “This is where she comes out with a large butcher knife and we have you for dinner.”

She looked at him with cool gray eyes, not batting a lash and not saying anything, either.

He felt ashamed that he’d said that, considering her situation. He took a step closer to her, his hands held out to her, palms up. “Look, I’m sorry. That wasn’t funny.”

She brushed her hair off her shoulders, swinging it behind her. Coolly she said, “Actually, it was. I was just bracing myself to run if I heard dueling banjos.”

He laughed, surprising himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed out loud like that. She turned toward the kitchen, and as she did, he noticed the lollipop stuck in the back of her hair, and his laughter died in this throat. It looked suspiciously like the one Harry had been sucking on in the truck.

“Wait,” he called after her, stopping himself in time before he touched her. He pointed to the offending object. “You’ve got a lollipop stuck in your hair.”

She put her hand on the spot and sighed. “Oh.” She frowned. “Thanks for telling me.”

Joe drew back and put his hands in his pockets. “I guess if I kept them on leashes, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Her gray eyes widened. “Look, I said I was sorry. . . .”

Before she could say more, Lucinda came from the kitchen. “There’s enough beer in there for a football team, but there’s also bread, cheese, and peanut butter. I’ll stop by tomorrow and take you to the Piggly Wiggly to pick up a few things. Then we can chat and get to know each other better.”

Joe saw an almost imperceptible shifting of Suzanne’s shoulders, as if she were drawing up her lines of defense and preparing for battle. He glanced at Lucinda and noticed she saw it, too.

But all Suzanne said was “Thanks.” She stood clutching her bag as Joe let Lucinda out the door, called good night, then closed it behind them.

Joe fell asleep immediately but awakened only an hour later, not sure what it was that had brought his eyes wide open. He listened to the quiet house for a moment, hearing it settling as if exhaling a deep sigh at the end of the day. He thought of his six children asleep in the rooms around him, the sound of their soft breathing his one redemption in yet another bleak and lonely night. He closed his eyes.

For a moment, Joe could almost believe that Harriet was beside him again, her warmth pressing against him in sleep, her breath touching his cheek. He even reached over to feel for her, but instead his fingers brushed the cold cotton of her pillow, his nail catching on the frayed lace on the hem. Out of habit, he pressed his nose into it, hoping to smell the scent of her one last time. But the pillow and its case had been laundered too many times since Harriet’s death, and no part of her lingered in his bed anymore.

The clutch of grief squeezed his heart again, the feeling of being suddenly plunged underwater and held down, where all he could do was gasp for breath and struggle for the surface. It surprised him with its suddenness and intensity, the grief as black and all-consuming as the day he’d buried his wife and the mother of his children. These attacks had lessened in recent months, but he doubted that they’d ever go away completely. He wasn’t even sure he wanted them to.

With a small groan, he climbed from the large bed, larger now that he slept alone in it, and went to the chair with the ottoman by the window. It was an old friend, and they’d spent many nights together following Harriet’s death. In those first days he couldn’t stand to be in the bed without her, and it had only been in the past year that he’d found his way back to it.

Until tonight. Something was bothering him that he couldn’t quite put a finger on. An image of Suzanne Paris kept pushing into his thoughts—an image of the way she hunched her shoulders and folded her arms in front of her as if it was just her against the world. And one look in her eyes told him that the world was winning, despite the show of confidence she wore on her shoulders like a neon sign. She bothered him, all right, and he wasn’t sure why or how. And there was certainly no room in his life to care.

He sat down in the chair and propped up his long legs, trying to find a comfortable position. He stared out into the moonless night as he tried to drift off to sleep, avoiding the ghosts in his bed and trying not to think of a lost woman with wary eyes and ghosts of her own.

Suzanne was living in a dream. She was in a white house with a porch and picket fence, and any minute a dog would bark and lope across the immaculate green of the front lawn. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. Like all dreams, this one was destined to end. No use wasting any time wallowing in it.

She stood and straightened the white chenille bedspread, not having been able to bring herself to actually pull it back and slip inside the crisp sheets the night before. Something about that otherwise innocent gesture seemed too permanent, and she had simply lain down on top of the bed and gone to sleep.

A dog barked outside, and Suzanne started, a grin forming on her lips. Looking out the front window, she saw a sandy-haired man pull up in a pickup truck, a large mutt standing in the back. As she watched, the dog barked again, then leaped out of the truck and raced across the lawn in an apparent chase of nothing more than exuberance for life.

Slipping on her shoes and straightening her skirt, she finger-combed her long hair and braided it as she headed for the stairs and a meeting with her landlord. She swung open the door, surprising the man on the other side, who kept a hand raised in midknock. She stared at him for a long moment, taking in the bright blue eyes, jeans, and cowboy boots, and telling herself that whatever shortcomings Walton might have, it certainly knew how to raise good-looking men. If they all were like this man and Joe, she might find it difficult to leave when the time came.

The man smiled. “I’m Sam Parker. Joe told me you’re Suzanne Paris.” He lowered his hand, and she allowed her own to be gripped tightly and pumped up and down in a handshake. She stepped back, and he followed her into the small foyer. “Joe said you were looking for a place to stay for a while.”

“Um, yeah. If you’re looking for a short-term tenant, I promise you won’t even know I’m here.”

She frowned when she saw that his eyes were focused on a place in the middle of her chest. She folded her arms, making him shift his gaze to her face. He wasn’t smiling. “Where’d you get that necklace?”

Feeling almost relieved to know it had been the charm that had caught his interest, she relaxed a fraction. “My mother gave it to me when I was fourteen.” She tucked it back inside her T-shirt to end that topic of conversation. “So, I was wondering what rent would be for this house. I only want a month-to-month. And I can give you a month’s deposit—in cash.”

He was looking at her oddly. As if he hadn’t heard her, he said, “Was your mother from around here? You don’t look familiar to me.” His voice had the same slow drawl that Joe’s had, the words spread slowly like hot tar. She remembered how the sound of Joe’s voice had affected her the night before as she sat on the bus, and she shifted her feet trying to erase the memory.

“My mother was definitely not from here. Now, about the rent . . . ?”

He shoved his hands in his back pants pockets, in an identical gesture she’d seen Joe make, and looked at her closely. His eyes were sharp and intelligent, as if he could read all her secrets, and she forced herself to keep quiet and not blabber any more information. The less these people knew about her, the better. Then he gave her a ridiculously low rent quote. Without a word, she went up to the bedroom, pulled out the hem from another skirt in her bag, and retrieved the amount he’d quoted plus twenty dollars more in crisp green bills.

He raised an eyebrow when she handed them to him.

“I don’t need charity, and this place is worth at least this to me. Even with sawdust covering half the house, it’s still a sweet deal.”

Slowly he took out his wallet and placed the bills neatly inside. “You’ve probably noticed that I’m still in the middle of renovations here, but I promise I won’t be here all the time. I’ll come up with some sort of schedule we can both live with, all right?”

She held out her hand, and he looked at it for a moment before shaking it, his white teeth showing. “I can tell you’re not from around here. Otherwise, you would have offered me a pie to seal the deal.”

Crossing her arms across her chest, she said, “In other parts of the country, you would have asked for references.”

He gazed steadily at her, and she held her breath, realizing she had just left herself wide open to exposure. After a long pause, he said, “Your handshake is all I need. That’s as good as a contract around here. If I’d kissed your hand, we would be as good as married.”

Relieved, Suzanne couldn’t help laughing as she walked with him to the door. As he opened it, the large dog that had been in the back of the truck leaped past him and placed his front paws on Suzanne’s chest. With a scream of surprise, she clenched her eyes shut and pressed herself against the wall, crossing her arms over her face in a defensive gesture.

“Down, George. Down!” Sam shouted, and the huge dog complied, but not before he used a fat pink tongue to wedge its way between her hands and lick her cheek.

When she opened her eyes, Sam was holding the dog by its leash and trying hard not to smile. “He’s big, but he’s got the heart of a bunny rabbit. He’s always been a sucker for a pretty face.”

Embarrassed to find herself shaking, she continued to press herself against the wall. “I . . . I don’t like dogs.”

“I could kinda tell. I’ll make sure to leave George at home next time.” He glanced at her again with a curious look. “Joe mentioned you didn’t like children much, either, so I’ll be sure to keep all creatures—both the two- and four-legged varieties—away.”

She forgot her embarrassment for a moment as his words sank in. “He said that? I mean, it’s not that I don’t like them; it’s more like I don’t know what to do with them.”

Sam led the beast out the door and onto the front porch. “As with everything, they just take some getting used to, that’s all. And then you find that you can’t live without them. Trust me—I’ve seen it happen.”

Suzanne frowned. “Dogs or children?”

“Both. Not much difference between the two if you ask me. And pretty likeable once you get to know them.” He winked.

George barked and she shrank back against the door. “I’ll have to take your word on that.”

He tipped an imaginary hat. “I’ve got to get to work. Call me if you need anything—I left my card on the hall table. And I understand Lucinda’s stopping by this morning to take you to the store. Just be prepared to buy a tube of lipstick and rouge from her, too.” He winked again, then opened the door of his truck to let the dog in. After settling himself behind the wheel, he said, “See you later.” With a wave, he drove off in a small puff of dirt, George’s face hanging from the window with an innocent look in his soft brown eyes. He offered a good-bye bark to her as the truck pulled out of sight.

An involuntary laugh burst through her lips, surprising her. Hugging her arms across her chest, she walked down the steps and onto the front yard and surveyed the neat, trim house with its picket fence and rosebushes. It was certainly the stuff of her dreams, dreams that were never meant to last. But at least it was hers. For now. With the laugh still fading on her lips, she climbed the steps and went back into the house and up the stairs, having made the decision that she would at least unpack, and maybe, tonight, she’d sleep under the covers.

Sam was already waiting at the counter of the Dixie Diner, nursing a coffee, when Joe strolled in. Joe waved, self-conscious of his appearance. His blue button-down shirt had a scorch mark under the pocket, and his khaki pants had long since lost their crease. Lucinda didn’t go away often, but when she did it seemed his tenuous hold on his life completely fell by the wayside. It was all he could do to drive the kids where they needed to be, help with the homework, and give them each individual attention before tucking them into bed at night and crashing on the sofa in a nearly comatose daze. Laundry, ironing, and the never-ending household chores just didn’t get done when Lucinda was away. There just weren’t enough hours in the day.

He greeted his childhood friend as the waitress, Brunelle Thompkins, slid a fresh mug of coffee in his direction with a bright smile. He sipped from the hot mug, brooding over his situation. Lucinda was a godsend, but he felt guilty. Especially because he almost resented the few times she went away to visit family in North Carolina.

He’d offered many times to pay for help, but Lucinda wouldn’t hear of it. She said his kids needed family and no hireling could take her place. Joe thunked his mug down on the laminate counter, sloshing some of the hot liquid over the side and scalding him. As he sucked the burned spot on his finger, he remembered that Sarah Frances had her clarinet lesson today and that the instrument was at the moment sitting on top of the TV in the family room.

“Looks like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet. Rough night?”

Joe sent Sam a disdainful look. “Thanks. Not that you look any better.”

With a mock look of hurt, Sam said, “Cassie’s been waking me up practically every hour when she goes to the bathroom.” He sent Joe a wry grin. “Good practice for when Sam Junior or Juniorette arrives.”

Joe stared into his cup. Softly, he said, “Yeah, I remember those days.” He took a sip of his coffee but didn’t say anything else.

Sam regarded his friend for a moment in silence. “If you’re still not sleeping more than three nights a week, let me know and I can prescribe something to help you.”

Being best friends with the town doctor did have its advantages, especially with six children who were always coming down with one thing or another, but access to easy prescriptions wasn’t one Joe would allow himself to take. “No, thanks. I appreciate it, but I can deal with it on my own.”

Sam moved his mug out of the way to allow Brunelle to place a plate of eggs, sausage, and cheese grits in front of him.

Joe eyed Sam’s plate. “Why don’t you just shove that stuff directly into your arteries?”

Sam picked up the saltshaker and sprinkled it liberally over his plate. “Hey, leave me alone. Ever since she found out she was pregnant, Cassie’s put us both on this health food diet. It’s just about killing me. This is the only decent meal I get all week.” He speared a bite of sausage and put it in his mouth, chewing with relish.

When Brunelle appeared to take his order, Joe pointed to Sam’s plate. “I’ll have the same as him.”

“Excuse me?” Sam stopped in midchew.

“Hey, I’m allowed. I ran five miles this morning with the football team. And I haven’t had a meal that I didn’t pick up at a drive-through window or that came in a box in two weeks. I figure I deserve this.”

Joe sipped his coffee and watched Sam eat without speaking for a moment while the door chimed again and three teenage boys wearing Walton High School letter jackets strolled in. Two girls from the high school, who were drinking coffee and nibbling on dry toast at the opposite side of the counter, giggled as they sneaked glances at the boys.

“Hey, Coach Warner,” the tallest boy greeted Joe, and stopped by his stool. “How’s it going? Great run this morning, huh?”

Joe took his time watching Brunelle deliver his breakfast, before turning around to face the boy with the closely cropped brown hair and olive complexion. “Hello, Rob.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

Rob glanced back at his two companions. “Homeroom isn’t for another twenty minutes. Have to have my java first.” He grinned broadly, revealing perfect white teeth.

“Well, don’t let me keep you from it.” Joe took a bite of cheese grits and chewed thoughtfully, his eyes never leaving the boy’s face.

Frowning, the boy said, “No, sir,” then sauntered away with his friends to a nearby booth.

Sam grimaced. “You were a little rough on the kid, don’t you think?”

Hmmph. He’s not a kid. He’s a two-hundred-pound pile of muscles, testosterone, and jawline guaranteed to render senseless any girl over six and under sixty. And it’s ninety degrees outside—why in the hell is he wearing his letter jacket?”

Sam glanced back at the boys now crowding the booth with their broad shoulders and meaty biceps. “He asked Maddie out, didn’t he?”

Joe said nothing but scowled at his companion.

“She’s seventeen, Joe. Soon she’ll be leaving for college. What are you going to do—send her to a convent?”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“Like that would stop you. You can’t keep her under your wing forever, you know.”

Joe glared steadily at his friend. “Do you think I don’t know that? But what am I supposed to do? I’m just a guy, and unfortunately, I know how guys think.” His voice broke a bit, and he coughed to cover it. “She needs her mother.”

“We all miss Harriet, Joe. But don’t fool yourself—you’re doing a terrific job with those kids, and you’re all Maddie needs right now. Just don’t smother her in your desire to protect her. It will only backfire, especially with her. She’s too much like her aunt Cassie for her own good.”

Joe snorted softly. “That’s for damned sure. But there’s so much about raising children that seems to require a woman’s touch. I’ve been waiting for Lucinda to notice that Sarah Frances needs to start wearing a bra, but she hasn’t said anything yet. I guess I’ll need to bring it up.”

Sam looked at his friend for a long moment. “I’m suddenly hoping that Cassie has a boy.”

Joe slid his plate away from him, eyeing the boys in the corner again. “Hrm. You’d just be trading in one set of problems for another.”

A rush of warm air fell over them again as the front door opened and two men in suits sauntered in. Joe averted his gaze and reached for his wallet. “Great. Just what I need this morning—a dose of Stinky Harden. I’m leaving.” He motioned for Brunelle to bring him the check.

Sam stared openly at the two men waiting for a table to open up. “Why do you think he’s so hot to run for mayor all of a sudden? It’s not like he’s ever had any interest before.” He turned back to Joe. “He’s got the look of somebody who’ll play dirty—probably got that from all those years living in Atlanta. Not that he’ll be able to find any dirt on you. You’re so clean you squeak.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “I’m too busy to get into trouble. Kind of hard to do anything bad when you’ve got a small child wrapped around each leg.”

Sam scooted his stool away from the counter and leaned back, pushing his plate away from him. “Well, if you’re looking for trouble, you won’t have to go that far. That Paris woman over at my place—good gravy, Joe. I can see why you felt you couldn’t leave her at Dad’s gas station.” He gave a low whistle to emphasize his words. “If I weren’t a happily married man, I might even be interested.”

Joe almost spit out his coffee. “I’m not. She annoys me, that’s about it. And she’s hiding something. She claims she doesn’t come from anywhere and doesn’t have any family. How is that possible?”

“And she paid her rent in cash. Yeah, I gotta agree with you there—she’s definitely hiding something. But I like her. I don’t think she’s trying to pull one over on us. I think she just wants to be left alone. But man, she is one good-looking woman.”

Joe tried to flag down Brunelle one last time. “I’m not interested. I’m too busy and she’s not my type anyway. I’m not that desperate for a roll in the hay.”

A voice piped up behind them. “What’s this about a roll in the hay? Joe Warner, I’m shocked to hear you speaking like that.”

“Good morning, Stinky.” Joe threw a ten-dollar bill on the counter, no longer willing to wait for his check. “I was just leaving.” He scooted out his stool and stood.

Stinky looked at him with mock disappointment, his round face looking deceptively cherubic. “What a shame. I thought I could join you and talk about why I’d make a much better mayor for Walton.”

Joe moved past him. “Would love to, but I just remembered that I forgot to floss. See you later.”

Sam followed, and when they got to the door, Joe turned around to see Stinky staring after him, a calculating look on his face. Thankfully, there was nothing of substance behind his comment regarding a roll in the hay, or he knew that Stinky would be all over it like white on rice, using it to his best advantage.

Then the image of Suzanne Paris hit him so suddenly that he stopped, almost causing Sam to crash into his back. Stinky had just given him another reason to stay away from her. He shook his head as he held the door open for his friend. As if he even needed one more. Her sad, wary eyes and ridiculous toe ring were enough reasons for him.

Suzanne stood facing the house, her eye focused in the viewfinder. She hugged the cold black camera with her hands, finding her comfort in this place of still pictures. This was her world—a world of perfection and noninvolvement, a world she could walk away from as soon as she’d snapped the picture and before her feet had the chance to leave footprints in the grass.

She zoomed the lens to capture the delicate fan of the window over the front door, then moved in for a close-up of the wisteria vine climbing the mailbox with fragrant curves. A warm breeze raced across the front yard, making one of the rockers on the front porch creak. She took a few pictures of the empty chair, tempted to sit in it. But she knew if she did, she might never want to get up. There was something about this place that reminded her of that stuff she’d read about in a magazine this morning—kudzu. A leafy green vine that grew while you blinked, taking over old barns and fields in the course of a week. Already she’d found Walton—and the inhabitants she had already met—very much like kudzu vines. Suzanne looked down at her feet. She had to remember to keep them moving.

The sound of a car pulling into the driveway made her turn around, and she spotted Lucinda sitting behind the wheel of an improbably fuchsia convertible. The sun sparkled off of cat’s-eye rhinestone glasses. Her bright red hair was piled high, the color clashing with the scarlet of her blouse. But nothing was as dazzling as the smile Lucinda sent her as she put the car in park. For all her flamboyance, Lucinda Madison was as genuine as they came.

Suzanne waved and smiled in return, her enthusiasm waning slightly when she spotted the two car seats in the back. In one of them sat Amanda, the streaker from the gas station store, and next to her was the little boy with no fashion sense. However, it would seem that today his ensemble of pressed blue jeans and cotton pullover with the large fire truck emblazoned on the front had been chosen with a lot more care than the previous one.

Lucinda climbed out of the car, groaning slightly. “My goodness, I’m creaking like a rusty hinge this morning. And please excuse me if I have soap bubbles flying out of my ears. I was awake until two a.m., up to my eyeballs in laundry detergent, washing clothes.” She turned toward the car and smiled at the two children in the backseat. “Harry and Amanda, I’m sure you remember Miz Paris from last night. Can you say hello?”

They stared at her blankly, matching wide blue eyes scrutinizing her openly. Lucinda walked toward Suzanne. “They’re a little shy at first with strangers, but after they get to know you, you’ll be wishing for earplugs.”

Suzanne held up her camera. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to put this inside and get my purse.”

“Sure, honey. Take your time.”

Suzanne raced inside. After hiding the camera under the bed and shoving her canvas bag on a high shelf in the closet, she pulled out several bills she’d stashed under a loosened corner of the rug and shoved them into her backpack.

When she came outside, Amanda shouted, “Aunt Lu, I need to go potty.”

Lucinda went to the car and unbuckled the car seat. “Can we use your bathroom, Suzanne? I’ll take her if you’ll watch Harry.”

Nodding, she said, “Sure—but go upstairs. The one on the first floor is missing a toilet. I think it’s the one sitting in the backyard.”

Amanda must have thought that uproariously funny, because she began snickering, holding her hand over her mouth.

Lucinda gave her a gentle tap on her head. “I think somebody had a slice of silly pie for breakfast. Come on, let’s find that bathroom.”

Harry and Suzanne were left alone to assess each other. Harry apparently found something lacking, because he began to wail as soon as Lucinda and Amanda disappeared behind the front door. Suzanne looked around for a reprieve, helpless. She tried speaking to the child, even reasoning with him, but he refused to be quiet. She glanced nervously at the nearby houses, wondering if anybody would call the police and charge her with cruelty to a minor.

Near defeat, she made a face at him, complete with crossed eyes and her index finger tilting her nose up like a pig’s. His crying settled to soft hiccups. When she tied her hair on top of her head like a bow, he chuckled with a surprisingly deep-throated rumble.

They were both smiling at each other when Lucinda and Amanda emerged from the house, his tears the only telltale sign of any unpleasantness.

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