The Crazy Girl's Handbook by DelSheree Gladden

I looked up at the score board and couldn’t believe the game was only in the third inning. It felt like we’d been sitting here for three days. Unusually hot for February—even for Pasadena—every inch of my body felt sticky and gross. It was only in the mid-eighties, but after jumping from being in the sixties the week before, it felt like I was in a toaster oven. The humidity wasn’t helping either. Having grown up in North Dakota, I still hadn’t gotten used to California weather after being here for college the past several years. How my nephew had the energy to be marching up and down the bleachers was beyond me. Why hadn’t I at least thought to bring an umbrella for shade?
The Crazy Girl's Handbook
The Crazy Girl's Handbook by DelSheree Gladden
The body of a four year old crashed into me from behind. I felt something wet and slimy slither down my neck and grimaced. “Auntie Greenly,” Evan said, his tone oddly apologetic, “I dropped my gum.” “What?” He leaned over my shoulder too far, nearly toppling into my lap. “I. Dropped. My. Gum.” I almost told him not to worry about it, but the image of someone stepping in it and getting ticked off made me reconsider. Tugging a napkin out from under a half-eaten tray of nachos, I said, “Where’d you lose it?” Evan pulled away, quiet. When I looked back at him, he lifted a hand, finger pointing behind me. “In your hair.” For a second there, I thought he said his gum was in my hair. Surely that was just the heat scrambling my brain. “What?” Scrunching in on himself worriedly, Evan pointed again. “It’s in your hair. It fell out when I jumped on your back.” I just sat there waiting for him to say he was joking. Ten seconds. Thirty. Eventually it hit me. He was serious. Reaching back, I patted my hair gently. Just above my shoulders, I felt it, a sticky blob drenched in saliva. Maybe…maybe if I was really careful, it wouldn’t be stuck too badly yet. It just plopped out of his mouth onto my hair, right? I pictured it almost floating above my hair and hoped beyond hope I could just lift it off. Gently…gently...and…. The gum squished between my fingers even under gentle pressure, and as I tried to lift it from my hair it strung out hopelessly. “Ew, ew, ew,” I whined. My hand froze, because what was I supposed to do now? I was holding a glob of gum with a stringy mess connecting it to my hair. If I moved either direction it would only make the mess worse! What on earth ever possessed me to give a four year old gum? How did I not see this coming? “Hold on,” a man’s voice said from behind me. “Don’t move, or it’s just going to make it worse.” “What?” I tried to turn and see who was talking to me, but a hand landed on the top of my head and held it in place. The pressure on my head released a moment later, but then a napkin was pressed against my fingers in an attempt to extract the gum from my grip. He wasn’t quite able to get it, and suddenly his other hand was involved, maneuvering my fingers so he could get the gum cleaned up more easily. That accomplished, he dropped my hand and told me not to move again. I could feel my hair being jostled slightly, but he didn’t seem to be trying to remove the gum just yet. Actually, it sounded like he was taking a drink of his soda. Too afraid to turn and figure out what was going on at the risk of spreading the gum even farther, I had no choice but to wait. “This might be a little cold,” he said. “What?” Icy water dripped down the back of my shirt. I jumped in surprise, sending it rolling over my shoulder and down the front of my tank top as well. “What are you doing?” I demanded. “The best way to get gum off anything is to freeze it. All I had was ice from my drink. Sorry. I spilled a little on you trying to get the ice out.” He did sound apologetic, but Evan thought it was hilarious. “I’m Roman, by the way. Sammy’s dad.” I couldn’t immediately pinpoint who Sammy was, but the name sounded familiar and I was fairly certain he was a kid on my other nephew’s team. The one whose game was dragging on into eternity. “Greenly,” I grumbled. “Lydia’s sister, right?” A little weirded out that this guy knew that, I was slow to answer. “Yeah. Guess she’s mentioned me?” Hopefully it wasn’t to complain about me, as usual. Roman laughed. “Once or twice.” That could not be good. My older sister was married to a great guy, had two awesome kids, freelanced as a graphic designer, and ran marathons. I was working on a master’s degree…still, hadn’t had a boyfriend in a while, worked part time at the campus library, and according to my sister, was getting more disillusioned by the day. When she wasn’t telling me what I should be doing with my life, she was trying to set me up with one of her friends. All the blood drained from my face. No. No way. A few weeks back, Lydia kept going on and on about this single dad of one of the kids on Colby’s baseball team. She kept trying to talk me into coming to a game to meet him because she was just sure he was exactly what I needed in my life. She even went so far as to set up a date without asking me. I’d been so furious with her I refused to call him myself and made her cancel since she was the one who’d set it up. The fight we’d gotten into led to her husband James taking refuge on the deck in the backyard for two hours. Normally, our arguments lasted a few minutes, long enough for both of us to rant a little, then we made up and moved on. That one had been different, for more than one reason, but mainly due to flat out bad timing on my meddlesome sister’s part. Not that she understood why, or that I explained the reason behind my freak out, but we’d eventually made up and she hadn’t set me up since then. A small miracle, to be sure. Now, sitting here with gum in my hair and watered down soda dripping down my chest and back, every word of that argument came back to haunt me. Lydia telling me to grow up. Me throwing a fit about her sticking her nose in my business, again. She’d begged me to just call and talk to him, promised he was different than the other guys she’d set me up with in the past. I’d refused, flat out refused, and made her do it instead. She’d been embarrassed and completely fed up with me, and I had no doubt this guy had heard every spec of mortification in her voice as she’d called to cancel the date. I could have sunk down through the bleachers in that moment, gum and all. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to this guy now, but he was trying to get gum out of my hair and I felt like I owed him some sort of explanation for that. “You’re that guy, aren’t you? The one Lydia tried to set me up with?” Roman laughed. At me, I was sure. “Unsuccessfully, but yes. That would be me.” Of course it was. “She never even asked me before setting that up with you,” I said defensively. “I already had something going on.” Actually, I had nothing at all going on, as usual, but that hadn’t stopped me from spurning Lydia’s pity blind date. Roman tugged on my hair. It didn’t hurt, but it yanked my head back enough that I almost lost my balance and fell on him. Awesome. Just what I needed right now. Hooking my fingers under the bleacher seat, I held on for dear life. “I got the impression Lydia expects people to do what she says within the first five minutes of meeting her and she didn’t disappoint,” Roman said as he tugged my hair again. “I figured that’s what had happened. It’s not a big deal.” He said that, but I was still mortified. Right now he was probably thinking he was lucky I’d refused to keep the date Lydia set up. Whatever. This would be just another part of a story you tell your friends and have a good laugh about. Him, not me. I was not telling this story to anyone. Ever. “Well, I got most of it out,” Roman said. “You might want to try peanut butter when you get home for what’s left.” “Peanut butter?” I wrinkled my nose at the thought of putting peanut butter in my hair, on purpose. “How many times have you had to do this?” Laughing, Roman said, “You’d be surprised.” He tossed the napkin into the nacho tray and I reached back to feel my hair. There was still some stickiness, but he’d actually managed to remove most of the gum wad. I turned to thank him despite my embarrassment after realizing who he was, but my words and pride stuck in my throat when I saw him. Expecting some balding, nice-personality, let-himself-go single dad like Lydia usually tried to set me up with, I wanted to die right there on the bleachers when I looked at Roman. He looked to be in his early thirties, had dark thick hair that demanded to have fingers run through it, a casual weekend kind of stubble on his face, and bright green eyes I knew were laughing at me. His smile was the worst. Holding a hint of amusement, his lips curled up at what he saw. Sweaty, possibly sunburned by that point, covered in gum and slobber and watered down soda, I was sure I looked like every guy’s definition of a bullet dodged. Heat was creeping up my neck and I knew I was half a second from breaking out in a full body blush. I wasn’t cute when I blushed. I looked like I had some sort of spotted fever when I blushed like that. Could this encounter get any worse? “Thanks,” I mumbled before turning back around and pretending to be super interested in the seven-zero game. I was such an idiot. Behind me, I heard Roman ask Evan, “Where’s Thor today?” “Auntie Greenly said we had to leave him at home because she didn’t want to chase him around the ball park all afternoon,” Evan said. Great. Now he thought I hated animals, or had no patience, or something equally unattractive. I didn’t hate animals. In fact, I loved Evan’s puppy. I could be patient, too. When I wasn’t dealing with Lydia anyway. I was just worried. I’d never had to keep track of Evan out in public this long. He tended to get bored and want to wander. Adding in a puppy seemed like a bad idea. I was trying to be responsible, for crying out loud. I was babysitting for the weekend while James and Lydia went out of town for Valentine’s Day. Not losing Evan during the baseball game was my prime goal for today. Thor would get a walk this evening when it wasn’t so warm and sticky and I could keep an eye on all three of my charges more easily. The crack of someone actually connecting a bat and ball solidly caught the attention of the bored crowd. Heads popped up, including mine. It wasn’t my nephew Colby, though. Roman cheering behind me clued me in that it must have been Sammy. The ball landed in the grass between two players who hadn’t even come close to getting under it. Sammy was standing squarely on first base by the time one of them managed to pick it up. “Yeah, Sammy!” Evan cheered from behind me. He shifted, kicking me in the back, and turned his attention to Roman. “Are you gonna buy Sammy a double ice cream after the game? He said you would if he got a hit that wasn’t out.” Bribery. I almost laughed. This team needed more than that to win a game. Poor kids were just awful. I had been working weekends lately to cover for another librarian who’d quit unexpectedly, so I hadn’t made it to any of Colby’s earlier winter season games up till now, but I knew from Lydia that the games usually ended early thanks to being beaten pretty badly. The whole point of signing them up for the off season league was to get the newbie players caught up on skills before summer. So far it wasn’t working very well. “That is what I promised,” Roman said. “Guess we’ll have to make a stop on the way home.” “Can we come and get double scoops, too?” Evan begged. “Even if Colby doesn’t hit the ball? Please?” Completely mortified, I spun around and said, “Evan, you don’t invite yourself to go get ice cream with other people. That’s not polite.” “But,” he whined, “it’s really hot and I really, really want a big ice cream.” Pushing his bottom lip out in a pout, he crossed his arms and stared me down. It was so stinking cute I almost forgot why I’d gotten upset with him in the first place. Before I could think up a good response, Roman stepped in. “Really, you’re more than welcome to join us. Sammy would love it and I’m sure Colby could use a pick me up after the game. They’re usually a little disheartened when they lose.” “Yeah,” Evan said, “because they’re so bad.” Even though I’d been thinking the same thing, I said, “Evan that’s not very nice to say. They’re all just learning still.” Screwing up his face in clear disbelief, Evan turned away from me and back to Roman. “I want the ice cream with peanuts and marshmallows. Like last time.” “Rocky road?” Roman asked. He smiled when Evan nodded happily. That was about as long as Evan’s attention lasted. He pushed himself off the bleacher and went back to exploring the seats for who knows what. Their exchange made me realize Lydia’s insistence that I not miss Colby’s game even though it really wouldn’t have mattered at all when it came to the outcome, had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with ice cream. “So,” I said tightly, “do you go out for ice cream after every game?” “Pretty much,” Roman said casually. “This team really is terrible and we all feel bad when they don’t do well. They’re trying, but this team of new kids may not have been the best idea.” I couldn’t disagree with the logic, but Lydia was going to hear it from me about this. It wasn’t Roman’s fault, though, so I did my best to be civil. “Well thanks for letting us tag along. I hope I’m not too embarrassing to be seen with in public, being with covered in gum and soda water and all that.” Roman’s laugh rumbled up from deep in his chest. “You look fine.” He chuckled again, probably at the bits of gum still in my hair. “Your sister was right about you.” Holding back a groan, I asked, “In what way?” “You certainly do make an impression on a person.” Letting my head fall into my hands, I started planning ways to kill my sister. Chapter Two Colby exited the dugout dragging his feet and his duffle bag. He sighed when he reached me. “I didn’t even get a hit.” His gaze darted up to Sammy as his friend trudged over to Roman. “At least Sammy did. He even made it on base.” “Maybe next week you’ll get on base, too. You guys are all getting better every week. It’s tough catching up to kids who’ve played for longer than you, but you and Sammy can do it.” I tried to offer him an optimistic smile. He sighed again. “We’re going to go get some ice cream.” Maybe that would cheer him up. Colby’s shoulders rose and fell, but his expression brightened a little. “With Sammy and Mr. Carpenter?” He had no idea how much I wanted to say no. It was on the tip of my tongue to offer to take them both to that place with all the giant bounce houses, even though it smelled like sweat and I was positive all the slides were covered in snot and slobber. “Yeah,” I said with false excitement. “Won’t that be fun?” “You’re coming with us?” Sammy asked. His excitement was genuine as he smiled up at me. When I nodded, his smile widened even more. Finally, Colby smiled as well and hefted his bag onto his shoulder. “Can I have two scoops this time?” I think we all need two scoops after today. “Sure, bud. Let’s go.” Evan’s hand in mine, we turned and started for the car. Sammy raced up next to Colby and I had to hold in a groan when I realized Roman wasn’t far behind. “We usually go to that little shop next to the library. Unless you prefer somewhere else. I doubt the boys care much either way.” “The usual sounds fine to me.” Not quite as good as going home and putting peanut butter in my hair, but… Roman looked like he was trying not to laugh again, but he spared me any more embarrassment and directed Sammy away from Colby and toward his truck. It was a nice truck. One of those big ones that looked like it could drive over the top of all the other cars on the road. Lydia would never be caught dead in something like that, but I found myself kind of liking it as we walked past to my Jetta. After getting Evan buckled into his booster seat, I walked around the car and got in. As soon as I sat down, Colby said, “Aunt Greenly, you’ve got something in your hair.” Evan giggled guiltily. I sighed. “Yeah. I know. Evan’s grounded from gum for the rest of the weekend.” Both boys started laughing then, and I found it hard to resist joining them. The whole situation really was ridiculous. In a better mood by the time we made it to the little ice cream shop that had been there for as long as I could remember, I’d forgotten about my hair until I tried to brush it back from my face and my hand came away with a chunk of hair stuck to it. “Ugh, yuck.” Something waved in front of my face, startling me into pulling my hand back, which led to me yanking my hair. Evan’s voice called up to me as he waved a ball cap at me. “Here, Auntie Greenly, Mr. Sammy’s Dad said you could borrow his hat so no one sees your hair all gross.” And there was my old friend mortification again. Yep. Is this day over yet? Snatching the hat out of his hand, I twisted my long blonde hair into a hasty knot and shoved the hat on my head to wedge it in place. “Thanks,” I grumbled. Evan dashed off to the door of the ice cream shop with the other two boys as I tried to rein in my irritation. I almost jumped when Roman slipped up next to me. “That’s not what I said,” he claimed. “What I told Evan was that you might be worried about someone noticing the gum and probably wanted a hat to cover it.” He chuckled as he pinched a loose strand of hair between his fingers and tucked it under the cap. “I did not call your hair gross.” He walked away to catch up with the boys then. Maybe one of the kids would dump ice cream on me and wrap this afternoon up in style. Giving in to the inevitability of more embarrassment, I dragged myself into the little shop. All three boys were ogling the available flavors, though Evan could barely see over the counter and was trying to get Colby to lift him up. Not sure the seven-year-old would be able to help him out much, I started toward him. Roman beat me to it. Scooping Evan up from the ground, he hefted the little guy into his arms and held him over the heads of the other two boys so he could see. An animated discussion about the various flavors broke out and suddenly I wasn’t mad at Lydia anymore. I was mad at myself. Roman was a good guy. The boys clearly adored him. Sammy seemed like a great kid, and while I had no idea whether or not the boy’s mom was in the picture, I had no doubt Roman was a big part of why Sammy had turned out so well. Yes, the guys Lydia usually tried to set me up with were questionable, but she did it because she wanted me to be happy. Would it really have been that horrible to let her fix me up one more time? I shivered, remembering what had spurred me to overreact in the first place, but stuffed it away quickly. That hadn’t had anything to do with Roman or Lydia. Why couldn’t I have just done what she’d asked for the hundredth time and met Roman at a nice restaurant instead of at a baseball game with gum in my hair? Now he thought I was Lydia’s weird little sister who seemed to hate men and cancelled dates at the last minute while giving gum to four year olds and making scenes. Stellar first impression, Greenly. I was so focused on my pity party I jumped when someone touched my arm. “What flavor do you want?” Roman asked, pretending he hadn’t notice I’d completely zoned out. “My treat.” “Oh, no, you don’t have to do that, really.” The last thing I needed was to feel like I owed this guy even more. Roman grinned. “Actually, I do. Lydia and James bought ice cream for everyone last week. It’s my turn.” He nudged me toward the counter. “Pick a flavor before the boys’ ice creams melt and we have to hose them down before letting them get back in the cars.” Glancing over at the boys, all three were digging into their double scoop cones. Only Evan had ice cream rivulets running down his hands as he licked the very top of his ice cream. Grimacing, I plucked a few napkins out of the dispenser on the counter and put them in my pocket for later. When I turned back, Roman was still waiting expectantly. “Turtle pecan,” I said with a sigh. Roman nodded, gave the girl behind the counter my order and his, and then walked around me to the cashier to pay for the treats. I turned my attention back to the boys, who were now testing out each other’s ice cream flavors, and screwed my face up at the ice cream now running down to Evan’s elbows. “Here you go,” a perky voice chirped behind me. She held out two cones, though she looked disappointed to be handing them over to me instead of Roman. “Thanks,” I said as I took them both. Roman was right beside me when I turned around, but luckily I’d spotted him returning before having the chance to be startled by his abrupt arrival and do something embarrassing. I wished he’d stop sneaking up behind me like that. I definitely did not need any more help looking like a fool today. Handing over his cone, I said, “Tell the girl thanks. It’ll make her day.” Eyeing me and my so not enthusiastic tone, Roman shook his head. He did, however take my advice. When he caught the girl’s attention and thanked her for the ice cream, she beamed at him. She looked to be in her early twenties…maybe. Roman wasn’t unpleasant to look at by any means, but I was a little surprised she was so eager to flirt with a guy who was here with his kid. For that matter, he was here with me and the boys, too. Didn’t that give the girl even a little pause? How’d she know we weren’t together? Before I let myself get too irritated, I took a step back into the realm of reality. Did I look like the type of woman Roman Carpenter would be dating? Even after sitting out in the heat for hours on end and wrestling gum from my hair, he looked perfect. I, on the other hand, did not. Not even close. I couldn’t even remember if I bothered to put on more than mascara that morning before leaving the house. She probably thought I was his little sister or something. “I know it’s warm, but we might want to head outside before Evan covers the entire floor in melted ice cream,” Roman said. He didn’t wait for me to respond, walking away to herd the boys out of the air conditioned shop to the one table outside. The umbrella it sported wasn’t going to do much against the heat, but I followed. By the time I sat down, all three boys were covered in ice cream and I thought a hose might really be necessary. Evan had one hand on the top of his ice cream, attempting to keep the second scoop from falling off. I seriously doubted his hands were clean. He didn’t seem to care. “Is everybody’s ice cream good?” I asked. Sammy and Colby nodded happily, but Evan held his up to me. “Taste it, Auntie Greenly. It’s yummy!” I tried not to show my disgust at the idea and leaned down with a plastic smile. One quick flick of my tongue later, I hoped I hadn’t licked a part he’d put his dirty hands all over. “Mmm,” I said, “very good.” Pleased I’d liked it, Evan turned back around and went to work on devouring the rest of his ice cream. Roman was, of course, trying not to laugh at me. He pushed away from the wall he’d been leaning against and walked over to me. “You have the best facial expressions, do you know that?” Great, another talent to add to the list of ways I could embarrass myself. “Gee, thanks.” He chuckled, but didn’t go back to where he’d been standing. “Sammy’s mom used to get grossed out by things like that, too. She’d wash his pacifier every time he dropped it on the floor until she finally gave up on a losing battle.” “I can’t even imagine what germs are on his hands after crawling around the bleachers all afternoon.” “You’re just giving your immune system something to do,” he teased. He licked his ice cream again, and for some reason, I watched him do it. Which he noticed, of course. There was laughter in his eyes as he offered it to me. “You want to taste mine, too? Promise it’s mostly germ-free.” “Mostly?” “Well, I have been licking it…” That was way more appealing than tasting Evan’s mess of an ice cream cone, but I shook my head. “Thanks, but no.” Roman threw me a skeptical look, but went back to eating his ice cream. The silence was welcome as everybody slurped and licked, but I found my mind going back to Roman’s earlier comment and my curiosity got the better of me. “Sammy’s mom…is she still, um, in the picture at all?” Ugh, it sounded like I was fishing to find out whether or not he was available, which I was sure held zero appeal for him right now when it came to me. Instead of looking grossed out by the thought, Roman shrugged. “Some, when it’s convenient.” He took another lick of his ice cream before continuing. “She’s an actress. Right now she’s traveling with an off Broadway show and isn’t around much. Even when she was, though, her career was always more important.” He said it like he’d made his peace with the situation, but I could see the slight tightening of his features when he talked about her. It had taken me a while to place Sammy’s name during the gum incident, but once I’d had a chance to think about it, I remembered hearing about him from both the boys and Lydia. “Well, you seem to be doing a pretty good job with Sammy on your own. He seems like a great kid. I know Colby thinks he’s pretty awesome and Lydia loves having him over to play.” Roman’s features lost their edginess and he smiled. “Thanks.” He finished off the last of his ice cream and regarded me seriously. “So, why haven’t you been to any of Colby’s games before this? Lydia made it sound like you and the boys are really close.” Annoyed that he was basically calling my sister a liar and me a lazy aunt, I gave him a pointed look. “One of the weekend librarians where I work quit rather suddenly and they haven’t found a replacement. I’ve been filling in.” Nodding, Roman seemed to consider my answer. Did he not believe me? Why would I lie about something like that? “How about the New Year’s party your sister had a while back?” Put off by his nosiness, I tossed the last bite of cone into my mouth and folded my arms. “My old roommate was getting married in Laughlin. I was a bridesmaid.” Now Roman folded his arms. “What about…” He paused, watching me as my temper rose, then broke out into a huge grin. “I’m just giving you a hard time, Greenly.” He laughed when I pulled back. “Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist. You do seem to have been avoiding me up until now, but hey, I don’t like being set up either. I was just teasing.” “I wasn’t avoiding anyone,” I said petulantly. I was pouting. I was so pouting right now and I hated it. What else could I say to this guy? It wasn’t him, it was me? Or my sister, more accurately? I was not even going there. Even if it was true. Partly. Before Roman could come up with another witty remark, Evan shrieked, “Auntie Greenly, help!” I turned toward him just as the last of his sloppy ice cream toppled off the cone and onto my foot. He looked down at the ice cream, then up at me. “Oops.” Hitting my limit right about then, I shook off my foot, extracted the wad of napkins from my pocket, and looked at Roman while I wiped goop off my toes. “Thank you for the ice cream, but I think I’ve had enough embarrassment for one day.” I turned away from him to look at my nephews. “Boys, let’s go. Thor needs to be let out anyway.” Roman was doing his very best not to laugh at me again, but Sammy didn’t even try to hide his snickering. Neither did Colby, for that matter. It was so time to go home. Offering a curt nod to our ice cream buddies, I shuffled the boys to the car, sticky flip flop making slurping sounds with each step. Gross. It was time to get on with my original plans for Valentine’s Day. Order in pizza, start up Netflix, have a slumber party with the boys, and not think about men of any variety—especially not Roman Carpenter. Chapter Three Thor, Evan’s nine-month-old Husky, was all over my rocky road flavored toes as soon as I opened the door. I nearly tripped over him, but the boys shoving past me to get into the house smashed me against the door and kept me from falling over. Maybe luck hadn’t abandoned me completely quite yet. The night was still young, though. Colby left his baseball gear in a trail behind him as he ran off through the house. He and Evan returned a few minutes later, still running, leash in hand. I was tired, grumpy, and exhausted, but Thor was whining at my feet now that the ice cream had mostly been licked off. “All right, clip his leash on and let’s go.” Whooping in excitement even though it meant going back out into the too-warm weather, Evan waved the poop collection bag around happily. We’d been home for barely a minute before heading back out. It was just a walk to the park, though. Simple. Low-stress. I could handle this. We’d done the park plenty of times before without incident. I felt myself relaxing as I locked the front door and started back down the walkway. We were halfway to the park when Evan yanked on my arm. “Look, Auntie Greenly, that’s where Sammy lives!” “What?” I spun around, as if Roman and Sammy were going to jump out of the bushes at us. “Right there,” he said, pointing with his whole body. “In that blue house. They have a pool table in their basement.” Nodding slowly, I watched the house for any sign of its owners. “Uh huh, nice.” Distracted by something else, Evan turned away from the house and the conversation died. I kept one eye on the Carpenter house, just in case. It wasn’t until we made it to the park, a block away, and Thor did his business that I was forced to stop spying on the blue house and clean up some poo. After that it was pushing kids on swings, playing fetch with Thor, rescuing Evan from the monkey bars when he got two rungs in and started screaming that he was going to fall, and losing to Colby in a slide race. Finally, Evan decided he was hungry and it was time to head back. We hit a familiar spot in the street when Evan yanked me to a stop and pointed at the blue house again. “Yeah, I know, Ev. It’s Sammy’s house.” “We have to go!” he shouted. “What? Why?” I was already shaking my head against his request. I couldn’t think of any possible reason he could come up with that would change my mind. Evan’s free hand pointed at my head. For a minute I thought he was reminding me about the gum in my hair. Then he said, “You forgot to give Mr. Sammy’s Dad his hat!” My hand subconsciously went to the hat, which was indeed still planted on my head. I sighed, but a hat was not enough to convince me to alter my path. Leaving it with Lydia to return at a later date—when I wasn’t present—sounded like a much better option. “It’s his favorite hat,” Colby said with less animation than his brother. “His dad gave it to him.” I felt my stomach sink. “Maybe Sammy and his dad could eat pizza with us,” Colby offered. “You could give him back his hat and invite them at the same time.” He looked up at me pleadingly. “Sammy’s my best friend. Please?” Evan began hopping up and down. “Mr. Sammy’s Dad is my friend, too. And Thor’s. He’s my favorite babysitter after you. Please?” “But,” I sputtered, “this was supposed to be our special weekend together. I’ve missed you guys so much since I haven’t seen you as often lately. Don’t you want it to be just us tonight? You two were going to be my Valentines, remember?” Both boys screwed up their faces. “Valentines are gross, Aunt Greenly.” “Yeah. Gross!” Evan stuck out his tongue and made gagging sounds. “Can’t Sammy’s dad just be your Valentine so we can play with Sammy?” Colby asked hopefully. I’d almost think Lydia put them up to this if I didn’t know it would have been impossible for either boy to pull off something this complicated with their limited attention spans. “I…but…” What could I really say to that? Apparently one date night with their aunt was enough. Who could blame them, though? I really wasn’t that exciting. Pizza together would be what, like an hour, two tops? If I was showered, de-gummed, and in a familiar space, I could handle that without making a fool of myself, right? I would have preferred taking the chicken way out and text a half-hearted invitation to Roman, but I didn’t have his number. Big surprise he hadn’t offered it up. Both boys had on their begging faces, and even Thor seemed to be in on it, looking over at Roman’s house and whining. Good gracious, even the dog had been won over. I couldn’t stand to tell either of my nephews no in regular situations. This was ten times worse. “Fine,” I grumbled. “Let’s go.” We looked both ways before crossing the street. Both boys held my hand and Thor stayed right at my heel with the leash wrapped around my wrist. The second we set foot on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, the boys took off and Thor made a valiant attempt at following them. Problem was, his leash was still looped around my wrist so I could hold the boys’ hands more easily. So when he lunged forward to follow, I didn’t have any control of the leash to stop him from taking me down. Pain blossomed in more than one spot as my elbows and palms hit the cement and my head whacked into the decorative stone edging that lined the grass. Thor yelped as my dead weight kept him from getting any farther, then doubled back to see what was wrong and stomped all over me at least three times before settling on my head. By the time my senses cleared, I was so tangled in leash and puppy I couldn’t even figure out where to start. My head and arms throbbing didn’t help at all. “Thor, get off,” a firm voice said. I thought I wanted to die when I got gum in my hair, or soda ice down my shirt, or an ice cream pedicure. Those were nothing compared to having to be rescued from an over-enthusiastic puppy by Roman Carpenter while covered in dirt, grass, and blood. It was a miracle I didn’t give up right then and just start crying. I loved my nephews, but I was never going to be able to show my face in this neighborhood again. The heavy weight of the squirming—and rather large—puppy was finally removed from my face. I heard Roman ask one of the boys to hold the leash, but I kept my eyes closed out of pure shame. Not until a pair of hands pressed against my face did I even dare to breathe. Even then, it was a gasp at the urgency behind the touch. “Greenly, are you okay?” Roman demanded. The hint of worry in his voice forced me to peel my eyelids apart. I peeked up at him through half-opened eyes and was startled not to find him laughing at me again. There was real, honest fear in his expression and it left me speechless. “Are you okay?” he repeated. Breathe, Greenly. “Yeah, uh huh. Yep.” He stared at me for a moment. Probably because I sounded ridiculous. “Are you sure?” he asked. I tried to sit up in order to prove I was just fine. The sting of putting my hands on the ground made me hiss and I felt a little woozy when I tried to move. “Whoa, whoa,” Roman said, which made me feel a little like a horse. “Don’t move. Let me help you.” Great, just great. I tried again to sit up on my own. “Really, I’m fine.” “No, you’re not,” Roman said as his arms slid beneath my arms and legs. I experienced an irrational moment of panic, not because the idea of Roman carrying me off somewhere was frightening, but because being this close to him would expose everything about me I hadn’t already managed to bare. He lifted me easily and my breath caught as he adjusted his arms and I felt momentarily unsupported. Then his grip rolled me against his chest, to a place of absolute security. I don’t think I took a single breath as he walked up to the house. Chapter Four Either the door had been left open, or one of the boys had already gotten to it. Roman walked into his home unimpeded and began giving orders. “Colby, there’s a bag of peas in the freezer. Evan, can you grab that pillow, please? Sammy, the first aid kit is under the sink in your bathroom. Can you bring it here?” All three boys rushed off. Worry was on every one of their faces and they looked relieved to be doing something to help. Evan made it to the couch with a throw pillow that had fallen on the floor and offered it to Roman. “Just put it right there, so your aunt can have something soft under her head, okay?” Evan nodded and carefully placed the pillow. Rising onto his toes, he peered up at me with watery eyes. “Are you okay, Auntie Greenly? There’s blood on your arms and head.” “Just scratches,” I said, trying for a reassuring lilt to my voice. The stomach churning thought of having to look at blood made that harder than it should have been. Speaking also made the side of my face ache. How badly had I managed to hurt myself? Was there really blood all over my face? I had to hold back the urge to vomit. The way this day was going, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was covered in it. Roman nudged Evan out of the way and moved to set me down on the couch. I don’t know why, but I grabbed his arm when I felt my body pull away from his. I must have startled him, because he glanced down at me with a curious look. “Sorry,” I mumbled and withdrew my hand. An easy smile rolled across his lips, though it didn’t completely erase his worry. “I’m not going to drop you.” “I know,” I said like it was a crazy thing to suggest. Mostly I was trying to hide my embarrassment at grabbing him. I didn’t even know why I did it. I mean, sure, being in his arms felt amazing—even with a dinged up noggin and myriad of scratches stinging like the Dickens. Not like he could carry me around all night, though. Smiling again, Roman gently put me down on the couch. His arms withdrew from beneath me, but he squatted down next to the couch and considered me. Knowing I looked like a mess, I cringed under his stare, but had nowhere to hide from it. I froze when his hand came up to hover next to my face. My ability to breathe stalled as his fingers brushed lightly at my temple, pushing my hair back. Frowning, his concern deepened. “We’re going to need to get that cleaned up. Pretty good gash at your hairline from hitting the bricks.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry about that.” I scoffed, then winced when it caused a sharp pain to shoot through my head. “Sorry for having bricks in your yard?” Managing a small chuckle at the idea of him apologizing to me for anything, I would have laughed harder if I could. “As usual, this was all me, Roman. Thor’s leash was around my wrist instead of in my hand and I couldn’t stop him from yanking me off my feet.” Roman shook his head. “Sammy saw you guys coming across the street and I let him run out to meet you. I should have known it might make Thor get over-excited.” “This was in no way your fau…” Colby crashing into the couch and nearly launching a bag of peas at my face cut off the rest of what I was going to say. The collision was followed up by Evan wailing that he wanted to be the one to give me the peas. Then Colby jumped back in to argue that Roman had told him to get them. The pain in my head worsened and I had to close my eyes against the brewing fight. “Boys,” Roman said firmly, “you’re making your aunt’s head hurt worse with your arguing.” They stopped immediately. “It doesn’t matter who brought the peas, okay? I have another job for both of you anyway.” In the silence, I dared to open one eye. Both boys were standing at rigid attention, waiting for their instructions. They were so cute, I smiled, which hurt my face. “The pizza guy should be here in a few minutes. Why don’t you wait on the couch and yell for me when you see him. Don’t open the door,” he said sternly, “just holler for me when he gets here.” “Pizza?” Colby asked. A smile burst onto his face. Evan stared at Roman in delight. “How did you know?” Confused, Roman shook his head. “Know what?” “We were coming over to invite you for dinner. For pizza!” Evan squealed. Roman couldn’t have looked more surprised. He turned to look at me, a half-smile tilting the corner of his mouth. “You were?” I didn’t get a chance to answer before Evan piped back up. “Yeah, me and Colby said we didn’t want to be Auntie Greenly’s valentines, ’cause that’s gross, so we said you could be her valentine instead and we could play with Sammy and maybe have a sleepover!” “I never said anything about a sleepover,” I said quickly. Blood rushed to my face as everything else Evan said slapped me in the face. “I never said anything about needing anyone to be my Valentine, either. I was just teasing the boys. It was their idea to invite you both over. After this afternoon, I doubted you’d care to see me again, but they really wanted to play with Sammy since I’m apparently too boring for them and…” My brain stopped firing then. Probably because Roman was staring at me, barely containing a laugh…again. Worse than any other time he’d already laughed at me. He couldn’t contain it. He seemed helpless to stop the chuckle that rumbled in his chest and the boys were all too quick to join in with him. I was the only one not laughing. The blotchy blush I was sure to be sporting held any laughter in check. The hand that had been pushing my hair back so he could inspect my injuries, softened into a touch that stole my ability to think properly. “Before you came up the walk, I’d actually been about to call you to see if you and the boys wanted to join us for pizza.” I had to swallow a few times before managing to get words past my lips. “Seriously?” Roman laughed again. “Yes. Why would I lie about that?” “Why would you want to have us over?” A curious expression flickered across his face. “Why wouldn’t I?” While I was trying to come up with a coherent response to that, Sammy came running into the room waving a first aid kit. He proved to be a great distraction for Roman. I breathed a sigh of relief when he turned his attention to his son and accepted the kit. “Now, can you guys find me a wash rag, get it a little wet, and bring me a hand towel, too? I’ll get Greenly cleaned up while you keep an eye out for the pizza guy.” All three boys nodded and dashed off to the kitchen. It wasn’t long before Sammy skidded to a halt in front of his dad with a sopping wet rag. Colby and Evan showed up next, each one carrying a dish towel. Roman accepted all three, shaking his head at the water still dripping off the rag. “I said a little wet,” he grumbled under his breath. He set the drippy rag on top of one of the towels and put the pair on the coffee table. The other towel he kept in hand and laid it next to my face. “All right, boys, go be lookouts. I’ll have Greenly patched up in no time.” That was all the confirmation they needed to know everything was fine, and they raced each other to the living room to keep watch. I could still see all three of them from my place on the couch in the den, but they soon slipped from my main focus as Roman sat on the edge of the couch next to me. Suddenly, the thought of him taking care of me made panic. “Roman, really, I can wash up in the bathroom. You don’t have to…” “You’re not getting up off this couch until I say so, got it?” he interrupted. He looked at me expectantly, waiting for a response. I knew he wasn’t going to do anything until I gave it. The panic was still there, but I felt myself nod against my will. Roman gave me a superior grin. “Good.” Thankfully, he turned away from me to get something out of the first aid kit. I desperately needed a few seconds to calm my weird panic and get my head on straight. How had I ended up lying on Roman Carpenter’s couch? This whole day had been a disaster. I wanted to crawl into the guest bedroom at my sister’s house and forget everything that happened today. Now I was trapped here, waiting for pizza, feeling like I had no choice but to stay and let the boys play. How could I refuse after being rescued and bandaged up by my amused knight? Could this day please just end? Roman turned back around and I nearly gasped in surprise at having to face him again. He held up an antiseptic wipe and said, “This might sting a little.” I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t respond, except to press my lips together and brace myself. Why shouldn’t Roman also know that I’m a huge baby about blood and all that? He’d witnessed all my other oh-so-wonderful qualities today. Why not this one, too? My eyes snapped closed when the stinky wipe got near my face. I tried to turn away, but Roman’s hand caught my chin and held me in place. A sharp hiss escaped my control as the astringent seeped into my cuts and scrapes. My fingers quested out for something to grab. I didn’t care what. I just needed to take my mind off what he was doing. It seemed to drag on forever, though I was almost positive it only took a minute or two for Roman to clean away the blood. A new sensation rippled through my body as he blew gently on the cut to lessen the stinging. My fingers relaxed as the pain ebbed, but the realization that Roman’s mouth was inches away from my skin had the exact opposite effect. Roman grunted for some reason, but I refused to pay attention to him in that moment. I couldn’t. Between the blood and his nearness, I was barely holding it together as it was. His presence seemed to back off and I supposed he must have turned away for a bandage or ointment or something. I took it as a reprieve and breathed in as deeply as I could manage. Too soon, his warmth was right next to me again and I squeezed my eyes shut even tighter. “This won’t hurt,” he said reassuringly. There was no mockery in his voice this time, which was almost worse. Something cool and wet slid over the aching section of scalp. It didn’t change the pain, necessarily, but it stopped the stinging and let me relax a little. My eyes stayed closed because I knew Roman wasn’t finished. Despite the sincerity in his voice, fear that I would open my eyes and find disgust at my childishness in his expression was worse than the thought of seeing the blood. I laid there without speaking as his calm and practiced hands applied a bandage and smoothed my hair back. The feel of his fingers in my hair was enough to make me whimper, but a desperate flailing reach for a distraction made me gasp. “Your hat!” My eyes flew open to find Roman staring at me in surprise. “What?” “I still had your hat. Where’d it go?” His fingers in my hair had made me realize I wasn’t wearing it anymore and I looked down at my hands to see if I’d somehow managed to hold onto it when I fell. Instead of finding the hat, I found my scraped up right hand on Roman’s thigh, gripping it tightly. My other hand had found the edge of the cushion to hold onto. I felt like I was choking on my embarrassment now. I wanted to die. Again. For about the hundredth time that day. Slowly pulling my hand back—like that would make it less noticeable somehow—I swallowed hard and scrambled for words. “Your…your hat. The boys said, uh, it was important, I mean special, or something. Your dad’s?” I sounded like an idiot. I sounded like an idiot. I couldn’t even look at him after that. Rustling suggested movement, and part of me hoped Roman just got up and walked away at that point. Instead, a warm hand cupped my jaw and turned me to face him. “It’s right here,” Roman said, forcing me to open my eyes and see it held in his hand. “Colby picked it up and brought it inside.” “We were coming to return it,” I said lamely. Roman smiled, but there was something I didn’t recognize hiding beneath the expression. “Thanks. I appreciate that. It did belong to my dad before he passed away.” “Did I mess it up?” I would feel horrible if my stupidity had ruined such a special item. “No,” Roman said, his expression relaxing, “but you do have a little blood and antiseptic ointment in your hair. “They’ll keep the gum company,” I said. An attempt at deflecting my anxiety about this situation, it worked well enough to draw a smile from Roman. He touched my hair again. “That’s right. The gum. Might as well take care of that, too, while I’m at it.” What? I wanted to shoo him away. I wasn’t fishing for more up close and personal interactions with this guy. I’d very much like the opposite, in fact. “No, no,” I said quickly, “I can handle it.” Roman eyed me askance. “Really? With scraped up hands?” My hopes sunk. I’d forgotten about my hands. Before I could say anything else, Roman’s arms were sliding beneath me again and speaking became an utter impossibility. My mind and heart were racing as he carried me into the kitchen. I couldn’t figure out why he was still being so sweet to me. This went way beyond being nice to your friend’s goofball sister because you didn’t want to offend anyone. I’d done everything in the crazy girl’s handbook to scare this guy away, but here we were. Nudging a bar stool around the kitchen island with his foot, he positioned it in front of the sink. I was finally able to suck in a decent amount of air when he set me down on the stool and turned away. I couldn’t even focus enough to appreciate that the backside of Roman was just as nice to look at as the rest of him. I was too busy trying to come up with a reason to keep him away from me. Not that I didn’t enjoy him being near me. I did. That was the problem. He was being nice, too nice, because Lydia was my sister and his son was friends with my nephews. I’d done way too many ridiculous things today to ever think he’d actually be interested in me. No guy in his right mind would be interested in me after today. He’d likely only agreed to a blind date in the first place because Lydia was like a dog with a bone. The only possible explanation I could come up with for why Roman had put up with me this long was because I provided comic relief. I, on the other hand, was falling for him fast and hard. I knew I was only setting myself up for heartache and disappointing Lydia yet again, but I hadn’t come up with anything to put some distance between Roman and I before he fished a jar of peanut butter out of the cupboard and turned back to face me. “This should do it,” he said casually, “but I think I have some petroleum jelly somewhere from the time Sammy got a bead stuck up his nose if it doesn’t.” Back to business, he unscrewed the lid and took a butter knife from a nearby drawer. A few seconds later he had a blob positioned to slather into my hair. Could this day get any weirder or more uncomfortable? Roman set the jar on the counter and approached me. He seemed to be enjoying himself as he gestured for me to lean forward. I did. I don’t know why I did, but I did. Cringing as he wiped the peanut butter into my hair, I wanted to bury my head in my hands, but I figured that would only spread the peanut butter even farther. I stewed in my churning embarrassment instead. Roman tossed the knife into the sink and went to work on my hair. He was standing to the side of me so he could reach the gum, but much closer than I would have preferred. He smelled so good. Roman had apparently been bright enough to come home and shower before even entertaining the idea of having someone over for dinner. I, of course, had not been that smart. I couldn’t even imagine how grimy and gross I must have been, but there was no doubt in my mind I didn’t smell nearly as nice as he did. I had the insane desire to lean my head against his chest and just smell him for the next hour or so. Trying to minimize how ridiculous I could be, I resisted. “Okay, I think I got it all out,” Roman said. He reached for the bar stool I was sitting on, his hands gripping the edges and pressing right up against my hips. I jumped at his touch and nearly fell off the stool. Roman’s hands were there to steady me in an instant, his face red and eyes apologetic. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to, uh, grab at you like that. I was just trying to move the stool out from the sink so I could wash your hair and didn’t think.” He ran a hand through his own hair. He looked way better wearing a blush than I did. Which was totally unfair. “It’s okay,” I managed to squeak. “Just startled me is all.” Still a few shades darker than usual, Roman reached for the stool again, but gripped the legs right under the seat this time and pushed it away from the sink. He turned away and I didn’t move to watch him. Not long after, he said, “Okay, go head and lean back. There’s a towel for your head.” I did glance back, then, because the last thing I wanted was to knock my head on anything else today. A good foot and a half away from the counter, I hesitated leaning back, afraid I’d miss or lean back too fast. I was contemplating how to do this without hurting myself when Roman jumped to my rescue…again. One hand pressed to my lower back and the other rested on the back of my head. Just that sent my pulse skyrocketing. Leaning back into his hands, relying on him to keep me from falling, took it to a whole new level. My head landed gently on the towel, but Roman was slow to remove his hands. Likely he thought I might fall if left to my own devices, but it was torture to have him inch his hands away from my body like that. If I thought that was bad, having him wash my hair was about a million times worse. I shivered when the warm water cascaded down my scalp. It felt so good after such a long day and I wished it wasn’t just on my hair. A long, heavy sigh seeped out of me and I heard Roman breathe out as well. He shifted his position. A new warmth pressed against my side as he reached in to wash the peanut butter from my hair. Thinking about the gum and peanut butter should have made the whole thing much less intense. It didn’t. Not when Roman’s fingers started working their way through my hair. Aside from the salon I went to where the stylists were usually scrubbing rather fiercely at my scalp, I had never had someone else wash my hair before. Surely my mom had at some point, but those memories hadn’t stuck. I knew this one would. To my dying day I would never forget what it felt like to have Roman Carpenter running his hands over my scalp, threading his fingers through my wet hair, slowly like he could have stood there for hours. I was so content and relaxed by the time the water turned off, a small whimper slipped past my lips before I could think better of it. Roman’s hands froze in the act of wringing out my hair, but only for a second. Another blush crept up my neck. Keep it together, Greenly! He was just washing your hair. Washing peanut butter and gum and blood out of your hair. Not romantic. Not sensual. Not anything more than that. I had almost convinced myself of that when the sound of something being knocked over made me open my eyes and I locked gazes with Roman. I knew I had to be imagining the way his breathing seemed to be labored, or the widening of his eyes, or the intensity backing his gaze. It had to all be in my head, but for just a moment, it almost seemed…real. “Pizza!” three hungry little boys all screamed at once. Startled out of my fantasies, I tried to sit up and teetered. Roman’s arms caught me in a split second…and held me. There was a pained expression on his face as he stared down at me. I could feel water from my hair dripping down my back, over his hands and onto the floor, but Roman didn’t seem to notice. The boys screeched again and he sighed. His hands seemed the tiniest bit unsteady as he handed me a towel and walked away. Chapter Five I was making an attempt at toweling off my hair with scraped up hands when Roman and the boys came barreling back into the kitchen. Well, the boys did most of the barreling. Roman just tried to avoid being run over. Distracted from my hair, I lowered the towel and watched them. It was like a three ring circus as they grabbed plates, soda, chips, ranch dressing, and parmesan cheese. For a few minutes it seemed there were twice as many little boys all crawling over the kitchen cupboards to find what they needed. Roman was a the sole source of calm movement as he set the pizza boxes on the dining table and flipped open the lids. The chaos continued as the boys then attacked the pizzas. “Piranhas,” Roman mumbled with a laugh. He turned back to me and gave me a funny look. “What are you doing?” Not sure what I was doing, I looked at myself. It was probably the way I was holding the towel in front of me with only my fingertips, like it was contaminated in some way. My hair was still dripping down my tank top and onto his floor. “I…” My voice trailed off, because if I admitted to why I looked so ridiculous, he’d try to help me again. I didn’t know if I could handle that. Trying for not making a fool of myself, I attempted to curl my fingers around the towel so I could finish drying my hair, but the sting of contracting my still slightly bloody palms made me wince. I tried to hide it and reached the towel up to the soggy ends of my hair. Roman wasn’t easy to fool. “Sorry,” he said as he marched toward me. “I forgot about your hands.” “It’s fine,” I said quickly. He was already shaking his head. When he grabbed the towel from my hands, they were too stiff to stop him. The few times I’d helped bathe the boys, they always loved it when I ran the towel over their heads wildly, jostling them all over as they laughed. If my fingers hadn’t despised moving right then, I would have crossed them that Roman would do the same. Of course, the gentle care he’d shown while washing my hair continued and he carefully drew my hair off my shoulders and behind my back where he could dry it all at once. My body swayed with every gentle tug. I could feel the warmth of his body only a few inches from mine. Not leaning back against his chest took all my self-control. When his hands guided the towel up to the top of my head to finish his work, I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from moaning. My hair surely had to be decently dry by now, but his fingers kept massaging my scalp. Noise broke out at the dining table, freezing Roman’s hands. He sighed as our gazes traveled in the direction of the chaos and saw Thor sitting in one of the chairs, testing the boundaries by placing one paw on the table top hesitantly as he eyed the pizza. All three boys were yelling at him to get down. Their giggling made the commands much less threatening. The pressure of Roman’s hands lessened and I felt the towel drop away. I froze when his hands reappeared on my shoulders and squeezed. “Why don’t you get some pizza? I’ll take Thor to the backyard and feed him so we can eat in peace.” The words formed in my head to ask if he had dog food—since I hadn’t seen a dog anywhere—or if I needed to go get some, but they scrambled a second later as he stepped back and his hands slid down my arms as if they didn’t want to stop touching me. Fantasy, of course, but I relished the touch for a few seconds until it disappeared. Then I sighed and set about consoling myself with pizza. The boys jumped up from the table five seconds after I sat down, already done inhaling their dinner. The table was a mess. I thought I might be able to clean up the dripped sauce, smeared dressing, and bits of crust before Roman came back to stop me, but he was faster than expected. I jumped when his hand pressed against my lower back. “Just leave it,” he said firmly. “Sit down and eat, please.” I found it impossible to say no and sat back down. Roman was already dishing out several slices of pizza by the time I got my head on straight. He’d turned his chair at an angle so he was partially facing me after getting his own pizza. He gestured at my food and hands. “Are you going to be able to pick it up? I could…” Cutting him off as fast as possible, I said, “Yep, no problem.” I reached forward and awkwardly scooped up a piece just to prove it. If Roman tried to feed me pizza, I’d lose it for sure. My hands stung like crazy, but I shoved away the discomfort and took a bite. Looking amused, Roman turned his attention to his own food. Feeling stupid staring at him while he ate, I tried for distraction. “So, how long have you known my sister?” “Since they moved to the neighborhood.” He took another bite, watching my reaction as he chewed. I couldn’t conceal my surprise at his answer. “Really? She made it sound like she’d just met you when the baseball season started.” Roman’s brows bunched together. He seemed confused, but not upset. “What did she say about me?” “She said there was this really great guy who was the dad of one of the kids on Colby’s baseball team. She made sure to say you were a single dad, of course, then spent five minutes going on and on about how amazing you were.” I huffed, frustrated at my sister for her deception. “She made it sound like she’d just happened to meet you and thought you’d be perfect for me.” Roman tried to hold back a smile. “Which you clearly didn’t believe.” Realizing I’d just managed to put my foot in my mouth again, I looked down at my pizza. “It wasn’t like that, exactly.” He didn’t challenge me, but I felt him working at containing a chuckle even without looking at him. “Why didn’t she tell me you were her neighbor and she’d known you for five years?” I grumbled. Had I known Roman lived in this neighborhood, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to a trip to the park out of fear we’d run into him. Thanks for the warning, sis. Irritation at Lydia building, another thought developed and I said it without thinking. “For that matter, why didn’t she try to set me up with you before now? Why the sudden desire to match-make?” Roman cleared his throat, drawing my gaze up to find him looking a tad bit red. “That would be my fault.” My stomach sank. Well that made sense. Roman had specifically told Lydia he wasn’t interested in me. It was a small miracle she’d actually held off for so long. She was insistent, though, and had apparently worn him down eventually. I could imagine her bringing it up for the millionth time and him finally agreeing just to get her to shut up and leave him alone. Yep, that made way more sense. I felt my body curl in on itself instinctually. I shoved another bite of pizza into my mouth and wondered how much longer I needed to stay in order to be polite. Rolling into bed after a long and miserable day was my sole goal now. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” Roman said quietly. I didn’t look up at him. I couldn’t. He kept talking, though. “When James and Lydia moved in, things between Jennifer and I were getting pretty bad. Sammy had just turned two. Before he was born we’d talked about Jen taking a break from acting for a while, staying local at least, until he was old enough for school. Pre-school, at least. My job was really demanding at the time and I knew I couldn’t be home with him if she was traveling.” Roman sighed and tossed the remainder of his pizza slice back onto his plate. “Jen couldn’t take being at home anymore. She told me she’d been offered a six month contract for a show in New York and she was taking it. No discussion. I tried to make it work. Lydia helped a lot, watching Sammy for me during the day, but at the end of the six months, Jen extended the contract without even talking to me about it and I was just done.” He leaned back in his chair, but kept his eyes down. “Maybe Jen was right and filing for divorce made me the bad guy. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. She didn’t want to have anything to do with me or Sammy, anymore, and telling my son that his mom was coming home soon when she wasn’t hurt him a lot. I couldn’t keep doing that to him. I couldn’t do it to myself anymore, either.” For a long time, I just sat there. My gaze darted over to Sammy, playing happily with my nephews, and I honestly couldn’t understand how his mother would ever want to miss out on being a part of his life. Colby and Evan weren’t my children, but I loved them so much it felt like a little piece of my heart was left behind every time I went home. Sammy was a sweetheart, and it broke my heart to think about him as a tiny boy asking Roman when his mommy was coming back and not getting the answer he craved. Tears welled in my eyes and I fought to hold them back. “Roman, I’m so sorry.” He looked up and met my gaze, breaking my heart all over again when I saw the pain in them. “Jennifer was a fool for leaving you both.” He took in a deep breath, the kind that makes your whole body shudder. Then he shrugged and looked down again. “Anyway, after the split was official, Lydia brought up me getting out there and dating and I politely asked her not to bring it up again. I had a two year old to raise on my own and a construction business I was trying to build up. There wasn’t time for anything else. I couldn’t stomach the idea of bringing another woman into Sammy’s life, either. If it didn’t work out…I couldn’t do that to him.” “It says a lot about how much my sister cares about you that she actually backed off,” I said. Roman chuckled. “I think it just about killed her not to set me up, but I appreciated her holding back for so long. She’s a good friend.” She was a good sister, too, I admitted to myself. Even though I grumbled at her constantly for trying to set me up and tell me what I should be doing with my life, I knew she loved me. If I really wanted her to leave me alone about my love life, she would. The truth was, it was easier to let Lydia rail on me and set up awful dates than face having to navigate it all on my own. If it went badly, I could blame her. She was my excuse for not getting into a serious relationship. In the beginning, I’d just been busy with school. Lydia was four years older than me, done with college and already married and expecting Colby by the time I was venturing out on my own. School had always been easy for her, too. It wasn’t exactly a huge tribulation for me, but I struggled to stay focused after my dad passed away. Studying had always been a challenge and it only got worse. I had to fight for my grades even more after that. My dad would have wanted me to succeed. That didn’t leave much room for dating. Lydia kept her meddling to a minimum while I worked on my undergrad degree, but when I applied for a master’s program, she didn’t understand, and saw it as me trying to put off growing up a little longer. She was partly right, but I wasn’t about to admit that to her. Pressure from her to find a guy and start a family made me balk. It became a sore spot between us, one I felt she was continually poking. “Dad, Netflix isn’t working.” Sammy’s voice startled me out of my thoughts. Roman as well. We both jumped at the sound and turned our attention to the little guy. He offered the remote to his dad, but kept glancing at me. We hadn’t spoken to each other much this afternoon, but his adorable personality had won me over quickly. Now wasn’t any different as he tried not to smile at me and failed. I couldn’t help smiling back. “Do you want to watch a movie with us if my dad makes it work again?” His eyes were bright, hopeful. Roman started to say something, but I held up a few fingers to stop him. “What movie are you going to watch? Is it scary?” “No,” Sammy said forcefully. “I’m not allowed to watch scary movies at night. They give me bad dreams. It’s a movie about dinosaurs.” His head tilted to one side as he considered me. “Do you like dinosaurs?” “It’s my favorite exhibit at the museum, even more than the mummies.” A huge grin broke out on Sammy’s face. “It’s my favorite, too.” He turned to look up at his dad, who was now standing with the remote in his hand. “Dad, Miss Greenly likes dinosaurs, too.” “I heard that,” Roman said as he ruffled his hair. “Nobody will be watching dinosaurs unless I go see what’s wrong with Netflix, though.” He moved to go tackle whatever technical difficulties were stymieing the boys’ plans, but when Sammy’s hand darted in to grab mine, he reacted quickly. Snatching his son up into his arms, he held him dangling above me. “Careful of her hands, remember?” Sammy’s eyes widened. “Sorry, Miss Greenly. I forgot.” “It’s okay,” I said with a laugh. “I’m not that hurt.” Roman gave me a look that said he didn’t agree. I proved him wrong by standing up without assistance. Elbows worked to push you up from a chair just as well as hands. Roman waited until I gestured for him to lead the way before putting Sammy back down. Sammy immediately wrapped a hand around my forearm and mindfully led me the ten feet to the den. He then directed me to my seat and promptly took up position next to me. Colby squeezed in next to his friend and Evan launched himself onto my lap. I barely got my arms out of the way in time to avoid my scrapes being bumped. When he saw me holding my arms above him, he grimaced. “Sorry, Auntie Greenly. I forgot.” “It’s okay, bud, but no jumping on people or couches anyway, okay?” He nodded and nestled against me. “Just needed an update,” Roman said, still facing the TV as he navigated through menus to get the service going again. A few minutes later, the software was ready to go and Roman went straight for his son’s favorite show. All three boys cheered when it started. Roman turned to laugh at them, but stopped when his eyes fell on the boys piled around me. “I guess we’re all watching the movie together then?” he said. “Guess so.” My gaze automatically went to the empty spot next to me and a horde of conflicting emotions erupted as I thought about him taking it. Roman’s thoughts seemed to be going in the same direction until Sammy nuzzled his head under my arm. I could see Roman swallow hard, and I had no idea how to interpret that. Was he annoyed I’d let Sammy get so close? He’d just told me he wasn’t interested in letting his son get attached to another woman who might not stick around. Panicked, I tried to move my arm away from Sammy, but Roman shook his head and moved to the couch. He hesitated a moment when he reached the empty seat. My pulse jumped again and I silently wished he’d sit on the loveseat instead. I couldn’t tell if he was mad, or just anxious, when he finally sat down next to me. I was stiff as a board. “Everyone comfortable?” Roman asked. His voice sounded perfectly average, but when he looked at me there was a strained undercurrent of emotion in his expression. I’m sorry, I mouthed, tipping my head in Sammy’s direction. Roman shook his head in a slight gesture. His fingers brushed against my arm, a touch so full of comfort I felt myself relax despite my lingering anxiety. He reached across me and Evan to ruffle Sammy’s hair. The boy looked up, smiling a crooked smile, before leaning his head against me again. His attention went back to the show without pause. I sincerely hoped Roman wasn’t upset with me. I was so focused on that hope I didn’t immediately realize his arm didn’t pull back the way it had come. Instead, he lifted it over my head and settled on the back of the couch. Right behind my head. My senses went into overdrive. I tried to tell myself he was just getting comfortable. This was probably how he always sat on his couch. Nothing to do with me at all. I was probably just in the way. I shifted, trying to move away from his arm, but with the boys so close, all I managed to do was bump my head into his arm. “Sorry,” Roman said quietly, “is my arm bothering you right here?” “No,” I squeaked. The corner of his mouth turned up, like he didn’t believe me, but he didn’t move his arm. Not where I was hoping he would, anyway. Instead of pulling back, Roman shifted and brought his arm down behind me with his hand resting on my shoulder. I couldn’t breathe. I seriously couldn’t breathe. Panic that I was going to pass out and squash Evan forced me to get control of myself. Practicing some yoga breathing, I shoved calm into my breaths. My body relaxed on instinct even though my mind was whirring. As soon as Roman felt my shoulders drop, I realized he was just as tense as I was, because his body responded in kind. We both seemed to sink into the couch a little more and just breathe. The dinosaurs that had first graced the screen back when I was a child still managed to entertain the boys for almost two hours. I’d seen the show so many times I knew the story by heart, but as the credits began to roll I realized I hadn’t paid attention to hardly a minute of it. I was too focused on Roman. It was a huge relief when the boys began pleading for another movie and he pulled away. Without asking my opinion on the matter, Roman gave in and started another show for the boys. He surprised me even further when he said, “You guys are on your own for this one, though. Greenly and I are going to sit out on the deck for a while.” We were? Roman left the room, but I didn’t move. My gaze followed him as he checked the lock on the front door and then walked back to me. He reached for Evan first. Grabbing him up off my lap, Roman nibbled at him playfully before dropping the giggling boy back onto the couch with a happy bounce. Sammy, he tackled next. By this point the little guy’s arms were wrapped around my waist. His grip tightened when Roman tried to exact him, giggling as he held on as tightly as he could. “No,” Sammy said through his laughter. “Let Miss Greenly stay. I want her to stay!” “I can’t borrow her for a few minutes?” Roman asked. “No,” Sammy said. “She has to stay here with me.” Roman’s teasing lessened and his expression grew more serious. “Why?” If Sammy noticed the change in his father’s demeanor, he didn’t show it. He was still smiling and clinging to me as he spoke. “Because she’s nice and pretty and fun, like Miss Lydia, but she actually likes dinosaurs and Colby said she likes Minecraft, too. I want her to stay.” The corners of Roman’s mouth tugged up. He looked up at me, smiling. “Do you? Like Minecraft?” Feeling childish, I could only shrug. “It’s oddly addicting.” Now Roman laughed, all his earlier edginess gone. He shook his head at me, but turned back to Sammy. “How about I borrow Greenly for a little while and then she’ll come back, okay?” Sammy sighed. “Fine. But you have to promise.” At first I thought he was talking to Roman, but realized he was looking straight up at me. “Oh, yes. I’ll come back. Promise.” Smiling widely, Sammy finally relinquished his hold on me looking rather satisfied. Roman reached down to help me and I hesitated a moment when I spotted the exact same expression on his face. What, exactly, had I just agreed to? Before I could figure it out, Roman grasped my forearm and helped me up from the couch. I expected him to let go then, and he did, but his hand immediately went to my back, instead of away from my body. I didn’t say a word as he guided me toward the back of the house. As soon as we neared the sliding glass door, Thor jumped up on it, panting and slobbering. His antics eased down my fears enough that I was able to walk through to the deck when Roman pulled the door back. Thor was on me in an instant. I felt bad not being able to pet him. Roman made up for it with a playful greeting of petting and wrestling. I skirted around them to a deck chair and noticed Roman had left the door open. I started to stand and close it, but he waved me off. “Just in case the boys need something, I can hear them from here.” “Thor’s going to…” Before I could finish my sentence, Thor darted into the house to find his playmates. Roman just laughed. “It’s fine. He’s over here all the time with the boys. Sammy loves it.” I was glad to hear the puppy was as loved here as he was at Lydia’s house. I could hear the boys giggling through the open door as they played with Thor and felt myself relaxing. The temperature had cooled considerably. Combined with the peacefulness of the backyard, it felt amazing. My eyes closed and I let myself enjoy it for a few minutes. “Greenly,” Roman asked hesitantly, “do you mind if I ask you something?” Caught off guard by the fear in his voice, I was immediately on edge. I sat up and was about to stumble over an answer I hadn’t quite decided on yet when my phone started to ring from my back pocket. Startled and relieved, I struggled to get at it with my gimpy fingers. Only fear that Roman would try to help me made me bear through the stinging and get a hold of it. “It’s my sister,” I said with equal parts resignation and relief. “She’s probably calling to check on the boys. Sorry, do you mind?” Truth be told, Roman looked a little relieved as well. “Of course not. I’ll go make sure Thor isn’t eating my couch and give you some privacy.” He disappeared soon after that and I slid my finger across the screen, knowing my sister would have a million questions and not having an answer to a single one of them. Chapter Six “Hey, sis. How’d it go today?” Lydia asked with a tone that screamed guilt and curiosity. “You know I’m going to get you back for this, right?” Silence. “For what?” Her innocence wasn’t fooling anyone. Me, least of all. “Are you really going to sit there and tell me the reason you insisted I make sure Colby made it to that miserable baseball game wasn’t because you knew Roman Carpenter was going to be there? Are you seriously going to try and convince me of that?” There was no silence this time. “Well if you weren’t such a big baby about meeting him the first time around I wouldn’t have had to finagle something like this. Honestly, Greenly, you make things so difficult sometimes. If you would just let me…” Her voice trailed off when I burst into laughter. No doubt not the response she was expecting from her argumentative little sister, it took Lydia a few moments to respond. “Are you drunk?” That only made me laugh even harder. “Greenly, what is going on? What’s wrong with you right now? Should I be worried? Are the boys okay?” Knowing she was about to go into panic mode, I reined in my laughter. “No, I’m not drunk. Yes, the boys are fine. No, there’s nothing wrong with me. But,” I said, pausing simply because I knew it would make her worry and I wanted at least a little bit of payback, “you really are crazy if you thought this ridiculous plan was going to work.” “I just wanted you to meet him!” Lydia snapped. “If you’d just give him a chance, you’d realize…” “Realize what?” I demanded. “That Roman Carpenter is about the most amazing guy I’ve ever met?” Lydia took a moment to respond. “Well, uh, yeah.” “Congratulations,” I said, the mocking tone easy to hear. “You were right. He is amazing. He’s sweet and a great dad and incredibly sexy. He’s as close to perfect as you could get.” Tears burned at the backs of my eyes as I pulled in a steadying breath. There was a long moment of silence before Lydia dared to speak again. “Then…what’s wrong, Greenly? You sound like you’re about to cry.” “I’m not going to cry,” I snapped. I was totally was about to cry, though, which would be the perfect end to my day. Crying on Roman Carpenter’s deck like a crazy person. Lydia sighed. “Greenly, what’s wrong?” “Why?” I begged. “Why would you try to set me up with a guy like him? Why would you ever think someone like Roman would be interested in me? Even if I’d gone on that stupid date and met him looking like a halfway normal person, it still wouldn’t have been enough. Were you trying to prove something? Teach me some kind of lesson by making me fall for a guy I have no chance of ever being with?” I blew out a long, trembling breath. “Especially not after today,” I mumbled more to myself than my sister. Lydia sighed again, and it sounded like she was settling in for a long talk despite that fact that she was out of town with her husband for a romantic getaway. It was the first time since Colby had been born that they’d been away by themselves for that long. Knowing she was willing to put their plans on hold for me made me feel terrible for being angry with her. Lydia annoyed me with her meddling, but I couldn’t have asked for a better big sister. “What happened today?” Lydia finally asked. The last thing I wanted to do was relive every stupid thing I’d done that day, but Lydia would keep me on the phone until I did. “It started with a piece of gum.” By the time I finished regaling Lydia with the story of the gum in my hair, Roman trying to freeze it off with melted ice from his soda and getting it all down the front of my shirt, my ice creamed flip flops, Thor nearly braining me right in front of Roman’s house, and half a dozen smaller but equally embarrassing things, we were both in tears, laughing at the absolutely ridiculous series of events. “Good gracious, Greenly, only you could manage so many screw-ups in one day,” she laughed. She said it with love, though, because we both knew I tended to have days like this more than the average person. Her comment to Roman about me leaving an impression usually revolved around something embarrassing. Lydia chuckled again, but eventually her laughing trailed off. “I’m sorry today was so crazy, sis. I really just wanted you to meet him and take a few minutes to talk and get to know each other. I wasn’t trying to teach you a lesson or hurt you. I hope you know that.” She sniffed at the end, which got me all teary again. She really had meant the best, and it wasn’t her fault I’d screwed it up so badly. “I know. I’m sorry I yelled at you.” “I’ve just been so worried about you,” Lydia said. “I thought when you transferred out here to finish your bachelor’s degree that you’d stop secluding yourself away. I know losing Dad was hard, especially since you had just left for college, but you shut everyone out and barely even left your dorm room except for classes. I know school is important to you, but so is family. Ours and the one I know you want to have someday.” “You and James and the boys are my family,” I said tearfully. Lydia sniffed again and I knew she was crying. “I love that you’ve become such a big part of our lives, but I know you want more, Greenly. You always have. You’re just afraid of taking that leap and letting someone in.” My dad and I had been incredibly close. Lydia and he had been close as well, but not in the same way. Our mom passed away when we were both little. She’d had a serious blood disorder that eventually took her away from us. Lydia coped by becoming my surrogate mom. She took care of me, bossed me, and helped me. I coped by holding onto the one parent I had left even more tightly. We all knew his blood pressure and cholesterol would eventually get the better of him, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. Lydia was right that I’d closed myself off after his death. I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone else getting that close to me and dying or disappearing. Coming to California and becoming a part of Lydia’s family had healed so much of what had been damaged in me. Colby and Evan were the loves of my life. Perhaps that should have encouraged me to branch out and quit being scared of loving someone else, but it didn’t. After a while, thinking about moving on with my own life felt like a betrayal of my little nephews. I wouldn’t have as much time for them, which would be like leaving them. I couldn’t do that to them, so I hid behind my love for those two little boys and told myself it was enough. For the past four years, it had been enough. “What’s going on in your head right now?” Lydia asked. “Why didn’t you tell me Roman was your neighbor?” I asked. “Why did you pretend you’d only just met him?” I didn’t know if she was caught off guard by the change in topics, or just hedged before giving an answer. “I, well, I guess I just thought if you knew he’d been a friend of ours for a long time you’d think there was something wrong with him since I hadn’t tried to set you up with him before now. You’re so resistant to meeting new people, I just thought it would be easier that way. There are reasons I didn’t introduce you before that, but I…” “I know about Jennifer,” I said when she trailed off in her effort to find the right explanation without betraying her friend’s confidence. “You do?” My heart squeezed thinking about Roman’s ex-wife. I didn’t think I would ever understand how she could choose her career over them, but I knew it wasn’t my place to judge. “Yeah, he told me about what happened between them.” Lydia honestly seemed stunned when she said, “Oh, wow, okay. It’s not something he really likes to talk about.” She paused for a moment. “When did you two have time to have a real conversation? Sounds like most of the afternoon was spent cleaning up messes.” Now it was my turn to squirm. When I related the dog tripping episode, I neglected to fill her in on the events post-head wound. “Uh…” “Greenly,” Lydia said in her mom voice. “I’m actually, um, still at Roman’s house,” I said slowly. Lydia took a moment to respond. “What?” “After I bloodied myself up getting dragged by the dog, I was a little woozy from hitting my head.” “Are you sure you’re okay?” she demanded. “You acted like it was just a little bump! Maybe you should go to the doctor, Greenly. Head wounds can be serious.” “I’m fine,” I said, dragging out the word fine to punctuate my insistence. I continued before she could object again. “Anyway, he helped me get cleaned up and washed the peanut butter out of my hair before the pizza got here.” “Wait, how’d you get peanut butter in your hair?” Lydia interrupted. “Roman used it to get the gum out, of course.” I said it like I knew what I was talking about, and tried to power on before she could say anything else. Lydia beat me to it. “Roman Carpenter washed your hair for you?” She paused and exhaled slowly. “That is so sexy. Please tell me you didn’t say or do anything stupid during that to ruin it.” “I couldn’t have said or done anything even if I’d wanted to,” I grumbled. I was trying really hard not to think about Roman’s fingers running through my hair again, but it was impossible. My eyes closed without me telling them to and I could have sworn the sensation returned. I was completely at his mercy in that moment. Even thinking about it pretty much put me back in that exact same situation. “Greenly,” Lydia begged, “please, whatever insecurities and fears you’re still harboring, please just do one thing for me. Don’t let the bizarre day you had today make you write off Roman. He really is…” “Yeah, I know,” I broke in. “You don’t have to convince me of how great Roman is. That’s not the problem, sis. I am. There was little chance he would have been interested anyway, but now…it’s not going to happen. Sorry.” I didn’t know why I was apologizing to her when it was my heart that would never be the same. Whatever. She tried. I screwed it up. Roman and I would go our separate ways, only bumping into each other at the occasional Lydia-hosted party, and probably both turning the other way to avoid an awkward conversation. That was just the truth of it. Nothing was going to change it at this point. Returning to the beginning of our conversation, I couldn’t help asking again, “Lydia, why did you even set me up with him in the first place?” Roman himself had said he’d asked her not to set him up with anyone. Lydia sighed, but it didn’t sound as heavy as before. It sounded strangely optimistic, in fact. “I think that’s a question you need to ask Roman,” she said. “Goodnight, Greenly. Kiss the boys for me, okay?” “Yeah, sure,” I mumbled, confused by her response. The call ended and I gingerly stuffed the phone back into my pocket, only to look up and find Roman stepping out onto the deck looking more nervous than I felt. Chapter Seven “Everything okay?” Roman asked. He eased through the doorway onto the deck and slid the glass door closed halfway. “The boys heard raised voices and worried you and Lydia had gotten into an argument...again.” He ran a hand through his hair. It was the first time I’d seen him so off balance. Wanting to reassure him more than what seemed reasonable, I responded quickly. “Yeah, it’s fine. No big deal. Just a sister thing.” Roman’s hand was still on the sliding door’s handle, as if he were considering running. Not that I would blame him, I thought with a sigh. His hand moved from his hair to the back of his neck. “Do you two fight a lot?” I laughed, which seemed to ease his concern. “Fight is a strong word. Lydia and I don’t get into screaming matches or anything. She tries to tell me how to live my life and sets me up with weirdos and I object. We’re ticked at each other basically until the end of the conversation when we make up and apologize. We’re good. Promise.” Roman’s hand slid from the back of his neck and he tried not to show how relieved he felt. He wasn’t quite as successful as he probably hoped, but I didn’t hold it against him. His hand finally left the door handle and he stepped away. His movements were slow, but not exactly hesitant as he moved toward me. “I thought maybe you’d gotten angry at her for today,” he admitted. “Today was entirely my fault.” I smiled, even though I knew what he’d really meant. Making light of the day let Roman relax a little further. He made it to his chair and sat down. “I know your sister, and I’m sure she made a point of making sure you showed up at the game today. All without telling you I’d be there or that we usually took the boys for ice cream together.” “Correct on both. You’re a sharp tack, Roman Carpenter.” He seemed to be mildly surprised by my change in temperament, but didn’t comment. “You’re not upset with her then?” “Oh, you bet I was when I first picked up the phone.” I laughed, now, after talking to Lydia. The hurt I’d felt at the beginning of our conversation was hard to put away completely, but it had mellowed considerably. “I know she was just trying to look out for me, though, and she was right about you, too, by the way.” That made Roman look over at me. “Oh yeah? In what way?” “You’re not like the other guys she’s tried to set me up with.” “Which were…” “Weird,” I laughed, “or old, or super lonely, or creepy, or married.” Roman’s eyes flew open wide. “What? Lydia did not set you up with a married man.” “Oh, she didn’t know he was married. In fact, she didn’t know him at all. She met him in a grocery store checkout line, talked to him for five minutes, decided he was the one for me, and set up a blind date right then and there.” Shaking his head, Roman laughed despite his apologetic expression. “Lydia does not give up easily, though her tenacity doesn’t always keep up with good sense.” “Amen to that,” I grumbled. “Although, to be fair, I’m not much better at choosing dates than she is. I’ve picked my fair share of duds, and even when I find someone I really like, I do something to run them off. It’s a talent of mine.” Leaning back against my chair, I breathed in the night air. The day had been a mess. Roman undoubtedly thought I was the world’s biggest spaz. I was going to have a killer headache in the morning. This was possibly the last time I would ever have a conversation like this with a guy I could have easily fallen for. All of that made me want to cry, but I didn’t. This one moment stood out from all the others. I could stuff the gum and ice cream away. This one I would keep. Even though there was a good chance Roman was watching me, I smiled and sank into the chair. Right now felt good and I was determined to enjoy it. Until Roman spoke. “Do you mind if I ask you that question now?” Opening my eyes slowly, I willed him to take the request back. When I looked at him, though, the anxiety I had seen in him earlier pleaded with me to not be a coward. “Sure,” I said quietly. “Why did you say no to being set up with me?” His eyebrows rose, like he was surprised at himself for voicing the question. Then, to cover up his discomfort, he kept talking. “I mean, why go out with all those other bad options, but say no to me? Was it because of Sammy?” I pushed up in my seat and faced him more squarely. “What? Why would I say no just because of Sammy?” “Well,” he said slowly, “before, you said how Lydia made a big deal about me being a single dad. Is that what turned you off? I mean, I get it if it was. It’s just that you’re great with kids, so I guess I just don’t understand.” “I love kids,” I said. “I want my own kids someday. My nephews are my whole life outside of my master’s program right now. Why would you think I wouldn’t want to date a guy with a kid?” Even in the fading light I could see red creeping onto Roman’s face. “The way you said single dad before…” “I was just annoyed at her for trying to shove me into a pre-made family,” I snapped more harshly than I meant. “It was like she figured I’d never grow up and have one on my own so she was handing one over to me. You know how Lydia is. I love her, but she’s pushy as all get out when she thinks she’s right about something.” “But, you said you wanted kids,” Roman said with a confused shake of his head. Throwing up my hands and wincing when they came back down, I ignored the sting. “I do want kids. I just don’t want Lydia telling me with who or which ones to commandeer or whatever she’s cooking up in her head. I just want to find someone great in my own time and not have her pushing me into something.” Roman was clearly frustrated as he said, “But you let her do exactly that with all those other guys. Why not me?” Shocked by how animated he was about this, I went into defensive mode and snapped back. “Why are you so keen to know the details of what’s going on in my head? Did Lydia put you up to asking?” His shoulders fell. “No,” he said after a minute. “I just don’t get it.” “Get what?” I couldn’t imagine why he really cared. Both hands ran through his hair, pulling at it as he tried to vent his frustration. “Look, I know this is going to sound really conceited, but I’m just going to say it.” He paused and looked at me. Waiting to see if I’d stop him? Or something? I had no idea, so I just shrugged. He let his hands fall before saying, “I’m decent looking, run my own contracting business, I think I’m a nice guy, and I not weird or creepy that I know of, so why weren’t you willing to go out with me at least once? What made you say no?” For a few seconds, all I could do was stare at him. “Seriously?” I demanded. “Is this why you’ve been so nice to me today despite me being a total train wreck? You were just waiting for this moment to fix your bruised ego? You can’t stand being turned down or something? Really?” He tried to say something, but I was fighting back tears again and more pissed at him than I ever was at Lydia. That was the only reason he’d been so nice to me all afternoon? I jumped up from my chair, lopsidedly thanks to my stupid hands, and started to turn away, but then spun back on him to find him also standing…barely a foot away from me. Whatever I had been about to say dissolved in the face of his intensity. I had no clue whether he was upset, scared, angry, or about to tell me to get out. I didn’t want to hang around and find out. At the end of my emotional rope, I spun on my heel and all but leaped through the open door. “Greenly,” he hissed. I knew he was following me, so I picked up my pace. I had every intention of grabbing my nephews and going home as soon as I reach the den. The words were on my lips for them to get their shoes on and find Thor’s leash. I skidded to a stop when I stumbled into the room to find all three boys lined out on the floor in sleeping bags, fast asleep. Only Thor lifted his head to stare at me. His big puppy eyes seemed to take in my frazzled appearance and pass it off as non-threating. His ears twitched once before he laid his head back on Evan’s sleeping bag and closed his eyes. “Greenly, please,” a voice from behind me pleaded. All my anger returned swift and laser pointed at Roman. Before I could say a single thing, he clapped his hand over my mouth and started pulling me down the hall. Chapter Eight I had no idea where he was taking me, but even with being furious with him, I wasn’t all that concerned about him hurting me. Still pissed at him, yes, but not fearful for my life. So when he pushed me into a room—his bedroom by the looks of it—and let go to shut the door, I was ready to let him have it. “Is that what you were doing while I was on the phone with Lydia? Putting them all to bed? Without asking me? When did I agree to them sleeping over here? Do you really expect me to just leave them here and go home? Or, or stay or something?” I gulped at the thought, warring emotions tearing me apart despite how angry I was. “No,” Roman said as he threw his hands up. “I just, I didn’t know how long we’d be out there talking and they were tired and asked if they could get out the sleeping bags to lay in while they watched their movie. They do it all the time. I’ll help you carry them home if you want.” “And leave Sammy here while you do it? Or wake the poor kid up and drag him along, too?” I shook my head, too angry to think straight or give him any credit for offering to help me. Bracing one hand against the door, Roman’s head hung down. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry for letting them fall asleep and for whatever I did to make you think badly of me in the first place.” Anger and frustration still hummed right below the surface, but his defeated posture and weird apology wasn’t completely lost on me. “What are you talking about?” I snapped. “I don’t think badly of you. I think you’re freaking awesome. Which is why I’m so ticked off right now. How can you be this amazing guy all day and then do a complete one-eighty into this ego obsessed jerk?” Roman’s head came up slowly. One corner of his mouth turned up, though I hadn’t the foggiest as to why. He pushed away from the door and came to stand right in front of me. It was almost intimidating except for the smile still hovering at the edges of his mouth. “Why,” he said slowly, “did you refuse to go out with me?” I swallowed slowly, trying desperately to stir my anger back up. When that proved impossible, I went to plan B and tried to invent a better reason than the ones I’d already given him. By that point in the day, my brain was pretty much fried and I found myself left with only the truth. Anger fizzled in the face of his closeness and insanely sexy half-smile. Words started tumbling out of my mouth even though I hadn’t planned to tell him a single thing. “The week…the week before Lydia, um, tried to set us up, I’d…” I swallowed again, not completely sure why I was telling him this, but helpless to stop. “I’d gone out with a guy, not one Lydia found. He came into the library where I work. Seemed nice, charming even. I said yes when he asked me to dinner.” Roman’s expression went from playful and curious to worried. “What happened?” “I knew better than to let him pick me up from work. Out of practice, I guess, or just stupid.” I shook my head as the memory spawned a bout of anxiety. “We had a nice night. He was easy to talk to, smart, funny. I had fun, and I thought I’d made a good choice. Until he pulled up to my apartment to drop me off and asked to come in.” “What did you say?” Roman asked. He moved in closer, his hand brushing against my arm, but falling away after only a brief touch. I shivered being this close to him. “I said no. I didn’t know him. Dinner was one thing, sleeping with him after chatting for a few hours was a whole other thing.” Roman blew out the breath he was holding, but then seemed to realize there was more to the story. “I’m guessing he didn’t appreciate the rejection.” Shaking my head, I tried to sound nonchalant when I spoke. “He locked the car doors and kept this finger on the button so I couldn’t get out. I freaked out a little and, uh…hit him with my purse.” Both of Roman’s hands came up to hold my arms. “And?” “And I jumped out of his car when his hand came off the lock button and sprinted to my apartment, of course.” I felt my own relief mingled with his as his grip relaxed into a softer caress. “I reported him to campus security as soon as I got inside. My apartment isn’t technically on campus, but they still manage it so I called them first. They couldn’t do anything right then, but they said they’d keep an eye out for him and that I should file a report with the police…which I did, even though it was incredibly embarrassing to have them lecture me about not accepting rides from strangers like I was a child.” Being in such close quarters, I wanted to pull away so I could breathe in something other than Roman. But his hands were still on my arms. Stepping away would mean losing contact. Despite having been spitting mad at him not more than five minutes ago, his touch was reassuring and I hesitated pulling away. “Anyway,” I said more shakily, “I never told Lydia because I was too embarrassed and I kind of had a meltdown when she mentioned having set me up on another blind date.” “So…it really didn’t have anything to do with me?” Roman asked. Now I did push him away, though there wasn’t much bite behind it. “No, Mr. It’s All About Me. It had absolutely nothing to do with you. Feel free to go back to stroking your ego and reassuring yourself that there isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t be thrilled to jump into your arms.” I was smiling by the end of my spiel and so was he. My stomach twisted a little being faced with it. Why did he have to have such a great smile? “I know what I said earlier came out completely wrong, but it was driving me crazy not knowing why you’d turned down the blind date so vehemently. I thought I’d done something to offend you.” “Offend me?” I asked. “I’d never even met you before.” Now it was Roman’s turn to look chagrined. “Actually, we had. At Lydia’s Christmas party.” When I screwed up my face in confusion, he clarified. “I looked a little different then, thanks to a full beard and different haircut. We only spoke for a few minutes about Hawaii before someone pulled you away and I never managed to catch back up to you that night.” I gasped, and a new round of mortification washed over me. I remembered that conversation. I’d thought about it many times and cursed my former roommate for yanking me away from the most captivating guy I’d met in forever. “I had no idea that was you,” I groaned. My hands covered my face, dragging down as if that could erase everything. “I’d just gotten back from a week in Hawaii, a present from Lydia and James, and I was still really jetlagged and probably a little buzzed, and it was dark and there were way too many people in that house…” Roman started laughing and shaking his head. “It’s okay, Greenly. I’m not upset you didn’t remember me. I’m just glad I hadn’t managed to piss you off or offend you in the couple minutes we spoke.” “No, of course not,” I said hurriedly. Chances were, if we had been able to talk longer the opposite would have happened. “Saying no really was just bad timing.” Real relief rolled off his body in an almost visible wave as he realized I didn’t despise him for something he might have said months ago, and didn’t think he was a hugely egotistical jerk now for what he said out on the deck. “Good,” he said simply. I almost asked him why it matter to him so much, but my conversation with Lydia shoved its way back into my head like she was standing right next to me hammering it in. The question slipped out before I could really consider whether I actually wanted to hear the answer or not. “Why did Lydia try to set us up in the first place when you’d already asked her to keep her nose in her own business?” Roman took a step back and leaned against the wall comfortably. He looked at me like he had a secret he was all too eager to tell. “Because I asked her to.” If choking on air were possible, I would have done it right then. His answer couldn’t have been further from what I’d been expecting if he’d said an angel from God had come down and commanded it. “What?” I asked, sounding completely strangled. “Why on earth would you ask Lydia to set you up with me?” I held back on expounding my less than desirable qualities because, well, he’d already experienced plenty that day to turn him away. “Why?” Roman asked. The disbelief in his voice made no sense. “Why would I want to go out with an intelligent, kind, beautiful, strong woman? What about you should be unappealing to me?” How long did he have to stand there and listen? I shook my head back and forth. “You can’t be serious. I can only imagine the things Lydia has told you about me, and today…I was just one disaster after another.” “First off,” Roman said firmly as he stalked toward me, “your sister has only ever said nice things about you to me. She’s always bragging about how smart you are, how determined, how great you are with her boys, how tough you are for making it through losing your dad and not falling apart. Lydia adores you, Greenly. Yeah, she might be bossy and think she knows best, but she is so incredibly proud of everything you’ve done in your life.” Tears blurred the edges of my vision. “Really?” It came out as more of a squeak than an actual word. Roman’s hand slid onto my hip while the other one cradled my cheek. “Yes, really.” His thumb swept over my cheek and he smiled. “And even though today was a little crazy, you were amazing through all of it.” “No I was not,” I argued. Did we experience the same day together? Did he not see me get taken down by a puppy—a large puppy, sure—but a puppy all the same? Moving his hand from my hip to my lower back, closing the distance between us as he did, he noticed when my breath caught and couldn’t start back up again. “When Evan spit gum in your hair, you didn’t get mad at him. I spilled soda down your shirt and you took that in stride, too. Sure, flip flops are pretty easy to wash off, but getting ice cream dropped on them after everything else would have tested anyone’s patience. But you just let it roll off you and moved on. I was more upset with Thor than you were for lunging like that and hurting you.” “But the boys are just kids and Thor’s an excitable puppy. None of what happened was their fault.” I shook my head at what he was saying. “Exactly,” Roman said. “It was just one of those days, but I’ve seen people lose it from much less. You put the boys, and even Thor, first, and you even put up with me all day. None of what happened today made me think less of you or made me not want to spend time with you.” “I’m pretty sure it should have,” I argued. “I mean, I’d stay away from me after today.” Laughing in earnest, Roman did something unexpected. He pulled me into a hug and held me there as he chuckled. “Greenly, I doubt there’s anything you could do that would change my mind about you.” He was still laughing when I pulled back to stare up at him in confusion. “What?” “This is the best Valentine’s Day I’ve had in a long time,” he said. My first thought was that his previous experiences must have been really bad, but then I realized what he was actually saying. It was good not because I provided him with plenty of opportunities to laugh, but because we’d spent it together. He had been the one to initiate the blind date that wasn’t actually a blind date. He actually wanted to spend time with me, and had for a while. I wasn’t imagining those brief moments in the kitchen when he got closer than necessary or touched me when he didn’t need to. It wasn’t wishful thinking when I saw the carefully concealed desire in his eyes and regret when the arrival of the pizza pulled him away from me. “You…you actually…wanted to, um, go out…with me?” I swallowed the crazy elation welling up inside of me at the thought. “For real, you were interested in me?” “I still am,” Roman said. I couldn’t breathe. For a split second there, I felt positive I was going to end the day by passing out in Roman’s arms. Not a bad way to go, mind you, but not exactly ideal. I’d much rather be conscious and in his arms if I could manage it. After getting a hold of myself, my brilliant response to that was, “Oh.” Pulling me in more tightly, Roman’s free hand cupped my chin and guided me to meet his gaze. “The question is…do you want to go out with me?” As confident as he was pretending to be, I saw the fear of rejection in his eyes, and all I wanted to do in that moment was make it disappear. “Yes,” I whispered. “Very much.” Roman’s mouth split wide in a grin before we both reacted. Rising onto my toes as he leaned down, everything else melted away at the feel of his lips meeting mine. It was the kind of end to a day I knew every other day of my life would be measured against. Chapter Nine Except it wasn’t the end. Not even close. “Auntie Greenly,” a small, trembling voice called out from the other side of the closed door. “I threw up.” Roman’s whole body froze. So did mine. For a split second, I found myself wondering if I just didn’t say anything, would he think we were asleep and clean it up himself? We both sighed. Evan was four. And sick, apparently. Stuffing away such selfish thoughts, my head fell against Roman’s shoulder. “I’ll be right there, buddy.” There was silence for a moment before his little voice came again, softer and more hesitant. “I think Thor ate some of my throw up.” My whole face screwed up in revulsion, but Roman started laughing silently. He was laughing so hard, he had to use the door to support himself, effectively trapping me. I was still loathing the idea of having to clean up a sick kid and puke covered dog, but suddenly I was laughing, too. Not nearly as quietly as Roman was managing, either. “Auntie Greenly?” Evan asked. Smothering my laughter, I said, “I’m coming, Evan. Just a minute.” Roman pulled back, still chuckling, and gave me room to slip out from between him and the door. I reached for the doorknob, but he hooked my waist and pulled me against his chest. Half a second later, he was kissing me again, hard, fast, and with a grin playing on his lips. “Thought I’d get in one more before you end up smelling like vomit.” Scowling and shoving him back, I turned for the door again. It was the last thing I wanted to do right then, but Evan needed me. Being a good aunt was the one thing I consistently excelled at. Most of the time. Today was certainly an exception. As soon as I pulled the door open, the smell hit me. My stomach clenched and I heard Lydia’s voice in my head again, telling me I should go into nursing because it only required a two-year degree and had flexible hours so I could be home more often once I had kids. The fact that I was breathing shallowly to try to keep myself from following Evan’s example and throwing up was one of the reasons I did not take her advice when I graduated high school. The other reason was that I despised her bossing me around at that age. I still didn’t like it, but I had certainly learned to appreciate the kindness behind her meddling. I had not changed in my lack of ability to handle things like this. Looking at Evan, a trail of puke running down his t-shirt, I floundered for what to do about it. I had no idea where the bathroom was or what I should do with the nasty clothes once I had Evan stripped down. “I…uh…” Roman squeezed past me and reached for Evan’s hand. “How about we get you into the bathroom and get those clothes off you so you can take a nice warm shower?” Nodding, Evan looked relieved someone had finally taken control of the situation. Roman started leading him down the hall and I followed. I didn’t know what else to do. If he was going to help Evan wash up, I could take care of whatever he puked on, but I had no idea where the washing machine might be or where Roman kept his cleaning supplies. Feeling incredibly useless, I offered to handle the one thing I actually could do. “I’ll get Thor and take him outside.” Roman looked over his shoulder at me and smiled. “Thanks, Greenly. I’ll take care of the mess as soon as I get him cleaned off.” “I can do it,” I said quickly. “Just tell me where the cleaning supplies are.” He shook his head. “I’ll take care of it.” I opened my mouth to argue again, but he didn’t let me speak. “I’d rather just have one mess to clean up, not two.” And I was back to being mortified. Red flashed across my skin, every inch of it. Which made Roman laugh. Even little, sick Evan giggled at me. “I can handle it,” I said stubbornly. Letting go of Evan’s hand, he gestured him into the bathroom after flipping on the light. “Go take your clothes off and put them in the sink. I’ll get the water started in just a minute.” He shooed him away and then turned to face me. “Greenly, it’s okay. Stuff like this doesn’t bother me at all anymore. I’ll take care of it. Getting Thor would actually be really helpful so he doesn’t spread the puke around the carpet.” “I can get it cleaned up,” I snapped. A voice of reason—one that sounded a lot like Lydia’s—told me not to be a baby about this. I really didn’t want to get anywhere near vomit and it was incredibly sweet of him to take on that responsibility when Evan wasn’t even his own kid. Embarrassment and stubbornness refused to let me accept the pass. A sharp snap drew both our attention to Evan, who seemed to be stuck inside his t-shirt and had bumped into the door on the vanity. Roman smiled and shook his head, but his expression sobered as he turned back to me. “Let me handle this. Just take Thor outside, please.” Annoyed that he was bossing me around, too, I wanted to argue, but that voice in my head won out and I turned back to the hallway in a huff. The entire length of the hallway, I argued with myself about what to do. I could just start cleaning things up to show Roman I wasn’t a wimp. Would he really try to stop me? What if I did just add to the mess, though? I could only handle so much mortification in one day. Still, it was just a little puke. That was better than blood, at least. Marginally. I had just about convinced myself I could clean up the mess without losing my pizza when I turned the corner and smelled it. I wasn’t that close to where the boys had been sleeping, but Thor was waiting for me at the edge of the den, happily panting as he sat there with bits of vomit on his nose. That was when he jumped up on me. Thor was a puppy, but he was almost the size of a full grown Husky, which were big dogs…which put his face right below mine. Dog breath was never terribly pleasant. It was ten times worse when the little maniac had just licked up his owner’s puke. I forgot about getting Thor outside. I needed to get outside, and fast. I bolted for the sliding glass door I had come through only a few minutes before. It was still half open thanks to me running off and Roman sprinting to follow me. I made it to the edge of the deck before losing it. Even as I vomited on Roman’s grass, I thought about what he’d said earlier, how he didn’t think I could do anything that would make him not want to hang out with me. I was pretty sure this would probably do it. Reaching out for the post that supported the deck roof, I tried to steady myself. Between puking and wanting to cry, I found myself sliding down to the deck. I might have just gone ahead and burst into tears right about then if Thor hadn’t bounded over and jumped on top of me. Nearly knocking me into the mess I’d just made, I shouted at him to get off, way too loud and harsh. Roman’s neighbors probably heard me. I was working at shoving him off me when Roman came rushing through the door. He skidded to a stop and took in the scene. I knew that if he started laughing, I’d start crying. This was pretty much my breaking point for the day. He’d laughed at just about every other disaster today. Why not this one? I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t laugh. Instead, his face fell. “Greenly, I’m sorry.” Sorry? Was he serious? He didn’t give me a chance to ask. Roman quickly snapped up Thor, fingers hooked around his collar, and dragged him off the deck to where he clipped him to a long leash. Then he was on his way back to me, taking a wide berth of where I’d thrown up, of course. I didn’t have a chance to react before he was scooping me up. My hands slapped over my mouth. I would die if Roman got even a whiff of my breath right now. Roman was gentle as he deposited me back into the deck chair I’d been sitting in earlier. “Don’t move from this spot until I get back, okay?” I didn’t even have the energy to respond. Hanging my head, I refused to watch him walk away. Okay, maybe I looked for just a minute. It was too hard not to enjoy his retreat. Once he slipped back into the house, then I dropped my head again. Thor was whining across the yard. I felt like joining him, but managed to settle for pulling my knees up and hugging them to my chest like a twelve-year-old girl. An indeterminate amount of time passed as I sat there feeling sorry for myself. Actually, it was more like fifteen minutes. It just felt like an eternity. Then again, as soon as I heard the door start sliding open, I panicked and my feet slipped off the edge of the chair and jerked me forward like a total spaz. It was a small stroke of luck that Roman was carrying a sleeping bag with a puke stain as he came out and didn’t see me. I slowly straightened myself, watching as he tossed the sleeping bag onto the grass and went straight for the spigot. A quick twist filled the hose, and a few seconds later, he was washing off the sleeping bag and the spoiled grass. It didn’t take long and he tossed the hose away a few minutes later. I froze when he turned back to me, hands on his hips. “I told you not to worry about trying to clean things up,” he said. “I didn’t,” I admitted sheepishly. When he gave me a questioning look, I forced myself to continue. “Thor jumped up on me, panted right in my face, and well…” Roman shook his head. “Sorry, I didn’t even think about that.” Covering my face with my hands, I groaned. “Stop apologizing. You’re going to make me crazy. Crazier…. This wasn’t your fault. Not even a little bit. How could it possibly be your responsibility for me having the weakest stomach on the planet and being freaked out by blood and vomit?” Roman sauntered over to me, and before I could react, pulled my face up to his and kissed me squarely on the mouth. “Eeww!” I shrieked, shoving him back. “What are you doing? I just threw up!” Laughing in earnest now, Roman held up his hands. “Just proving a point.” “What point?” I demanded. “That you’re gross?” “That I don’t get grossed out easily,” he said, still chuckling at me. “I wasn’t trying to insult you when I said I could take care of the puke mess. It wasn’t even about being chivalrous. I mean, it kind of was, but mostly I’m just used to being the one to deal with this sort of thing and I know stuff like this is tough for you.” It wasn’t just today, I realized. Sinking down in my chair, I pulled my hair in front of my face and closed my eyes. “Lydia told you about when Evan was born, didn’t she?” Roman was silent. I knew without looking that he was doing the same silent laughing he’d done when Evan interrupted us in his room. My head smacked down onto my knees and I gave up. Roman gave up trying to hide his laughter as well. “I’m sorry, Greenly,” he said, still laughing. “I’m not…not making fun of you…it’s just…” “That I’m pathetic?” I mumbled from beneath my hair. Fingers, chilly from hosing away vomit, ran softly through my hair, pushing my head up. “It’s just that I did pretty much the same thing when Sammy was born.” Scoffing, I stared at him. “You did not barely get your sister to the hospital on time—because James was out of town for business and Evan came two weeks early—and you didn’t get one of your fingers broken by said sister when she slammed your hand into the bed rail during a particularly bad contraction. You also did not faint and whack your head on the guest chair and then rush out of the room when the doctor finally held up your wet, slimy, bloody nephew so you didn’t throw up. You did not do any of that.” Roman was shaking with the effort of not laughing right in my face. “Lydia did not tell me all of that, but I did faint when Sammy was born and Jen never let me live it down.” Simultaneously furious with myself for saying too much and amazed that Roman wasn’t just saying that to make me feel better, I could only stare at him. “But…the puke, the blood earlier…” “Yeah,” Roman said with a laugh, “none of that stuff bothers me now, but back then, I had no clue. I’d been so busy, I hadn’t made it to any of the birthing classes with Jen and had no clue what to expect. I’d never dealt with kids or blood or snot or dirty diapers. Not only did Sammy’s birth freak me out, it really scared me. I was afraid of not being able to handle all the dad stuff I knew I’d have to deal with. It wasn’t until we brought him home that I just dove in. It still freaked me out at first, but I made myself do all those things that no one wants to do. A lot of it was not fun, but I hated the thought of not being there for Sammy when he needed me.” It took me a moment to respond to what he’d said. “Not a lot of guys would do that.” Roman shrugged. “Well, it didn’t work out quite as well as I’d hoped. Jumping to do everything for Sammy, I think I pushed Jen out. I knew the nuclear family thing was never what she really wanted, but I thought having Sammy would change her.” He shook his head. “I know he changed me.” Forgetting how gross I was in that moment, I reached out for Roman’s hand. “You can’t blame yourself for Jen’s choices. More likely than not, she used your efforts to be close to Sammy as an excuse for her to back off and focus on herself.” His eyebrows knitted together, and for a moment I was worried I’d offended him by acting as though I knew anything about his ex-wife. He shook it off and sighed. “I never thought about it like that.” He looked down at my hand covering his and turned his palm up so he was holding my hand. “Either way, there was blame on both sides for us divorcing.” The corner of my mouth turned up. “Now that I don’t believe for even a minute. You, Roman Carpenter, have all the appearances of being practically perfect in every way.” He laughed, but it was half-hearted. “I believe you stole that line from Mary Poppins.” “Yes I did, but that doesn’t make it any less true.” My own soft smile wasn’t half-hearted at all. I meant what I’d said. Shaking his head slowly, Roman pulled back, not enough to break our clasped hands, but enough that I noticed the change. “Greenly, it’s not. I have my hang-ups and bad habits, faults and flaws.” “And you think I don’t?” I scoffed. “I mean, hell, you’ve experienced most of mine all in one day! If anyone is going to judge you for not being perfect, it certainly isn’t going to be me.” He made a frustrated sound, and this time he did pull away far enough that my hand was left chilled after losing his warmth. “I want to see more of you, Greenly. I really do. After today though, I’m afraid you have this unrealistic view of me, and when you figure out I’m not Prince Charming you’ll…” “I’ll what, bail?” I sat up straighter in my chair. I wasn’t sure whether I should be offended by that, or impressed he was trying to be so straight forward. I was leaning toward offended, but I tended to screw up my reactions to things fairly regularly. Instead of reacting immediately, I took a deep breath and thought about what I wanted to say. “Look, Roman, how about instead of trying to judge each other and the possible future of a relationship off one really weird, messed up day, how about we just get to know each other for real?” He looked up at me, and I could see the indecision in his face. Despite the fact that less than an hour ago he seemed perfectly happy making out with me up against his bedroom door, now he was worried. I understood why, but it still hurt. I tried not to let it show in my expression. The way his shoulders slumped was a pretty clear signal I’d failed. Pulling my knees up to my chest again, I looked away. Sammy was the most important person in his life. I knew without him having to explain any further that he would do anything to protect his son from being hurt again. In the moment, he was eager and willing to pull me into his bedroom. When he’d thought about it a little longer…. I’d known him for one day and I already felt like I couldn’t breathe in the face of his rejection. He didn’t trust me to stick around, to let him in, let Sammy in, to love them both and not walk away when things were too chaotic or gross. I was good for a laugh, but that was it. “I’m scared,” Roman said quietly. “You’ve been on my mind since Christmas, and even with all the craziness today, I loved every minute with you. I know I could fall for you, easily, and Sammy already adores you.” My breathing stuttered. My heart clenched. “But?” “But I’m scared,” he admitted. “Scared of letting Sammy love you. Scared of letting my guard down and getting hurt again. I’m terrified I won’t live up to your expectations and it won’t last.” Exhaling slowly, I made a concerted effort to corral my galloping thoughts and put them in some kind of order. “I can’t guarantee something between us will last, Roman. I doubt it would be me being disappointed by you. Logic says it will be the other way around, and that scares me too. I’ve closed myself off for a long time. Losing my mom was hard, and there were times I didn’t think I’d be able to pull myself back together after my dad died. Lydia is a big reason I survived. She’s been my crutch most of my life. I’ve never had a lasting relationship with a man, so there’s a good chance I’m going to screw up, a lot. I understand if you want to just…” I bit my lip to keep my chin from quivering. “…end it here.” Roman’s head shook back and forth slowly. “I don’t. I really don’t, Greenly.” The fear in his eyes was nearly overcome by desire. It still floored me that sort of emotion was directed at me, but I was desperate to answer it. My own fear held me back. It had been doing that for the past seven years, longer really. Since my mom died. I had no idea how to overcome that on my own. Lydia was usually around to push me off any ledges I found myself facing and force me to move on and be brave. The one time I could have used her… “Can I…?” Roman hesitated. His fingers twitched, pulling his gaze down to them. He pulled them into a fist before reaching out and taking my hand. “Are you busy next weekend?” My gaze went from our hands to his lips. That screwed up my ability to process what he’d said even more and I had to look away. “Next weekend? Why?” “I thought maybe, that it might be nice if, I could take you on a real date. See how things go from there.” He paused, his grip on my hand tightening slightly. “What do you think?” I had to tell myself to take another breath. “Are you sure?” There was the tiniest moment of hesitation before he nodded. “I really like you, Greenly. It’s a little terrifying to think about putting myself out there again, but I think I would regret it if I let you walk away without trying.” I knew I would regret it. There was a good possibility I’d regret not walking away. Broken hearts were no picnic, and even Lydia wouldn’t be able to patch me up after something like that. Even as scared as I was, I knew being with Roman would be worth it, and I found myself nodding slowly. “Is that a yes?” Roman asked. “Yes,” I squeaked. He smiled crookedly. “Are you sure? You don’t sound all that excited.” I held my free hand up, my fingertips brushing against my chest where I felt my heart pounding. “Excitement, fear, they’re both in there, trust me.” Pulling me into his arms, Roman held me. I felt his heart beating just as wildly as mine and took comfort in that. This was either the beginning of the most amazing experience, or the beginning of an inevitable crushed heart that would leave me utterly broken. Only time would tell, but I would enjoy moments like this in the meantime. Eventually, I pulled out of Roman’s arms with a start. “I didn’t even ask how Evan was. Is he okay?” “He’s fine,” Roman reassured me. “While I was getting him some of Sammy’s pajamas to wear, he confided that he’d eaten four pieces of pizza and his stomach had been hurting ever since.” I had no idea how he’d managed to eat so many since the boys had barely been at the table for more than thirty seconds before dashing off, but I just shook my head. “I should probably take them home, just in case he’s not done.” Roman shook his head. “They’re fine. He was already asleep again before I made it back out here. They’ll be fine.” “But…” My gaze darted back toward the house. I wasn’t thinking about my nephews any longer, but of myself. “Do you have a guest room or something?” I cut off before adding for me to sleep in, because…I wasn’t even sure why, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. Even in the dark, I could see a slight blush coloring Roman’s neck and working its way upward. “Actually, no. I turned the spare room into my office a while back and there’s nowhere to sleep in there. I guess I didn’t think about that. I just thought…” He didn’t finish his sentence and I was left dying to know what was running through his head. Did he think I would have bunked with the boys, sleeping on the couch? Or maybe taking his bed while he slept in the den? I struggled to wrap my thoughts around the idea that he might have been contemplating me sleeping in his bed…with him. In a flash of pure desire, I wanted that so badly. I don’t know if he saw it in my eyes, or just had the same thoughts running through his head, but Roman swallowed hard. “You could take my bed, and I…” The backs of his fingers ran down the side of my face. His gaze followed them. For a full three seconds, his eyes closed. When he opened them, raw emotion stole my breath. “I don’t want to let go of you.” There were several seconds where I seriously began to wonder if I’d hit my head harder than I thought. What were the chances that I was still unconscious, dreaming every last bit of this? Then again, what if I was? Dream or reality, my answer was the same. “I don’t want you to let go of me.” He didn’t wait. Roman gripped my hand more firmly and helped me stand. His pressure was gentle as he led me back into the house and toward his room. I felt my heart jump when he closed the door behind me, but I swallowed back any fear and tried to listen to what Roman was saying. Something about a spare toothbrush and a shirt to sleep in. Instead of hoping I’d heard him, Roman tugged me to the en suite bathroom and pulled out a new toothbrush. Letting go of me proved difficult and his fingers trailed across mine for an eternity before finally dropping away. I had made zero progress on opening the package when he returned with a large t-shirt—one of his shirts—and handed it over with an explanation that I could use it to sleep in, if I wanted. He closed the door behind him as he stepped out, leaving me alone to fumble with the toothbrush and my racing thoughts. I was sure he probably wondered what was taking me so long by the time I finally emerged. As soon as he looked at me, my fingers were tugging at the t-shirt, which now felt too short, too thin, too everything. For several seconds, he simply stared at me. When he finally shook himself and stood, I felt myself starting to panic. That blossomed into heat as his fingers slid onto my face and his lips brushed against mine. Then he was gone, disappeared into the bathroom. Even still, it took me a few minutes before I felt like I could breathe again. The oxygen must have taken its sweet time getting back up to my head, because I was still standing there when I heard Roman turn off the sink water. I could only guess he’d finished brushing his teeth and would be stepping out any minute, and a whole new round of panic lit a fire beneath me. I scurried over to the bed and was about to slip under the sheet when I stopped to consider which side I should sleep on. It was a question I’d never faced before, and I had no idea what to do. The doorknob twisted. I was out of time. Leaping onto the bed, I yanked the covers up over my legs and sat there like a statue, staring at the bathroom door. I must have looked ridiculous when Roman stepped out. His eyes widened slightly, but he didn’t comment. Instead, he turned off the bathroom light, then the bedroom light, and moved expertly through the darkness to the opposite side of the bed. I laid back slowly, closing my eyes and pulling the sheet up to my chest. The mattress depressed a moment later and I held my breath. I felt every movement as he got into bed. I couldn’t breathe until I felt him lay down next to me and stop moving. Even then, only fitful little bursts of air made their way into my lungs. Roman didn’t say a word or move an inch. He simply laid there until I calmed down. Only then did I hear him breathe out slowly. That was how we ended the night. Two strangers lying next to each other in bed, wanting desperately to touch the other person but too scared to make the attempt. That was how I felt, anyway. Roman seemed outwardly calm as I laid there waiting for sleep to claim me, but I had my suspicions he was struggling just as much as I was. That realization made me smile, and I drifted off to Roman-themed dreams. Chapter Ten A gentle buzzing woke me from a dream I would have been happy to have spent the entire day in. Still half asleep, but thoroughly annoyed at being woken, I tried to reach for my phone. I might have gotten to it if my arm hadn’t been stuck. I tugged again, confused, thinking I’d somehow gotten tangled in the blankets more than usual. I started rolling to wriggle my arm free. The restraining force turned out not to be a blanket, but Roman’s arm. That was about the time I realized not everything I’d been reliving all night had been a dream. It was so tempting to forget about my phone and relax back into his arms. My sister’s face blinking at me from the still ringing phone drew a sigh. Gingerly, I extracted my arm from beneath Roman’s and reached for the phone. I slid my finger across the screen—noticing my battery was running on “E”—and whispered a quick hello without thinking. “Greenly? Why are you whispering?” Lydia demanded. Her voice coming through the speaker was so loud, even Roman heard it. He startled and pulled back, but found himself as equally stuck as I had been. “Greenly?” he questioned. His eyes were still half closed, and honestly, I had to assume he wasn’t fully conscious, because rather than scooting away from me, he went back to spooning me and mumbled, “Everything okay?” “Greenly Anastasia Kendrick!” Lydia shrieked. “Please tell me you did not sleep with Roman last night!” Roman may not have been fully awake a few seconds ago, but he certainly was now. Pulling back, he froze for a moment, blinked, came up onto his elbow, and stared at the phone in my hand. A look of realization crept across his face and he laid back down, one hand covering his face. “No,” I said to my sister. I had the strangest urge to start laughing. “Well, I mean, yes, in the technical sense of the word. I did stay over, with the boys, because Evan got sick and Roman didn’t have a guest room, but we didn’t, you know, have sex, or anything. Seriously, Lydia, I just met the guy.” Now Roman was laughing. His laughter was shaking my whole body and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Lydia was silent as we both chuckled at each other and the situation. Roman was the first to sober up. Leaning forward, he brushed my wild hair back from my face and said, “I’m going to go check on the boys and start breakfast. Are pancakes okay?” I nodded, trying not to sigh when he pulled away and slipped out of bed. I only had about half a second to miss him before Lydia was ranting in my ear again. “Was there not a couch you could have slept on? What kind of message is this sending the boys, Sammy especially! This is not what I had in mind when I said I wanted you to give him a chance, Greenly! I can’t believe you would do this. I never once thought…” “What, that Roman would ask me to stay over? Or be so interested in me? Or maybe you just didn’t think I’d do anything without asking your permission or advice? I am a grown adult, Lydia.” I was on the way to getting really irritated with her, but I tried very hard to reel in my frustration at her judgement. “You’re the one who pushed me toward him. Why are you being so judgmental about this? We didn’t have sex. I don’t see how this will affect the boys in any way and I resent the insinuation that I’m being a bad influence, or whatever it is you’re accusing me of being.” Lydia huffed, and I knew she was doing her “Mom” head shake, a condescending little movement that said the person she was talking to was either too stupid or too young to possibly understand. I knew which one applied to me. “Roman is very protective of Sammy, particularly when it comes to women. You staying over like that might make Sammy think this will continue. He knows Jen has all but abandoned him. Giving him hope that you…” “Are you kidding me?” I asked slowly, the words squeezing past my clenched teeth. “I just don’t think you understand…” I cut her off before she could insult me further. “For one, Roman and I already talked about all of this, the uncertainty of a relationship and Sammy included. Secondly, you know me. Why on earth would you think I’d do something like that to Sammy or Roman? That’s not the kind of person I am and I can’t believe you would say something like that to me.” It took a lot to leave Lydia speechless. When she didn’t respond, I actually had to check my phone to make sure I hadn’t accidentally hung up on her. Finding the line still active, I put the phone back to my ear and waited. “Greenly, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to attack you like that. It’s just…I…I don’t understand.” “Understand what?” I snapped. “Why the one-eighty? I’ve spent the last four years trying to set you up and get you to consider getting out of your comfort zone when it came to relationships, or lack thereof.” She huffed again, not liking that things weren’t going exactly as planned. “Why Roman? Why so suddenly?” Frustrated and needing to move to keep myself from saying something ugly, I forced myself out of bed and started pulling on my jeans. “Why Roman?” I asked her as I buttoned my jeans. “Do you really have to ask me that? You’re the one was who shoving me at him. He’s amazing, okay? Isn’t that enough of a reason?” “For you? No,” Lydia said adamantly. “I want a real answer and I’m not hanging up until I get it.” I could always hang up on her…. Instead of taking the catty way out, I sighed again. “I don’t know if I can even explain it, Lydia. As chaotic as yesterday was, he stuck by me through all of it. I’ve never met anyone willing to do that.” “I’ve stuck by you much longer,” she said. “Sisters don’t count. It’s required.” I smiled, knowing she would stick by me till the end, even when she was ready to strangle me. “You know me better than anyone. You know I struggle, often, with a lot of different things. Outside of family, I’ve never really believed there was someone out there willing to put up with me, no…beyond that, someone who would actually accept me, quirks and all. I know one day with Roman doesn’t prove he’ll last more than just that one day, but there’s something about him that gives me hope. I don’t think he’s the kind of guy that loves a person without real commitment, and I’m not either.” It took Lydia a moment to respond. “Love…Greenly…” “I’m not saying I’m in love with him,” I said with a sigh. A silent yet echoed in my thoughts, but I wasn’t about to voice that right now. “I’m just saying that I trust Roman enough to consider the possibility, and I think he trusts me as well. It’s a starting point, okay? Not a marriage proposal.” Lydia made a tsking sound usually reserved for her boys. “Well, at the rate you two are moving, I can’t say I’d be surprised by something like that at this point.” Having had enough of her judgment for one morning, I said, “I’m hanging up now, and Evan is fine, by the way. Since you forgot to ask about him. Have a safe drive home.” I ended the call and tossed the phone on the bed. Halfway to stabbing my hands through my hair in frustration, I turned to find Roman staring at me from the doorway looking contemplative. “So, you’re not in love with me yet, or you’re just not saying you’re in love with me right now.” I supposed I should have felt embarrassed again, but I found myself laughing instead. “Do you have a habit of eavesdropping on people’s conversations?” “Only when I’m half asleep and end up causing trouble, or when I need to know if you mind chocolate chips in your pancakes,” he said, grinning. “Sammy is insisting on chocolate chips over blueberries.” I was still wearing Roman’s t-shirt, but I did at least have pants on now. The mismatch went well with my mane of wild bed hair. Without a rubber band or Roman’s hat, the best I could do was tie my long hair into a knot behind my head. “This definitely feels like a chocolate chip pancakes kind of morning.” Roman chuckled, but there was concern hiding beneath it. “Did I cause trouble for you with Lydia?” “Not at all. She’s just having a fit that we’re not proceeding according to her planned schedule.” I rolled my eyes. “It’s nothing.” He looked skeptical, but didn’t voice his doubts. He only said, “Well, I should have breakfast ready in about fifteen minutes.” “Do you need any help?” I asked. Smiling, Roman said, “I won’t turn it down. The boys tend to be more mess-makers than actual help.” I knew how true that was, having tried to make cookies with them more than once and ending up with an egg dropped on the floor or dough smeared across almost every counter. Hoping to avoid a repeat, I followed Roman to the kitchen and did my best to keep little hands busy on tasks that had a smaller chance of ending up a sticky disaster. Twenty minutes later, we were all sitting down to breakfast together. The boys chewed with their mouths open and dropped half of every forkful on the table, and there were drips of syrup in more than one location, but they loved Roman’s pancakes just as much as I did. “These are really good.” “Thanks,” Roman said. He looked like he was going to elaborate, but Sammy beat him to it. “Gramma taught my dad how to cook after my mom left. Gramma’s a really good cook. We go to her house for dinner every other Sunday. You should come with us next time.” He shoved another too-big bite of pancake into his mouth as he nodded. Roman shook his head at Sammy’s boldness. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell the words had put him on edge a little. Turning back to my own meal, I concentrated on each bite. The boys finished first, of course, and before they could run off I asked Evan and Colby to gather their things and put them by the front door. My request was greeted by whining, but they did as they were asked. “We don’t have anything going on today…” Roman said slowly. The invitation to stay and hang out was clear—and tempting—but I shook my head. “I would really like to go back to Lydia’s and take a shower. I’ve lost track of how many gross things are on my body right now.” Roman grinned. “Oh yeah. Forgot about all that.” I honestly didn’t know how he could. I was dying for a shower and clean clothes by that point. Swallowing my last bite of pancake, I pushed my plate back. Roman eyed it. His expression was difficult to read, but I had a suspicion he was contemplating ways to talk me in to staying. Before he could come up with anything, a knock sounded on the front door. Roman’s brow immediately wrinkled. I took that to mean he wasn’t expecting anyone at nine o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. Shrugging it off, he stood with a quick mention to me that he’d be right back. For some reason, I felt the need to follow him, but I ignored that and instead got up to start corralling the boys. I was reaching for a blanket on the floor when Roman opened the door and I heard him say, “Jen, what are you doing here?” Sammy’s head popped up from where he was trying to fish an errant shoe out from under the couch. He stood slowly. His gaze went to me first, then toward the front door. It struck me that he didn’t seem at all excited to see his mother. Instantly protective of him, I said, “Hey, Sammy, will you help me fold up this blanket real fast?” His eyes widened and he nodded in relief. Having him help turned a simple folding job into a wadded mess that I tossed on the couch. I turned to reach for a sleeping bag and found Sammy barely an inch away from me. “How come you’re wearing my dad’s shirt?” he asked quietly. “He let me borrow it,” I said, hoping for casual. “Like you let Evan borrow your pajamas after he threw up.” Sammy scooted a little closer. “Did you throw up, too?” It wasn’t exactly the reason Roman had loaned me the shirt but… “Yes, I did.” “Did you eat too much pizza like Evan?” “No.” I chuckled at his sound logic. “I’m not very good with bad smells. They make me get sick sometimes.” Sammy nodded. His gaze darted past me, then his head dropped and he stepped back from me. I wasn’t sure why until a syrupy sweet voice broke from behind me. “And who is this?” Turning slowly, I braced myself to face Roman’s ex-wife. When I did, it was a struggle not to let my jaw drop. She was perfect. Gorgeous dark waves cascaded over one shoulder. Even after having had a baby, her stomach was perfectly flat—noticeable thanks to the skin tight blouse she was wearing—and her dancer’s legs seemed to go on forever. I was fairly average height at five-foot-five. She looked down at me, both literally and figuratively, even in the flats she was wearing. She stood nearly even with Roman, which had to have put her at around five-foot-ten. “Greenly,” I managed to squeak. Jen’s nose twitched with distaste at my name. Yeah, I knew it was unconventional, but most people liked its quirkiness. Jen’s gaze swept over the mess in the living room and the two additional little boys running around before her gaze landed back on me. “Do these,” she gestured dismissively at Evan and Colby, “belong to you then?” “Yes, I mean no. They’re my nephews, not my children. I’m Lydia’s sister.” Squinting like she was pondering whether or not that name should mean something to her, Jen clearly didn’t care enough to think on it too long and moved on. “Well, it looks like the sleepover, or whatever it was, is wrapping up.” She glanced over at Roman questioningly. It was clear she wanted the sleepover cleaned up and done as soon as possible. She certainly seemed to expect everyone else to do as she wished, too. Roman sighed, his eyes narrowing by the slightest degree. “No need to rush everyone, Jen.” His tone said patient, but his body language was anything but. “If you had bothered to call before showing up here unannounced, maybe we could have arranged a better time.” “Arrange time to see my own son?” Jen turned her nose up at her ex-husband. “Really, Roman, don’t be so ridiculous.” Only then did she seem to remember the reason she had come in the first place. “Sammy, baby, aren’t you going to come see Mommy?” I couldn’t help sneering at the term Mommy. Evan still called Lydia Mommy, but Colby hadn’t for quite some time. I wondered when Jen had last seen her son. Slow to answer, Sammy hid behind me for a few seconds before slipping out from behind my legs to face her. “Hi, Mom.” That was it. No hug. No excitement or happiness to see her. Just a compulsory greeting. My stomach twisted. I knew what it felt like to lose a parent at a young age. It was gut-wrenching and life changing. Death had a knack for throwing everything you thought you knew about yourself into the wind and letting the pieces scatter where they would, no concern for whether or not you could put them all back together in the end. Jen clearly hadn’t died, but Sammy had lost her all the same. Except now he was forced to face her ghost unexpectedly, and he seemed to have no idea how to handle the situation. Neither did I. Luckily, Jen seemed to have already lost interest in him and had turned back to Roman in order to critique his upkeep of the house she still casually referred to as theirs. I couldn’t tell if she was really just that oblivious to how her words affected people, or if she was doing it intentionally to needle Roman, and probably make some kind of point for me. Deciding I was less likely to do something I’d regret if I stayed busy, I turned my attention back to the boys and continued the cleanup effort. We had just gotten the last of the sleeping bags rolled up and set aside when Sammy appeared next to me. “Can I come play at Colby’s house for a while?” Casting a sideways glance in Jen’s direction, I sighed. “I think that might hurt your mom’s feelings.” Honestly, I didn’t know if she’d even notice. Chances were, she would, because she’d certainly want to stake her claim and prove to me that I was no comparison to her. Like I needed her to point that out. Sammy frowned, an expected sort of disappointment creeping onto his features. “I guess.” “Maybe you can come over later, after she leaves,” I said quietly. His head shook back and forth slowly. “She usually stays for a while when she shows up. To remind my dad.” “Remind him of what?” I asked. Sammy shrugged. “I dunno. Dad said that last time she came by like this.” “When was that?” Dark eyebrows bunched together as he tried to remember. “Before I went to kindergarten.” Given that Sammy and Colby were both at the tail end of first grade, that meant he hadn’t seen her in nearly two years. That was a lifetime to a seven-year-old. No wonder he acted like she was little more than a stranger to him. “Does she ever call you when she’s away?” Sammy shook his head. “Sometimes she sends presents.” When my eyes narrowed again, I found my gaze fixating on Roman instead. “And your dad just lets her show up whenever she wants?” “Yeah, but I don’t know where she’ll sleep this time. Dad turned the extra room into his office so he can be home with me after school more often.” Sammy shrugged, because things like that weren’t what little boys should be concerned with. I, on the other hand, felt sick. The exact same situation had led to me sharing Roman’s bed last night. I didn’t even want to consider the same would prove true for Jen, but it wasn’t like they hadn’t shared a bed before, right? I was a near stranger. She was his ex-wife, who despite her spot-on rendition of a frigid ice queen, he allowed to show up announced and walk around like she still partially owned the place. “If your dad’s okay with it, you can come play whenever you want,” I said to Sammy. Then I stood, because I really needed to get out of this house. I felt cowardly as I grabbed the boys and started ushering them to the front door. Panic may have set my feet moving a little faster when Roman broke off a terse conversation with Jen to rush over to me. “Hey, I’m sorry about this,” Roman said in a low voice, like he was afraid of Jen hearing him. Was he? “I’ll call you later about this weekend, okay? I just need to deal with Jen first. She usually has a reason for showing up like this.” Could that reason possibly be that she wanted to mark her territory. I nodded, because I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I wasn’t sure I could have gotten any words out anyway. My throat felt like it was closing up. Pushing the boys out the door, I don’t think I really breathed until we were back across the street. That was about when I realized I’d left my shirt at his house. Chapter Eleven By the time James and Lydia pulled into the driveway later that evening, I had my bags packed and waiting by the door. My sister looked a little startled when I grabbed the bags immediately after giving them both a hug and said, “It’s been an adventure, but I’m ready to go home.” I threw my bag over my shoulder and grabbed my keys off the side table. “Oh, and the boys still need dinner. The oven seemed like too big of a risk after the way this weekend has gone.” Lydia blinked at me several times, then shook off her shock and confusion when I turned away. “Greenly, wait! What’s going on? Did something happen?” “I’m just tired and I want to go home,” I called back at her without turning around as I hopped off the stoop and made for my car. I half expected her to run after me, but one of the boys calling for her stalled her long enough that I made it to my destination without any further harassment. It was a relief to pull out of her driveway, and an even bigger one when I left their neighborhood. The anxiety didn’t completely leave me, because I kept imagining Roman and Jen lying in bed together, but distance helped. Pulling up next to an apartment I knew would be empty made me briefly consider getting a roommate. I tossed such craziness away a moment later. Me live with someone outside of a college dorm? That would go well, I was sure. The closest I had ever come to something like that was…last night, with Roman. No exactly a success story. Sighing, I dragged myself out of the car and up to my apartment door. Something sitting on the welcome mat caught my eye and I scowled. Cursing the neighbors for setting loosely tied bags of garbage outside the door for days until someone got around to hauling them to the dumpsters was enough to irritate anyone. Not picking up the trash that blew out of the bags and got stuck in front of my porch, that was the sort of thing that made a person want to get into a screaming match. Whatever bag the trash had fallen out of was no longer on the porch, so I snatched it up and carried it inside, tossing it at my own garbage can and missing. I shuffled toward it, intent on picking it up, when my phone rang. Expecting Lydia, I was surprised when an unknown number popped up on the screen. Usually I ignored calls like that, but the apartment seemed too quiet. “Hello?” Greeted by a hesitant silence, I almost hung up. Then a little voice said, “Miss Greenly?” “Sammy?” I asked in confusion. “How did you get my phone number?” I realized after I said that how harsh it sounded. I was only surprised, not upset, but uncertainty had added a bite to my words. “Um, I borrowed my dad’s phone. Miss Lydia gave him your phone number before they went on their trip.” Silence again. “Is that okay? Are you mad?” “No,” I said gently as I lowered myself onto my thrift store couch. “I’m not mad. Of course not. You can call me if you want. Is everything all right?” He made a little noise I thought was meant to be reassuring, but in reality sounded the tiniest bit scared. All the tension I’d been carrying around over Roman evaporated. Not because it had been resolved, but because Sammy was more important in that moment. “Hey, what’s wrong, buddy?” His breathing stuttered as he drew in a long breath. “My mom was really mad when she saw the office room. She yelled at my dad for, um, forcing her out. She’s still yelling at him, and now he’s yelling at her. She got mad last time she was here, too. That time it was because Dad had changed all the locks and her keys didn’t work anymore.” Letting my head fall back against the couch, I felt terrible for this little boy. No wonder he had shied away from her that afternoon. All she brought was fighting and fear for him. Maybe things had been different once, but these were the memories that stuck in his young mind. Anger welled in the center of my chest, and I was surprised to find it directed toward Roman instead of Jen. Jen was clearly a narcissist who used people and ran them over in order to get what she wanted. I didn’t expect anything better from her. Roman, though, I was shocked he would not only allow Jen to stay in his home when she scared Sammy like this, but that he would let her push him into fighting in front of their son. He was so focused on protecting Sammy in every other situation. In the face of Sammy’s silence, I could hear raised voices in the background, muted like he had shut himself away but couldn’t fully escape it. “Where are you right now?” I asked him. “In my bedroom. Under my bed.” And he could still hear them fighting? I shook my head. “Do you have any books in your room?” “Yeah,” he said quickly. “I have lots of books.” “Why don’t you get your favorite one, and then I want you to read it to me, okay?” He hesitated. “You’ll listen to me read to you on the phone?” “Yeah, of course.” “Oh, okay.” He sounded so surprised, I wondered if he had asked the same of Jen at one time and been denied. There was a lot of muffled shuffling and shoving of things as he searched his room for the book he wanted. Eventually, he succeeded, and the grunting I heard after that suggested he was crawling back under his bed to read. “Do you know about Clone Wars?” It took me a second to understand his question. “From Star Wars, right? You and Colby like the cartoon about that, don’t you?” “It’s our favorite.” More shuffling said he was settling in, then he paused. “Are you too old to listen to a Clone Wars chapter book? I can’t read bigger books by myself yet.” “I’ve watched the show with Colby and Evan,” I said with a laugh. “I’ll be fine. I don’t think there’s an age limit.” While I didn’t think he believed me on the age limit, he didn’t let it stop him from reading. I’m not sure how long I sat there listening to him read. I might have been nodding off a little toward the end. Not because I wasn’t interested. It had just been a really long weekend. “Miss Greenly,” Sammy said suddenly, jolting me fully awake. “I have to go. My dad is calling for me.” “Oh, okay. Is everything okay now?” I asked. He mumbled something that sounded similar to Colby’s standard “I dunno” grumble. “I think my mom wants to go eat dinner. She stopped yelling anyway.” I mentally crossed my fingers that she wouldn’t start it up again, and that Roman had told her she needed to get a hotel, more for Sammy’s sake than even my own selfish need for reassurance. “I hope you have a good dinner.” It sounded like he was crawling out from under his bed and I heard Roman’s muted voice calling for him. Sammy yelled that he was coming, then said, “Can I call you again next time?” I hated that he expected there would be a next time. “Sure, buddy. Call whenever you want. If I’m in class or at work I might not be able to answer, but you can text me, too, okay?” A relieved rush of air burst into the speaker. “Thanks, Miss Greenly. I’m glad you’re my friend.” “I’m glad you’re my friend, too,” I said as tears welled in my eyes. He left me with a hasty goodbye and ended the call. When I dropped my phone onto the coffee table, my apartment felt even emptier. *** By the time Thursday evening rolled around, I wasn’t surprised when my phone began buzzing around seven o’clock. Even though Jen was still in town for whatever reason, Lydia continued to watch Sammy after school. Apparently Jen couldn’t be bothered, despite her claims of wanting to spend time with her only child. Roman usually picked him up from Lydia around six, and the fighting inevitably started about an hour later when Jen showed up at the house—she was indeed staying at a hotel—and something or other set her off. I was at work when Sammy called, but it was a pretty dead night and if I needed to help a patron, Sammy was very good about waiting patiently on hold while I took care of looking up books or helping someone make copies when the paper got jammed and the previous user left it for the next person to deal with. “Hey, buddy, what’s going on?” Skipping his usual greeting where he called me Miss Greenly, Sammy said, “What’s custody mean?” I didn’t have to ask if that was what his parents were fighting about that night. I couldn’t imagine the word coming up in casual conversation between those two. If they were fighting about custody, it meant someone wanted the agreement to change. Earlier in the week, I’d asked Lydia for the details on their current arrangement and she’d told me that while Roman had full custody, Jen retained open rights to visitation and could basically show up whenever she wanted and demand time with Sammy. She thought Roman had been the one to offer the concession, hoping she’d one day want to be a part of his life. Now, I was left to wonder what and who had spurred a fight over changing it. “Custody is who’s responsible for a child,” I said. There was a lot more to it than that, of course, but I figured that should work for a seven-year-old. “So, my dad is my custody?” Sammy asked. I chuckled. “Well, he has custody of you, but yes, your dad is responsible for taking care of you.” For a long time, Sammy didn’t say anything. I listened to his breathing as it went from steady to choppy. “Why would my mom want custody of me?” He was trying hard to hide the fact that his voice was trembling, but I could hear the fear in every word. “She doesn’t want to take care of me. She doesn’t even love me.” If someone walked by, I’m sure they’d wonder what was wrong with me. Libraries were rarely something to cry about, especially if you worked in one on a regular basis. Blinking as quickly as I could, I kept tears from falling and tried to focus on answering Sammy. “I’m sure she does love you in her own way, but I don’t know why she would want custody of you right now when she’s traveling so much and can’t be with you all the time.” In truth, I was pretty positive this was a move to hurt Roman, to remind him that she still had a hold over him and could force his hand if she really wanted to. It had little to do with Sammy, but I couldn’t bring myself to ever say something like that to him. Whatever shred of a relationship he still had with his mother, I didn’t want to be the one to snap it in half. “She doesn’t forget about me because she’s busy,” Sammy said sharply. “She just doesn’t care. Her plays and movies are more important.” What could I say to that? He was right, but confirming it seemed unkind. Sammy should never feel unwanted by anyone. He was a great kid. When he read to me, he liked to do the voices, and I’d gotten more than one sideways look from patrons as they walked by and spotted me giggling to myself as I listened to Sammy read through my Bluetooth earpiece. He was clever and kind and very intuitive. I would never understand why Jen didn’t want to be a part of his life, but I didn’t know how I could be either. Roman hadn’t called once during the week, and I supposed I understood why, but it still hurt. I had expected, at the very least, an apologetic call cancelling our date for the weekend or for letting Jen practically push us out the door last Sunday, but nothing. Not a word. Or even a text. I had more of a relationship with his son than I did with him, and I didn’t know how to handle that. “Greenly,” Sammy said, catching me off guard by dropping the customary Miss, “I wish you were my mom. I would like it if you had custody of me instead of my mom. I don’t want her to have custody of me. She yells all the time and is mean to my dad.” Pulling in a long, slow breath, I tried to formulate an answer to that. “Sammy, first of all, just because your parents are arguing about custody doesn’t mean anything is going to change. Most likely, your mom is just trying to make your dad upset.” That sounded mean, but I really couldn’t think of a nicer way to put it. “Secondly, I don’t have to be your mom to take care of you, right? Isn’t that why you’ve been calling me this week? Don’t I always answer when you need me?” “Yeah,” Sammy said slowly, his voice sounding marginally less despairing. “It would be even better if you could come over and watch a movie with me again. We could sit by each other and you could let me sit with your arm around me again. Like a hug.” I could imagine Sammy hadn’t received a lot of attention this week, few hugs or reassurances that everything would be okay. I knew he really needed one right now. It broke my heart and pushed me to do something that would probably stir up even more trouble, but I didn’t care anymore. “You know what? I think we both need a night out.” Jen was going to eat me alive for this. I kept talking anyway. “I don’t have to work tomorrow night, so how about I pick you up. We’ll eat dinner at your favorite place, and then we’ll go see a movie. Does that sound like fun?” Sammy hesitated for a minute, then said, “Yeah!” “Okay, tell your dad I’m picking you up at six-thirty. If he has questions, he can call me.” That last part might have come out a little sharp, but Sammy didn’t seem to notice. Roman could take a break from fighting with Jen long enough to call me if he had a problem with our plans. The way things had been going, I could probably drive up, collect Sammy, and neither of them would realize I had been and gone. Either that, or a monumental fight would break out. Yep, this had disaster written all over it. Too late now. Chapter Twelve My eyes kept flicking over to the folded piece of paper. It had been left on my desk that morning before I got to work. Normally I worked the evening shift, but the day librarian had a doctor’s appointment and asked me to switch with her. At first, I thought it was something someone had forgotten. Dropped notes from a student who’d been there studying maybe. I probably would have just set it aside and never unfolded it if not for what had happened that morning. I barely even remembered picking up the piece of loose trash Sunday evening after the debacle with Roman and Jen. It had taken me until that morning to fill the garbage in the kitchen enough that it needed hauled out to the dumpster. When I was tying the bag, I noticed a crumpled piece of paper on the floor and remembered tossing and missing the bin with the piece of trash from Sunday. Something about it caught my eye and I opened the paper. I wished I hadn’t. The note had been written with a permanent marker. Hastily. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, but the tone had seemed familiar, and not in a good way. If I had known the type of woman you were…no longer a game. Part of the writing had become illegible thanks to a tear in the paper and shoe marks. My best guess was that it had been stuck in my door over the weekend, fallen out, and gotten trampled a few times. My first thought had been that someone mixed up my apartment with someone else’s. The note made no sense. Either it was some kind of kinky foreplay, or it was a threat. Running late by then, I’d stuck the letter in a large zippy bag and shoved it in my backpack. I planned to take it by campus security on my way home. That was still my plan, but now I had a second note to add. Possibly. Reaching across my desk with the tip of a pencil, I lifted the top half of the paper and glanced at the writing. More permanent marker, more hasty scrawling. You think what you do is a game. You’ll regret playing with me. That one was clearly threatening, right? It would be illogical to think this note was also meant for someone else. Why, though? And from who? It could be Jason, the guy who I’d smacked in the face with my purse after he tried to lock me in his car, or it could be any number of the weirdos Lydia had set me up with. One had latched onto me like a slug and tried to get me to give him a ride home, an hour away. Another had asked what type of diamond cut I preferred, along with a request to know my ring size. Several months ago she’d set me up with a man who’d nearly started a fight with the waiter because he thought the guy was looking at me with too much interest. Trust me, the list could go on for a while. “Excuse me,” a voice said in a polite library tone, “where would I find information on Leibniz?” Her question was paired with a wary scowl, mainly because I’d nearly fallen out of my chair at the sound of her voice. “I’m sorry, what were you looking for?” The woman took a step back. “Leibniz. What section would I find that?” Reining my heart rate and breathing back in, I quickly looked up the information she needed and sent her on her way. She was happy to go. Falling back against my chair, I glanced at the clock. Thirty more minutes. Then I could run home, change, and go pick up Sammy. I’d planned to catch up on homework while I worked. Focusing turned out to be a challenge, what with the notes and all. Instead, I kept making lists of all the possible suspects, and alternate theories. My favorite was that the notes had come from Jen, and careful analysis would reveal her cagey plot to run me out of Roman’s life. It made no sense, of course, but it was a nice distraction to think about her being shoved into a patrol car. Ten minutes to five, Sabrina strolled up to the desk and plopped her purse down on top of the folded letter. “Did I miss anything exciting?” She laughed at her own question. The other “real” librarians always gave us looks that said they knew we weren’t serious about the Dewey Decimal System and guarding the reference section books that weren’t allowed to leave the library. They were right. As much as I loved books and reading, I was studying genetic variations in trees. This was a job, one I enjoyed, but not my passion. Sabrina and I saw it as a nice quiet place where we could study between helping patrons. Alice, the resident alpha librarian, thought studying while manning the desk was sacrilege. Whatever. I almost gave my usual report of a whole lot of nothing, but the edge of the paper sticking out from under Sabrina’s bag caught my eye. “Well,” I said as I reached for the paper and tugged it free, “there was this.” Scanning the note after snatching it out of my hand, Sabrina frowned. “Somebody pissed off about a late fee? Seems a tad overdramatic.” She rolled her eyes and handed the note back to me. Part of me thought maybe she was right. Probably wishful thinking. Reaching for my backpack, I pulled out the first note. Sabrina’s interest rekindled at the baggy-protected Exhibit B. “I found this one at my house on Sunday, but I didn’t look at it until this morning. I thought it was trash from the neighbors.” Sabrina’s eyes flicked back and forth as she read the short, interrupted message. “This was at your house?” When I nodded, she pulled her gaze from the paper and stared at me. “This could be serious, Greenly.” “I’m taking them both to campus security before I run home to shower and change.” She seemed to approve of my plan, but was distracted almost immediately. “How exactly did you get roped into babysitting the kid of the guy who never called you?” Shaking my head, I stuffed both letters into my backpack and stood to leave. “I didn’t get roped into anything. Sammy is feeling neglected so I offered to take him out for a while to get away from the arguing.” “And Mr. I Don’t Know How To Use A Phone was fine with that?” I shrugged. “He never called to say he wasn’t.” Yeah, she heard the hint of bitterness in my words. “Why are you still getting involved with his kid then? Are you just trying to complicate things?” “No,” I snapped. I wasn’t the one who kept calling. Sammy needed someone to talk to, and for some reason, I was the person he trusted. “It’s just…I don’t know. Complicated, I guess. Sammy’s a sweet kid. I can’t just tell him to stop calling me because of Roman.” Knowing my soft spot for my nephews, Sabrina relented. “Well, let me know how it goes. I’m dying to hear Roman’s response to why he’s been ignoring you in favor of Cruella De Vil.” She plopped down in the chair. “Seriously, I’ll die of boredom otherwise. This place is a ghost town on Friday nights.” “Yeah, but it’s great for catching up on that thesis you’ve been neglecting,” I said with a laugh. “I’ll call you later. Sammy has a nine o’clock bedtime.” Sabrina laughed and shooed me away. I left her there to die of boredom and marched myself across campus to the security HQ. When I asked for the guy who’d taken my original complaint, they told me he had already gone home. I got stuck with a balding man who seemed less than interested in what I had to say. Even so, he mechanically filled out a report and took the notes to make copies. He’d wanted the originals—probably so he didn’t have to get up and walk to the copier—but I thought I might need to show them to the actual police if things got weird, and insisted I keep the originals. Maybe the police would need to run tests or something. Could you get fingerprints off paper? The whole thing took way longer than it needed to since Officer Balding Guy moved at the pace of a snail. By the time I finally left their office, I was sprinting across campus for my car. I had hoped to take a shower before picking Sammy up, but a quick change of clothes would have to do. Hopefully my mad dash across campus hadn’t left me too gross. Not that Sammy would notice. I did still have to face Roman, however. I sighed as I reached my car, really wishing I had time to shower. Getting home was another race. Traffic was lousy, big surprise, and I was once again sprinting. Ditching my backpack next to the door, I turned toward my room. First step I took, my foot caught on the strap of my backpack and I starting falling. It really did feel like slow motion, slow enough for “oh no!” to turn into resignation. I think I got my hands out in front of me, but not in the right direction. My head cracked into the arm of my couch, and then I was sprawled out on the floor. Throbbing on the side of my head told me I was going to have a monster headache later, but wasn’t too injured to pull myself back up. After a few seconds. My steps toward my bedroom were slower once I was upright again, but I still needed to hurry. The bare minimum of what I needed to do was running through my mind, along with how long each would take me. Then I looked in the mirror and it all came to a bloody halt. Yelping in revulsion, I squeezed my eyes shut. My reflection had no response, other than for a droplet of blood I could feel slithering down my temple. I counted to three, slowly in an effort to forget about the blood and my churning stomach, then began tearing off my clothes as I fumbled with the knobs for the shower water. I was under the water in less than a minute to get rid of the blood before I had to look at it again. Frenzied hair washing was painful when you had a giant lump on your head. By the time I was toweling off, the right side of my head felt like it was going to explode. Knowing I was going to be late, I grabbed my phone off the counter. I’ll be a little late picking Sammy up. Sorry, crazy afternoon. Then I was rushing through getting dressed, throwing my hair up in a sloppy bun, and downing a couple of aspirin. I almost forgot my phone in the bathroom. Careful of any other objects looking to take me out, I hurried back to the bathroom, grabbed my phone, and started back toward the front door. The blinking light pulsing at me seemed to match the pain throbbing in my head. Ignoring the pain, I checked my phone to find a reply from Roman. OK That was it. I sighed, more confused than ever. Figuring out what was going on inside Roman Carpenter’s head would have to wait. Or so I told myself. The whole drive over, it was all I could think about. Why hadn’t he called or sent a text? Was I that easy to forget? Maybe with Jen crowding his attention. I mean, she was gorgeous and had probably never once ended up with gum or peanut butter in her hair. Plus, she was stirring up trouble every five seconds. I really did understand how preoccupied he must have been, but it only took a minute to send a text. I thought we’d connected enough to warrant at least that. Pulling up to Roman’s house, I put my car in park and just sat there. It was six-forty-five and I knew Sammy was probably anxious to get away. Getting out of the car was more difficult than I expected it to be. All the questions that had been swimming around in my mind as I drove were suddenly banging on the windows, demanding to be answered and dealt with. I wanted to agree, demand a few answers myself, but there was no way that could happen tonight. Sammy had heard enough fighting this week. I refused to add to it. Breathing out slowly, I reached for the doorknob and pushed the door open. The last time I attempted walking up to this house, it hadn’t gone well. It had led somewhere unexpected, and ended in confusion. Knowing me, this wasn’t going to end any better. There were no further incidents before reaching the front door. Progress. Well, except for the sound of raised voices. I wasn’t sure anyone would hear me over the argument going on, so I rang the doorbell instead of knocking. Instantly the voices stopped. The curtains nearest the front door twitched and Sammy’s face appeared. He waved, smiling but anxious. When the door swung open, I wasn’t prepared for it and jumped. Roman stared at me, looking confused for some reason. His lips parted like he was about to say something, then his expression morphed into one of concern. Half a second later, his hands were cradling my face. “Greenly, what happened?” The feel of his skin against mine temporarily muddled my brain. “Uh…” “Did you hit your head? You weren’t in an accident or something, were you?” Think, Greenly. “What? No.” I shook my head, which was easier said than done with him holding onto me. “I just fell. I’m fine. That’s why I was late.” Roman’s brows pinched together. “Late?” His grip softened, one hand falling from my cheek to the back of my neck. If I hadn’t already been confused before, I certainly was now. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I mean, it’s great to see you, but I...I know we talked about going out this weekend, but things got complicated and—” I stepped back, forcing his hands to fall away as a sinking feeling developed in the pit of my stomach. “Sammy didn’t tell you about tonight, did he?” Sammy, who was peeking out from behind his dad now, looked down sheepishly. “What are you talking about?” Roman asked. Tamping down some frustration at my little buddy, I met Roman’s gaze. “I’m not here to see you, Roman. I’m here for Sammy.” Roman didn’t get a chance to respond. “What?” Jen demanded as she threw the door open. “Sammy is not going anywhere with you.” It took a lot of willpower not to respond to that. Ignoring Jen completely, I locked gazes with Roman. “Sammy and I have plans tonight. I thought he’d told you. When I texted earlier to say I’d be late picking him up, I thought it was you who responded to say that was all right.” Roman shook his head. “Sammy’s had my phone since I got home. He said he wanted to play a game on it. Greenly, I’m sorry.” “Sorry?” Jen snapped. “Why is she even here? Some woman you barely know shows up saying she wants to take Sammy out and you’re the one apologizing?” Her eyes narrowed at her ex-husband and I half expected Roman to burst into flames under that glare. “We were in the middle of a discussion. One she has nothing to do with.” She turned to look down at her son. “Sammy, go back inside.” Aside from the one time I’d seen him shy away from her on Sunday, I had no idea what their usual interactions were like. The way Jen’s face turned an ugly shade of red when Sammy stepped over to me and took my hand said she wasn’t used to being disobeyed. Jen leveled a menacing finger at the boy. “Did you hear what I said?” She was scary as hell, but Sammy’s hand only tightened around mine. “Go back inside, young man, or you will be punished.” “Jen!” Roman snapped. “This is not your decision to make.” Roman was seething, furious to the point that his fingers were curled into fists. “Not my decision to make?” Jen shrieked. “He’s my son!” Roman closed his eyes and I got the impression he was choosing his words very carefully, for Sammy’s benefit most likely. “That may be true,” he said slowly, “but I have full custody. What he does and who he does it with is my decision. Not yours.” “You barely know her!” It was gratifying to see her face turning blotchy as her anger rose. I figured she’d be one of those woman who could be a sobbing, hysterical mess and still look like a Barbie. Roman had a response, but Sammy’s voice shut them both up. “I know her!” he shouted. “She’s the only one who’s been nice to me all week!” Just as startled as his parents, I didn’t know what to say. Roman was the first to respond. “Sammy, what are you talking about? You haven’t seen Greenly since Sunday.” Visibly upset now, Sammy couldn’t answer. I felt like my heart might give out any second. Swallowing hard, I said, “He’s been calling me. Every night.” While Jen simply looked confused and disgusted, Roman’s eyes widened. “He has? When?” The fact that he hadn’t noticed even once that week when his son would disappear for hours at a time shoved away everything else as my anger rose. “When?” I snapped. “How about as soon as you two started fighting and forgot he existed?” Jen scoffed, but I couldn’t care less about her feigned affront. Roman had the decency to look ashamed. “Sure, we’ve had a few arguments, but—” Rolling my eyes, I faced Roman down. “Just because you’ve apparently forgotten how to use a phone, doesn’t mean Sammy has. A few arguments? How about every night, usually starting around seven, lasting for an hour at the least, closer to two most nights.” My gazed flicked over to Jen, who was refusing to look at me, nose turned up like one of a dozen girls I knew in high school. I turned back to Roman. “If you’re wondering how I know all of that, just check your phone log. While you two have been screaming at each other for the last week, I’ve been listening to chapter books of The Clone Wars, hearing about Sammy’s day, and explaining what custody means.” That made them both flinch. “Now, I know you can stop me from taking Sammy if you really want to,” I said to Roman, not Jen, “but given that it sounded like I was interrupting another fight and I really don’t think Sammy needs to be exposed to that again, I’m asking you to disentangle yourself from the manipulative pull of your witch of an ex-wife and think about your son for five minutes. Forget I exist all you want. It seems to have been easy enough. Don’t forget about Sammy and his needs.” I didn’t wait for a response, because even though I was pissed at Roman right now for putting Sammy through all of this, I knew deep down he was a decent guy when he wasn’t buried up to his eyeballs in Jen’s madness. Sammy and I were halfway down the sidewalk before I heard Jen huff angrily and stomp back into the house. A huge breath of relief seeped out of me, until I heard footsteps pound after us. When his hand gripped my shoulder, I shook him off. I was afraid to look at him. He’d see how false my bravery really was, how I was so surprised at myself for saying what I did and calling Jen a witch even though I’d wanted to call her something much worse. He didn’t try to stop me again, and instead waited until I had Sammy buckled into the backseat. As soon as I turned around, he was there. “Greenly, I’m so sorry. About everything.” I shook my head and started walking away. “Don’t.” “Greenly, please.” Spinning on my heel, I forced myself to face him. “Roman, don’t. Not right now. I am so frustrated and disappointed right now, I don’t even know what to say. I am here for Sammy, not you. Maybe if you ever figure out how a phone works, we can talk, but not right now.” I started walking again. Roman didn’t follow, but he did ask, “Where are you going?” Opening the door, I stood there for a moment. “The original plan was to take him out to dinner and then see a movie. Given the size of the knot on my head and the fact that he’s probably not in a very festive mood, I think we’ll pick up burgers and watch something on Netflix at my apartment.” I was still feeling a little shaky, but I met Roman’s gaze. “Are you okay with that?” “Yeah,” Roman said quietly. “I’ll know you’ll take care of him.” A huge weight evaporated from my shoulders. “What time should I bring him home?” “Just whenever you finish the movie. You don’t need to rush.” He looked back toward the house, his shoulders sagging. “Could you let me know when you’re on your way?” He didn’t say he’d make sure Jen was gone by the time I dropped Sammy off, but I suspected that was the reason behind his request just as much as wanting to make sure Sammy was okay. “I’ll text you,” I said. Roman’s gaze flicked back to mine at the word text, but he only nodded. “Thank you, Greenly.” I didn’t respond past a quick nod. I was pulling away from the curb a minute later. From the backseat, I heard a heavy breath flow out of Sammy’s body. Looking back at him from the rearview mirror, I saw the redness in his face, the fear that Roman wouldn’t let him come with me, as it slowly drained away. His eyes were red from holding back tears. When I reached back for his hand, he took it without hesitation. “I love you, Greenly,” he said quietly. “I love you, too, buddy.” Chapter Thirteen Sammy was happily munching on his burger and fries while I started up Netflix and searched for something dinosaur related. He was nearly finished with his food by the time I sat down and started in on mine. I wanted to keep his mind off everything that had been going on at home, but there was one question I needed to ask. “Sammy, why didn’t you tell your dad I was coming to pick you up tonight?” “I tried,” Sammy said, “but he wouldn’t listen to me. As soon as I said your name, my mom got really mad. Then nobody was listening to me anymore.” A dozen questions sprang to my mind at that, but Sammy needed a night off from his parents. I wasn’t about to drag him back into the middle of their mess. Besides, it wasn’t any mystery why Jen would freak out at the mention of my name. I mean, honestly, it was a little confusing because it was hard to picture her actually seeing me as a threat, but I had been wearing her ex-husband’s shirt early in the morning when she showed up. I was sure no matter how many times Roman might have said we hadn’t slept together, she wouldn’t believe it. Not that he owed her an explanation, or should have to defend himself if we had slept together, but whatever. It seemed pretty clear to me that while Jen was completely closed off when it came to Sammy, she still had a strong attachment to Roman. That put some serious breaks on thoughts of getting into a serious relationship with him—not that I even had the first clue about whether that was actually a possibility any more—but then there was Sammy. It would be weird to keep talking to Sammy and picking him up for something like this if Roman and I weren’t involved, right? Disappearing from this little boy’s life didn’t seem like an option. Feeling stuck, I shoved another fry into my mouth and watched Sammy’s favorite band of dinosaurs make their way through another adventure. As soon as I finished my food, Sammy curled up next to me. That was where he stayed for the rest of the movie. Even though it wasn’t that late by the time the movie ended, I wasn’t surprised to find Sammy had fallen asleep. He’d had a very long week. My head was feeling much better by that point, but when I reached down to pick him up a sharp pain made me wince. Stupid backpack strap. Sammy looked small, but was quite a bit heavier than I expected him to be. Getting him into my arms was a challenge. Adding my purse and keys to the mix, even harder. By the time I got to my front door, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to open it. It took some careful finagling on both sides of the door before I made it out and managed to lock the door behind me. I was on the way down the walkway when one of my neighbors appeared. “Hey, Greenly,” Sara said. She lived in the unit above me and we’d clicked right away after I moved in. She looked at the boy in my arms and tilted her head to one side. “Did I miss something? I didn’t think you’d adopted any kids recently.” “Babysitting for a friend.” It wasn’t exactly true, but close enough. Sammy was heavy and I didn’t want to stand there all night explaining. My arms were already starting to burn. I shifted Sammy awkwardly, and Sara’s eyebrows rose. “Do you need help?” I almost said no, but I was exhausted. “Maybe. Would you mind just opening the car door for me?” I still had the fob in my hand, so I could unlock it, but I was terrified of dropping Sammy in an attempt to open the door on my own. “Sure,” Sara said happily. “My plans totally fell through for tonight, so I’m just heading up to drink a few glasses of wine and binge watch Grey’s Anatomy.” She laughed. “Joseph’s out of town for the weekend.” Reaching the door, she pulled it open for me and helped me get Sammy situated in the booster seat I kept on hand for Colby. He never stirred through the entire process and I closed the door with a sigh. “You know,” Sara said, “the babysitter doesn’t usually have to deliver the kid. Drop off and pick up is typically the parents’ responsibility.” She arched one eyebrow, as if she suspected I hadn’t been completely forthcoming earlier. “It’s complicated,” I said. She snorted a little laugh. “Yeah. Figured.” Her expression changed then, to something I couldn’t quite identify, but put me on edge. “Hey, you haven’t seen anyone hanging around the building lately, have you?” The note on my porch immediately sprang to mind, but I hesitated to mention it. “No,” I said. “Why do you ask?” “Oh, just curious. A couple people have mentioned seeing a guy wandering round, and someone was parked in Joseph’s space the other night, but drove off as soon as they saw him pull into the parking lot.” Joseph, Sara’s boyfriend, was a big guy, and very fit. He was very nice, but could definitely pull off intimidating when it was necessary. “Did anyone see what this creeper guy looked like?” Frowning, Sara shook her head. “Not really. Average height, medium build, had a hat or pullover on, I guess. I haven’t seen him, personally. Creeps me out, though. I had a stalker once in high school. Completely freaked me out at the time.” “Yeah, I bet.” I bit my lip. The notes could be nothing, but I couldn’t risk not mentioning them. “Someone left a note on my porch last weekend, and at the library today. I have no idea who, but they were kind of threatening. Maybe…it could be connected.” Although Sara had looked unnerved before, her eyebrows were now nearly level with her hairline. “What did the notes say?” Sammy stirred in the car, one eye opening as he peered up at me for reassurance, and then fell back asleep. Turning back to Sara, I said, “If you have any wine you can spare, how about I drop Sammy off and then come by to tell you about the nutty week I’ve had.” Sara snorted. “I always have extra wine.” She gave me a quick hug before stepping back onto the sidewalk. “Come on up whenever you’re ready. I’ll have an extra wine glass waiting.” I waved goodbye to her and climbed into the driver’s seat, though I didn’t drive away until I saw her make it safely inside her apartment. I’d lived in this building for the past four years and never once felt unsafe. Had I brought this fear to our building somehow? Who was leaving the notes and skulking around the property? I had no idea if they were even related. Had Sara’s stalker made a comeback? Was it Jason attempting to punish me? It could just be some random person intent on burglarizing the apartments, which didn’t make me feel any better, and didn’t explain the notes. Exhausted, on edge, and confused, I texted Roman and pulled out of my space to make my way back across town. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see his front door pop open as soon as I pulled up to the curb, but it caught me off guard anyway. I’d kind of hoped for a few more minutes to compose myself before having to face him again. No such luck. Big surprise. He could have at least done me the favor of going to Sammy’s door first, but no, he was opening my door for me before I could do it on my own, waiting for me to get out and face him after having berated him earlier that night and basically called his parenting abilities into question. Me, who had zero children of her own and knew nothing about relationships, marriages, or handling ex-spouses. What I did know was how it felt to be alone and feel unwanted. That rekindled some of the fire I’d felt earlier. Face to face with him, my mouth opened, but I had no idea what to say. Luckily, he did. “Greenly, please let me apologize for earlier, for this whole week, actually.” A long weary sigh slipped out of me. “Roman, not tonight, okay? I’m exhausted, my head hurts, and Sara has wine and Grey’s Anatomy waiting for me. Plus, I’m not sure how much I like you right now and I don’t want to say something stupid.” My words ran back through my head and I closed my eyes. “Like that.” I shook my head and turned away from him. I could hear him following me, and even if I hadn’t, his presence that close was impossible not to feel. He waited patiently while I opened Sammy’s door and unbuckled the little guy’s seatbelt. He woke up halfway through the process and looked up at me with bleary eyes, a wary expression on his face. “Is my mom still here?” Roman had promised she wouldn’t be, but I looked to him for an answer, just in case. He shook his head. Brushing hair back from Sammy’s eyes, I said, “No, she’s gone for tonight.” His shoulders relaxed visibly. “You look pretty tired. How about we get you inside and into bed, okay?” Sammy nodded. He moved slowly, but got out of the car under his own power. I didn’t mind carrying him, but he was heavy and I was afraid I’d drop him on the way. He pushed his door closed once both feet were on the ground and took my hand. Roman, he ignored. I couldn’t really blame him, but the hurt in Roman’s expression dug at me a little. Befriending Sammy was in no way a ploy to pull him away from his father. He just needed someone to talk to and I couldn’t let him down. I knew he would forgive Roman as soon as Jen took off again and things went back to normal, but a small part of me thought Roman deserved the cold shoulder. I hadn’t really had a big plan for handing Sammy over to his dad when I got there. I don’t know if Sammy did, but he pushed into his house and tugged me along behind him even though I really wanted to escape any further questions or comments from Roman. Resisting Sammy wasn’t easy. Roman remained close by, but silent as Sammy gave a half-hearted attempt at brushing his teeth and dropped into bed without changing his clothes. “Greenly,” he said, his hand extended toward me. I got the impression he knew he was milking the situation a little, but knowing he could get away with it tonight, he didn’t seem bothered by that. The corner of Roman’s mouth turned up a bit as I gave in and walked over to sit on the edge of his bed. “I had fun hanging out with you tonight.” “I had fun, too.” “Can we do it again?” A small, sneaky smile formed on his lips. This boy was going to be a charmer when he grew up. Smiling down at him, I said, “I’ll talk to your dad about it, okay?” Sammy’s gaze darted over to Roman’s. A small flash of fear flitted through his expression, more, I thought, out of fear that he wouldn’t see me again than any concern of being punished. In a much smaller and less certain voice than before, Sammy’s gaze stayed fixed on his dad’s as he asked, “Can you stay tonight? Like last time?” He tore his gaze from Roman’s and met mine. “I bet my dad would let you borrow his shirt again.” Behind me, Roman made a noise I couldn’t interpret. It might have been irritation, or it might have been an echo of his son’s request. Desired welled deep in my core, but I shoved it away quick and hard. “Not tonight,” I said firmly. Sammy’s face fell. “But I want you to stay.” “I know, buddy, but I have to go home. I’ll see you again, though. Soon, I promise. And you can call me if you’re feeling down, okay?” Wiping at his eyes, Sammy nodded. “I love you, Greenly.” “I love you, too. Now get some sleep, okay?” Sammy finally gave in and turned onto his side. I hadn’t heard Roman sneak up on us, but I jumped a little when he reached past me to turn on a small, dim lamp. His hand brushed across Sammy’s face and he whispered a quick goodnight and ‘I love you’ before stepping back. It took me a few seconds longer to stand up and follow him out of the room. As soon as I was clear, I started for the front door. Roman caught my hand as I passed him, a gentle touch that pleaded with me to stop. Even though I wanted to let him wrap me up and apologize and tell me everything was going to be fine, even the stuff he didn’t actually know about, I tugged my hand free out of his and picked up the pace. I heard his breath hitch behind me, then his footfalls move to follow. I made it to the front door before he said anything. “Greenly, please,” he begged. I tried so hard to keep emotion out of my voice, but it was shaking when I said, “Roman, not tonight.” “Can I call you tomorrow?” Scoffing, I turned to face him, even though I knew there were tears in my eyes. “I don’t know. Can you?” Shame rolled across his features. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Jen, she makes me crazy, and I didn’t want to drag you into that. I didn’t want you to see how much she gets under my skin, how much I let her.” “How did that work out for you?” I snapped. Roman’s shoulders fell. For several long seconds, he didn’t say anything. His mouth opened, closed, he swallowed hard, and then his gaze dropped to the floor. “I’ll tell Sammy not to call you anymore if you want. He shouldn’t have—” “Don’t you dare,” I said fiercely. The heat behind my words snapped Roman’s gaze back up to mine. “He had every right to call me. There was no one else in this house he felt he could talk to, and I’m glad he trusted me enough to reach out. I would have hated the idea of him sitting under his bed by himself, feeling alone, scared that his mom was going to take him away from you.” “She’s not,” Roman said quickly. “She doesn’t even want custody, not really. She’s just trying to scare me, make me angry. I would never let her take him.” The level of passion behind his words made his body tense, and I believed him. “I’m not the one who needs to hear that,” I said. “Not the only one, anyway.” Roman’s breath shuddered as he released it. “I know, and I will.” He shook his head. “I didn’t think he even knew what all that meant.” “He didn’t. He had to ask me, and I told him. He didn’t have to understand the words to be scared by them, Roman. He is terrified of losing you like he did her.” Even though I was still plenty frustrated with him, I reached out and touched his arm gently. “He’s upset with you right now, but he loves you so much. Please don’t let Jen ruin what you two have.” Before I could react, Roman pulled me into a hug. He was crushing me, but I didn’t protest. Not because I had stopped being angry with him, but because I knew how much he needed it. Just like his son, he was reaching out for comfort and understanding, and apparently I was the one still hanging around to give it. My body softened in his arms and I felt myself wrap my arms around his frame even as I worried it would tell him more than what I meant it to. “Jen’s here for another week,” Roman said, still holding onto me, “but after tonight, I made it clear that things would be changing.” He pulled back enough to look at me. “I held off pushing any changes in custody because I was afraid of closing that door, for Sammy’s sake, but every time she shows up it only upsets him. I know she’s going to fight me, but I need to stop letting her push us both around and start protecting Sammy from her toxicity.” Stepping back from Roman, I debated my response to that. “Sammy told me earlier that he didn’t think Jen loved him, and as much as I hate to say it, I think he’s right.” Hurt sprang across Roman’s features, more in response to what he seemed to already know being voiced than surprise at the statement. “It’s you she’s still in love with, Roman, and that’s why she’ll fight a change in custody. Losing access to Sammy means losing access to you.” Roman shook his head, clearly disbelieving. “She’s the one who left me. Us. You don’t do that to someone if you love them.” “Look,” I said, “I’m not making excuses for Jen. Trust me when I say I’d rather slap her pretty face than sit down to tea, but you said yourself she never really wanted kids or a traditional family life. I don’t know her, but if I had to guess, she married you because she fell in love and thought she could gallivant all over the world with her handsome husband and be the envy of all her actor friends. That was the life she wanted, and maybe she thought she’d love Sammy when he came, and maybe she only went through with it to please you. I don’t know. The look in her eyes the day we met and the things she’s said since then, she’s not fighting you for Sammy. She just fighting for you, Roman. Until you get that figured out with her, she’ll keep fighting and making everyone miserable.” Roman looked a little thunderstruck, but he nodded slowly. “And you don’t want to get involved.” Sighing, I rubbed my hand across my head, accidentally hitting my gash and hissing in pain. Roman moved toward me, but I waved him off. “I’m not saying I don’t want to see you again, though we need a longer talk than I’m up for tonight before we really consider it, but I am saying that I don’t want to make things worse for you or Sammy.” Roman moved slowly, as if he were afraid of scaring me off. His touch was hesitant as he reached for my hand. This time, I didn’t pull it away. “I don’t love Jen, and haven’t for a long time.” “I believe you.” My voice was quiet, something his close presence was at fault for. “That’s not the point, though.” “I know. I know.” His fingers traced along my jawline, burying themselves in my loose, frizzy hair. “But I need you to know I have no interest in Jen coming back into our lives. She’s not the one I want Sammy to have a relationship with. Not when she only causes him anxiety and hurt.” My head shook back and forth slowly. “Roman, you don’t know me that well. I’m just…” “What, the fun aunt?” He shook his head. “You’re so much more than that. You spent all week talking Sammy through some scary moments, ones that were my fault for letting happen. I know you have a job and homework, a life. You didn’t have to listen to him, or pick him up tonight.” “Yes, I did.” Roman shook his head. “Not many people would have done that for a kid they barely knew, one whose father had basically ignored them after having spent the night together.” His forehead rested against mine. “I royally screwed up what we’d begun, but you still let him call and text you all week.” “It wasn’t that big of a deal,” I argued, suddenly self-conscious. “I looked at my phone history, Greenly.” I swallowed and avoided his gaze. I’d used that information against him earlier, to attack him for forcing Sammy to listen to their arguing for so long. I hadn’t intended for him to turn it back on me. I knew I’d spent more than two hours on the phone with Sammy most nights that week, and even more time texting back and forth when I couldn’t talk. Half the texts were a puzzle to decipher with Sammy’s limited spelling skills, but we had made it work. Now all of that time spent cheering him up and reassuring him made me squirm beneath Roman’s gaze. “I won’t stop you from developing a relationship with Sammy,” Roman said softly, “even if you’re not interested in seeing me anymore. I wouldn’t take that away from him, but I’m begging you not to write me off completely.” Feeling claustrophobic, I wanted to break out of his grip, but it felt so good being in his arms I couldn’t bring myself to do it. “I…I’m not, Roman. I just, I need, to take a step back. Okay?” Roman nodded, though he didn’t back off. “While Jen’s in town, I don’t think it would be a good idea to get together.” “Yeah, I know,” I said drily, which caused Roman to flinch again. “I’m sorry for anything she said, or anything you overheard from Sammy, and for how she treated you when you met. I should have done something then, but I was so frustrated at her just showing up like that I wasn’t thinking.” He looked convincingly repentant, but I didn’t hold her words or actions against him. I knew she felt threatened by me and that Roman could hardly filter everything that came out of her mouth just for my sake. Jen was going to say and act however she wanted. I only asked that he kept her from saying hurtful things in front of Sammy. I could suck it up and deal with what she dished out, but he couldn’t. “I’m a big girl, Roman. Just keep her from upsetting Sammy. That’s all I care about.” He nodded, then hesitated before saying what was on his mind. “Would it be okay if I called you this week?” “Will you actually call?” I asked, one eyebrow cocked. A contrite smile made its way onto Roman’s mouth. “I promise. It’s been killing me not hearing from you.” I scoffed. “Yeah, I’m sure.” Suddenly, he had me pinned against the front door, mouth hovering over mine. “I’m serious, Greenly. I wanted to talk to you so badly. By the time Jen would leave, I’d be so riled up and angry, I didn’t want to put all of that on you and I’d end up crashing before I felt levelheaded enough to make the call.” It was so hard to doubt Roman. Every word that came out of his mouth was so…real. “You should have called anyway,” I said. “I’m a good listener.” “Apparently,” Roman said. He smiled and tilted my head. “You may not believe me, but so am I. When you’re ready to talk about what else is bothering you, aside from this mess, you can call me, too.” Honestly shocked by his recognition that Jen the Dragon Lady wasn’t my only concern, it took me a few seconds to answer. “Um, thanks.” Brilliant, I know. Roman didn’t kiss me, though I had mixed feelings about that when he pulled away. It was probably for the best since my head was far from being on straight in that moment. I sighed, all the same, when he pulled back and opened the door for me. It was a quiet walk back to my car. Chapter Fourteen I kept telling myself all the way to the ballpark that there was no reason to be intimidated by Roman’s ex-wife. The fact that she was a raven-haired bombshell actress aside, Roman didn’t love her anymore and Sammy pretty much wanted nothing to do with her. I thought maybe I should feel bad about that, but disappearing from your son’s life for years at a time didn’t exactly scream love. It had been another long week, though midway through my boss let me know they’d hired a new weekend librarian and I was no longer needed to fill in. That wasn’t the only highlight. Roman had indeed kept his promise and called me every night after Jen left from her prearranged time with Sammy, which Roman had been limiting to one hour in the evening where she actually had to spend the time with her son and not arguing with Roman. That had inspired all kinds of tension, but the fighting had stopped, and when Sammy called me after dinner to talk, he wasn’t hiding under his bed. I knew, and I think Roman knew, that his battle with Jen was far from over, but the second week of her hanging around had gone infinitely better than the first. So far. Today might be a different story. I approached the complex and started looking for green jerseys. I was a little early and thought the boys would probably still be warming up somewhere. I spotted Evan first, running in circles with two other kids, Thor barking happily every time they passed him. Lydia and James were a little farther away. They were chatting with a guy I was pretty sure I recognized as one of the coaches from the previous weekend. Nervously, I glanced around for Roman, wary of being spotted by Jen first and becoming her target. When I spotted him coming back from the concession stand, alone, I breathed a sigh of relief. He saw me a second later and broke out into a cheerful grin as his pace picked up. I broke eye contact for a moment, scanning the area for Jen, praying she was far enough away not to see Roman’s reaction to me. By the time I looked back, his grin had changed to playful chuckling. “She’s not here.” “Jen?” He shook his head. “She got a call from her agent late last night that he’d set up an audition for her in L.A., so she checked out of her hotel and split first thing this morning.” Relief rolled over me. I finally felt able to relax and the results were visible enough for Roman to take notice. His smiled faltered. “I’m sorry she’s caused so much tension the last few weeks.” Shaking off his worry, I found myself smiling. “It’s fine. I’m just glad we can enjoy the game together.” I glanced at the tray of sodas in his hand. “Do you need help with those?” He reached for one of the drinks. “Lydia said you’re a Pepsi girl, so I—” “Heads up!” more than one voice shouted from the stands. My slow reaction time was why I was never much good at sports involving balls or hurdles or pretty much anything that required timing. I was looking around—in the wrong direction—when my outstretched hand exploded with pain. I’d been reaching for the Pepsi Roman had gotten me and had looked in the completely wrong direction to see a ball sailing down at me. For a moment after it struck, all I could do was stare at my hand hanging limply at my side. There was pain, a lot of pain, but I was so stunned by what had happened, I couldn’t quite feel it yet. Not until Roman tried to touch it. I shrieked as the pain jolted me back to my senses, then tried to cut it off by biting my lip as hard as I could. I thought about trying to hold back the tears welling in my eyes, but it was way too much work. The pain was currently hoarding my attention and dwindling control. Evan was jumping up and down at my side asking me if I caught the ball while Lydia was having a mild panic attack as she asked if I was hurt. I think there was an umpire or someone official looking asking me if I was okay. The only voice I heard clearly was Roman’s. “Can you move it?” My eyes widened at the mere thought. I think I was crying by then, but the rest of my body felt numb in comparison to my wrist. Not getting any other answer from me, Roman attempted to flex my wrist by the smallest degree. Somebody caught me when my knees buckled and I started crying in earnest. “I think it might be broken,” Roman said, to Lydia I think. “She needs to get to the emergency room for an x-ray.” The next thing I knew, Roman scooped me into his arms and Lydia was arguing with him. “We can take her, Roman. James, get Greenly’s keys, they’re sticking out of her pocket. You drive her car and I’ll get the boys.” “I’ve already got her, Lydia. I can take her.” “She’s my sister, for crying out loud,” Lydia snapped. “Well she’s my…uh, I can take her. It’ll be easier to get her into my truck than your sedan, anyway.” I felt something fall from my jeans pocket and hoped it was James making off with my keys. Even if it wasn’t, I didn’t particularly care in that moment because every step Roman took felt like a hot poker being shoved into my wrist. “Greenly!” Sammy wailed as he rushed up next to his dad. The anguish in his voice was enough to push my pain back just enough to focus on him. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?” he demanded. Colby was running next to him, looking just as worried. “Aunt Greenly, did that ball hit you? One of the big kids hit it. It was a hard hit.” “I’m okay,” I told them. That was about as much as I could manage with a broken wrist. Roman said something about an x-ray earlier, but I was ninety-nine percent sure it was broken. I was more concerned with painkillers than an x-ray at the moment. Somehow we made it to Roman’s truck, and he must have won the argument, because he gently settled me in the front seat and then hurried to get Sammy buckled in. Once Roman was in the driver’s seat, he took my non-broken hand and squeezed. “Are you all right? How much pain are you in right now?” “On a scale of one to ten?” I asked. When he nodded, I glanced back at Sammy and said, “Um, five-ish?” That didn’t sound too scary, right? Sammy was already pale and teary-eyed. Roman’s gaze darted to Sammy before turning back to me with understanding that the real number was quite a bit higher. “We’ll be there soon.” The longer we drove, the more numb my arm started to feel. It still hurt like hell, but shock was taking the edge off. “You could have let Lydia and James take me. I feel bad Sammy’s missing his game.” Roman scoffed. “Sammy wouldn’t have stayed regardless, and I wouldn’t have either.” Would it be crazy to say I was in love with Roman right now? He played the role of knight in shining armor like a pro. We hadn’t even gone on an actual date yet, but that didn’t seem to matter too much right then. Maybe the pain was clouding my judgement a little. Probably shouldn’t say anything I might regret later. A pothole Roman couldn’t avoid made me gasp and curl around my hand. Roman apologized and Sammy leaned forward asking desperately if I was okay. I could only nod and pray we were almost there. It felt like an eternity later before Roman finally pulled into a parking space in front of the E.R. and started the process of unloading Sammy and me. Lydia and James pulled in nearby as Roman was carrying me again. I tried to tell him I could walk, but he wasn’t hearing it. James rushed ahead and opened doors while Lydia began barking orders at people as soon as she reached the check-in counter. She was handed a clipboard full of paperwork and told to fill them out. I didn’t know what else she was expecting to happen since the waiting room was half full of people, but I was eternally grateful she knew my personal and medical history well enough to tackle the paperwork for me. The only thing she didn’t have was my insurance information, so she sent James running back out to my car for my purse, which she then dug around in until she found what she was looking for. As I leaned against Roman, I had the vague hope that there wasn’t anything embarrassing in my purse, but it was lost under the pressing need for someone to hurry up and give me some painkillers. James managed to keep my nephews entertained while we waited. He really was a great guy. He couldn’t, however, draw Sammy away from my side where he gripped my free hand tightly and asked me every few minutes if my hand still hurt. At one point, he asked if he could see my hand, but when I looked down at it and saw my wrist swollen to twice its normal size and sporting an array of purplish bruises, I made the excuse that it would hurt to move it, but told him he could sign my cast later. Finally, a nurse called my name and our whole group stood. Well, I tried to stand on my own, and was perfectly capable of doing so, but Roman scooped me into his arms again despite my protests. The nurse, who had looked worn out and testy a moment earlier, smiled at Roman before turning to me. “Any time a man wants to carry you, you let him. It doesn’t happen often.” She winked at me, then turned to the rest of the group. “You can’t all come back. The room’s not that big and we only allow two family members at a time.” Lydia stepped forward, ready to take charge, but I felt Sammy’s hand slowly begin to strangle mine. “Lydia,” I said. Her mouth snapped closed, stifling whatever she’d been about to say, and narrowed her eyes at me. She was challenging me. It wasn’t that she didn’t want Roman to be there for me, but she was my sister and used to taking care of me. She’d done so for such a long time, giving that up to someone else looked like it was going to give her a coronary. I didn’t say anything else. Instead, I directed my gaze down toward Sammy. She followed and her glare softened, though she seemed pained to give in. Directing a firm glare at Roman, Lydia said, “Take care of her.” I wasn’t the only one who heard the threat behind her words, which I found oddly funny in that moment. As Lydia herded her family back to the chairs, Roman followed the nurse down the hall with Sammy in tow. Then began an endless string of pokes, twists, prods, x-rays, and yes, painkillers. By the time the doctor came in to confirm that my wrist was indeed broken and in need of setting and a splint, Sammy was asleep in Roman’s lap and I was on the verge of following him thanks to the rather strong painkillers. Having my wrist set woke me back up. Not yelping or swearing and waking Sammy up was not easy. Roman squeezing my hand and letting me squash his knuckles together definitely helped. Then it was time for the splint. Given that I’d never broken a bone before, I’d been surprised, not to mention disappointed, that I wouldn’t get a cast then. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of making another visit, but I supposed they had to wait for the swelling to go down or something. It was hard to focus by that point. The painkillers were overriding my senses. Drugged up pretty good, I was actually looking forward to having Roman carry me again, but he had Sammy in his arms and it was some kind of policy that I be wheeled out in a wheelchair even though it was my wrist and not my leg that was injured. I didn’t really care too much by that point. When we finally got to the waiting room again, only Lydia was still there. “I had James take the boys home to get the guest room ready for you.” The way she said it made it very clear she wouldn’t be budged on this one. Handing over the reins to Roman for Sammy’s sake was one thing. Not taking me home to dote on me while injured was something else. “Lead the way,” Roman said, a hint of amusement in his voice. Lydia heard it, I’m pretty sure, because she turned her nose up at him and stalked off toward the exit. Reaching up my free hand, I patted Roman’s arm lazily. “Don’t take it personally. She does that to me, too.” Roman chuckled and walked alongside the wheelchair pushed by a nurse or someone until we got to the other side of the sliding doors and the nurse guy said that was as far as he could take me. I think he probably said it nicer, or had a better reason, but I wasn’t listening. Lydia helped me stand. I was feeling a little woozy, so Roman offered a second steadying hand while still holding Sammy and they led me across the parking lot. I think I made Lydia mad when I slipped my hand from her grip and leaned toward Roman when we reached his truck. Maybe she just thought I was falling and gasped. I’m not sure. Man, what did they give me for the pain? I hardly ever took medications because I wasn’t sick very often, and I remembered the last time I’d taken something stronger than aspirin after a car accident, it had hit me pretty hard then, as well. I was just a lightweight. Oh well. Roman helped me into the truck—he must have already buckled Sammy in—and Lydia said something snotty about him bringing me to her house. Not his. I might have rolled my eyes at her. When Roman sat down next to me, he asked, “Greenly, are you doing okay? You look a little out of it.” “What did they give me?” I asked. “Morphine. You broke several of the little bones in your wrist and the doctor said it was going to hurt when he set it.” I nodded slowly. “I think they gave me too much.” Roman chuckled. “I think you’re just not used to medication that strong. Lydia said you reacted the same way a few years ago when you were in a car accident and cracked a rib.” Frowning, I said, “Oh yeah. That wasn’t fun. Well, except for…did she tell you about the EMT? He was nice. He said I was pretty even with blood on my face. What was his name? Thomas? You’ll have to ask Lydia. I don’t think I should be moving around so much when I feel like this.” “You’re not moving around. You’re sitting in my truck,” Roman said, “and no, Lydia didn’t tell me about Thomas the EMT. I’ll have to ask her later.” “Don’t forget. It’s important,” I said, though I couldn’t actually remember whether it was important or not. A twisting sensation in my stomach made me panic. I wasn’t too doped up to know I did not want to throw up in front of Roman again. “I don’t think I want any more of this stuff. What did you say it was again?” “Morphine,” Roman repeated, “and don’t worry, they gave you a prescription for something weaker for the next few days.” “Oh good.” I leaned my head against the window, wishing my head didn’t feel so fuzzy, but enjoying the coolness of the glass. “Are you taking me to Lydia’s?” “I think she might never speak to me again if I don’t.” I giggled at his response. “She’d be pretty mad at you. Me, too.” “You’d be mad at me, too?” Roman asked, though he seemed more amused than confused. “No. Lydia would be mad at me, like she’d be mad at you.” “Why?” “Because she likes to think she’s my mom, always has to take care of me. She doesn’t like for other people to take care of me, even though she’s always trying to marry me off to some random guy.” I rolled my head back against the seat, the cold glass not feeling good anymore. “No,” Roman said, “why would she be mad at you? I already know why she’d be mad at me.” My thoughts blurred again, and I struggled to come up with an answer. “Because, I think, she’d think I was choosing you over her.” I tried to focus on Roman’s face, but it was hard. “I think she thought it would take longer.” “What would take longer?” “For me to fall in love with you.” Everything got really fuzzy after that, and I felt tired. There didn’t seem to be any sense in trying to stay awake, so I think I squeezed Roman’s hand—I tried to anyway—and then I fell asleep. Chapter Fifteen I woke up Sunday morning, or maybe it was afternoon, groggy and not sure where I was. When I tried to rub my eyes, I whacked myself in the face with my splint and yelped in pain from both the impact and the jostling of broken bones. My door burst open half a second later and three little boys came pouring in with demands to know if I was all right. Well, I was awake now. “I’m fine,” I said as I laid back down. Lydia appeared a few minutes later with a glass of water and two pills. She shooed the boys out and shoved the medication and water at me. “These aren’t nearly as strong as what you got in the E.R., but they should be enough to take care of the pain.” She watched and waited until I had downed them both. My brain must have still been half asleep, because I asked, “Is Roman here?” Lydia huffed in irritation. “Yes, of course.” “Don’t be mean to him.” “Why not?” she demanded. My head was starting to hurt. “Because he’s your friend and he doesn’t deserve it, and because if you are, I’ll go home.” “You can’t go home. You need my help.” Crossing her arms over her chest, she dared me to contradict her. Like I said, I wasn’t fully awake and thinking properly. “I have a broken wrist, Lydia. I’m not dying. I can go home if I want.” “Or go to Roman’s?” She was really mad, I realized. I couldn’t figure out why, though. I thought I might have had this discussion with Roman on the way home from the hospital, but that whole section of time felt blurry. “Why would I go to Roman’s? And why would you be pissed off if I did? You like him. He’s one of your best friends, Lydia. I don’t get why you’re being such a snot about this.” I didn’t get an answer to any of my questions. Lydia stormed off like a two-year-old, not quite slamming the door behind her, but not closing it gently either. I didn’t have the energy to figure out her issues right then. I wanted a shower, clean clothes, and something to eat. I was closing the bathroom door before I considered I didn’t have anything with me yesterday, but I only had to turn around to realize Lydia had already taken care of it. Of course. My favorite pair of jeans and the ratty old t-shirt Lydia had bought for me when she took me to my first concert were sitting to the side of the sink, along with a shower caddy containing spare shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. There was also something that looked like a long plastic sleeve with a sticky note attached to it that read, “To cover your arm. Don’t get the splint wet.” Bossy as ever. “Thanks, sis.” Getting out of my clothes wasn’t fun. My shirt got stuck on my head, then the splint. Removing my pants with only one working hand was a chore as well. It was lucky I’d perfected the art of unclasping my bra with one hand years ago out of pure laziness, otherwise I may never have gotten it off. I felt like I’d just finished working out before I finally stepped into the shower and began washing away the smell of the hospital. At least there hadn’t been any blood, and the pain had done wonders to distract me from my usual aversion to medical facilities. Roman’s presence had been a bonus as well. I felt squeamish at the thought of having to go back in order to get my cast put on. I didn’t have to go back to the E.R., but doctor’s offices were all the same. Sighing, I knew Lydia would want to go with me. I was standing under the water with soap running down my face when I realized I might actually have to stay with her for a while. The wrist I broke was my dominant hand. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to drive with a cast on. Certainly not with the splint and the pain. Resignation killed my mood. Normally, staying over at Lydia’s wouldn’t be something to be upset about. I stayed over fairly often for one reason for another. The way she’d been acting lately, especially when it came to Roman, I didn’t think I could take being there a few more hours, let alone days. Rinsing as best I could, I shut off the water and decided I’d simply have to figure out what was making Lydia so cranky. That plan fizzled as soon as I made it to the kitchen and found everyone crowded around the table enjoying sandwiches and chips. There was an empty place waiting for me between Sammy and Colby, Roman on the opposite end. When I met his gaze, he shrugged, but I decided not to push the issue in front of the boys. I’d deal with Lydia later. Everyone wanted to know how I was feeling as soon as I sat down, and I answered them between awkward bites of food. The boys lingered longer than they usually might have in order to be fully reassured I wasn’t going to be whisked back to the hospital for some reason. Then they dispersed to games and running and yelling, and I was left with the grownups. James and Roman chatted about work and the boys while Lydia remained largely silent. When she got up to tell the boys to stop running through the house and go outside if they wanted to be rowdy, I shot James a questioning look. He only shrugged. It was another uncomfortable twenty minutes before I managed to finish my lunch one-handed and Lydia whisked my dishes off to the sink. Standing, I said, “I’m going to see if the boys want to go for a walk with me. If anyone else wants to come…” “Do you really think you should be moving around that much?” Lydia demanded. “I need some fresh air. You can come and check up on me if you want.” I added a smile, though she knew me well enough to see it as a challenge and not friendliness. She turned back to the dishes with a roll of her eyes and I focused on the men. “James, Roman, want to join us?” “I think I better help with the dishes,” James said, eyeing Roman. “Greenly and the boys might need help with Thor, though.” “No problem,” Roman said and stood. That drew an exasperated huff from Lydia. Done putting up with her cattiness, I gestured for Roman to follow me and marched to the backyard to collect the boys. They were more than happy to accompany us and had Thor leashed and ready to go before I made it to the front porch. Roman waited until we were out of view before taking my uninjured hand in his. “Did Lydia tell you why she’s so pissed at me?” “No. Did she tell you?” Roman shook his head. “I thought this was what she wanted,” he said, glancing down at our linked hands. “It’s got to be more than what you said on the way home from the hospital.” Thinking hard, I tried to remember what that might have been and came up mostly empty. “What did I say?” One corner of his mouth turning up playfully, Roman said, “You don’t remember?” I pulled back and eyed him warily. “Why are you smiling?” “Do you remember anything you said to me after we left the E.R.?” Oh no, what did I say? Or do? Could have been either. “No,” I said slowly. Now Roman broke out into a full grin. “You said Lydia was mad that I was trying to take care of you and not letting her do it.” Okay. I could believe I said that, but why was he still grinning like that? “What else did I say?” Roman laughed and shook his head. “Hmm, I don’t think I’ll tell you quite yet.” “What? Why? That’s not fair,” I argued, which only made Roman laugh even more. “Did I say something to Lydia? Something mean? Is that why she’s mad at me?” “She’s mad at me,” Roman clarified. “You were pretty much out once I got you to her house, so I doubt you said much, but I can’t promise you didn’t spill any other secrets.” Any other secrets? My stomach sank. What had I said to Roman? Suddenly, figuring out Lydia’s hangups didn’t seem nearly as pressing as discovering what stupid thing I’d said to Roman that had him laughing at me again. “You have to tell me,” I begged. “Please. It’s going to drive me insane. I’d rather know how I made a fool of myself than sit around wondering about it.” A full belly laugh shook Roman’s frame. “You didn’t make a fool out of yourself, I promise.” “Liar,” I grumbled. “You wouldn’t be laughing at me if I hadn’t.” Pulling me to a gentle stop, so as not to jostle my wrist, Roman turned to face me. Thor didn’t even try to get away and run after my nephews as they sprinted off the sidewalk and onto the playground equipment. “I’m serious. You didn’t say or do anything to make a fool of yourself. It just makes me laugh that you don’t remember saying what you did.” “Why?” I demanded. Roman wrapped the hand that wasn’t holding Thor’s leash around my waist. “Because I’ll never forget it.” Closing my eyes, I said a silent prayer I hadn’t said something ridiculous, or…fear sparked somewhere deep inside of me. Had I said something about the letters? No, that couldn’t be it. Roman wouldn’t be laughing about that. He’d be worried. Had Lydia found out about the letters? That would definitely be enough to make her mad at me for not telling her right away. That wouldn’t have anything to do with Roman, though. “What did I say?” I pleaded. Clearly teasing me still, Roman’s mouth twisted into a mockingly thoughtful expression. “Well, there was mention of a Thomas…” “Thomas?” For a minute, I stared at him blankly. I couldn’t figure out what in the world he was talking about. The name didn’t even ring a bell. “The EMT,” Roman said slowly, “the one who apparently got you out of your wrecked car two years ago and gave you his full attention the entire ride to the hospital, then stopped back by after his shift and left you his number in case you needed anything. That Thomas.” Heat raced from my core up to my face. I couldn’t believe I’d brought up Thomas, and I doubted I’d been coherent enough to tell him all of that, which meant Lydia had filled in the details. Traitor. “We went on one date.” “But you’d planned a second one as well,” he teased. “Sure, but Lydia got the flu and called to see if I’d come watch the boys and I had to cancel…” “At least I’m not the only one you do that to,” Roman interjected. I threw him a baleful look. “He never called me again after breaking the date. Shocker.” Rolling my eyes, I almost forgot what had led us to this topic and was about to head for the park with Sammy when I remembered. Thomas the EMT wasn’t what Roman had been talking about. That might have been memorable, but not something he would never forget. Turning to face him, I pulled together all my stubbornness. “What else did I say? I know Thomas wasn’t it.” Roman’s lips parted to speak, but that was as far as he got. “You said you loved my dad,” Sammy supplied from right next to us. Apparently it wasn’t that shocking to him, because he moved on rather quickly. “Do you want to come on the swings with us? I can push you since your wrist is broken.” Finding it impossible to speak at the moment, Roman answered for me. “That’s very nice of you, Sammy. Maybe in just a minute, okay? Let Greenly and me finish talking first.” Sammy sighed, but nodded anyway and ran over to his friends. I looked up at Roman and asked, “Is that really what I said?” He’d laughed earlier, when teasing me about not remembering, but now he looked nervous. “Yes. You said you thought Lydia was upset because she thought it would take longer for you to fall in love with me and she wasn’t ready to let go.” His hand on my back moved, as if he couldn’t decide whether pull me closer or let me go. “Did you mean that? Being in love with me,” he said. “I’m pretty sure you’re dead right on the Lydia part.” I felt frozen, but freed as well, which didn’t really make sense. “Yes,” I whispered. “I mean, I feel stupid saying that, but…” I couldn’t look at him any longer. My gaze dropped and my forehead fell against his chest. “I can’t believe I said that.” Roman didn’t try to make me face him. He pulled me against his chest and held me. “Don’t feel stupid, Greenly. Believe me, I know it’s fast, and we’ve gotten off to a strange and complicated start, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same way.” My breathing stalled, completely. “I don’t know if that’s really what Lydia’s mad about,” Roman said. “Yes, things between us have moved faster than expected, but I see how you are with Sammy, how much I love talking to you and being around you, and I guess I just, well, I love having you in our lives. I love you, and I know Sammy does too. He’s asked me more than once this week why you can’t just come live with us so he can see you all the time.” Roman chuckled, finally kick-starting my brain again. Looking up at him, I asked, “Are you serious?” “About which part?” His grin said he knew the answer already, but was having fun teasing me again. “Am I in love with you? Yes. Am I asking you to move in with me because my seven-year-old adores you? No, but I’m not taking it off the table, either. I figured that might be a little premature. I should at least take you on a real date first, right?” Oh…wow. “Greenly?” Roman asked, concern slipping in behind his teasing. “I’m fine,” I whispered. “Just in shock, or something. Maybe it’s whatever Lydia gave me.” Roman laughed and pressed a kiss to my mouth. That was an excellent way to clear my thoughts. I looked up at him more focused than I’d felt all morning. “I would love to go on a real date with you.” “Good,” Roman said, “because I made reservations for Friday night. Even if Lydia’s still mad at me, James said Sammy could have a sleepover.” “Sleepover?” I asked, a smile spreading across my mouth as I crooked an eyebrow at him. “What exactly do you have planned? This is technically our first date, remember?” Roman darted in and kissed me again, light, but hungry. “Yeah, but I’ve already had you in my bed, and I’m certainly not opposed to a repeat.” His wolfish grin mellowed into something softer suddenly. “Waking up with you in my arms, I don’t think I can even explain how good that felt.” I couldn’t resist Sammy when he needed comfort or just to talk to a friend. Roman was ten times worse, on several different levels. If we hadn’t been in public, at a park full of children for that matter, I would have had a very difficult time stopping things there. Even as it was, I couldn’t resist reaching up and kissing Roman lightly on the mouth. Friday couldn’t come fast enough. Chapter Sixteen We stopped outside my sister’s house, this time Roman unafraid to hold my hand. Sammy stopped next to us while Evan and Colby barreled into the house. “We should probably head home,” Roman said, drawing a frown from Sammy. “You’re leaving me to face my sister alone?” I wanted to go hide at his house, but I supposed that wasn’t a very adult thing to do. Roman gave me a resigned smile. “I think you might have a better chance of talking to her if I’m not around.” Even though I knew it was true, I didn’t let go of his hand. Roman’s grip tightened. “If you need to get away from her for a while, though, you know where I am.” “Me too,” Sammy offered. Leaning down, I pulled Sammy into a one-armed hug and squeezed him tightly. “Thank you, buddy. I’m a little tired out, so I think I’m going to take a nap, but I’ll come see you soon, okay?” “For dinner?” Sammy asked. Roman laughed and grabbed him away from me, slinging him over his shoulder, much to his son’s delight. He tickled him for a few seconds before setting him back down and taking his hand. Looking back to me, Roman said, “Seriously, any time.” He must have been feeling brave, because he leaned down then and kissed me. It was short and sweet, probably just as much do to with Sammy’s presence as the fact that Lydia was probably watching us from a window somewhere. I sighed when he pulled back and turned Sammy toward their house. It took me a few seconds to gather enough strength to go inside. Surprisingly, I wasn’t accosted the second I stepped through the door. Lydia was in the kitchen still banging around, and James had occupied himself in the den watching TV. He looked up when I walked into the room and saw Thor still on his leash. “Do you mind?” I asked. “I can’t get the leash off with one hand.” “Of course.” He stood and walked over to me with a smile. He had the leash disconnected a few seconds later and Thor raced off to find the boys. “You look pretty tired out. Do you want to come sit down?” “I need to talk to Lydia,” I said with a sigh. James gave me a cautionary look. “Uh, you might want to let her cool down for a bit.” “She was watching us through a window or something, wasn’t she?” Nodding, James shook his head. “She saw the hand holding and kissing and wasn’t very happy.” “And you don’t know what’s got her so worked up?” I asked. James shook his head. “Sorry. I know it was something that happened this week, but I don’t know what. I was really busy at work and came home late almost every night.” He put an arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “I’ve got Rocky IV on in the den if you want to come watch it with me. She’ll probably be cooled down enough to talk to by the time it’s over.” “As much as I love watching Stallone get punched in the face eight hundred times because he’s never heard of blocking, I think I’ll go lay down for a while.” Chuckling, James nodded and returned to his show. I shuffled back to the guest room and laid down. I thought I might have trouble falling asleep with everything swimming around in my head, but I was out a few minutes after my head hit the pillow and didn’t wake up until Lydia was calling everyone to dinner. I didn’t really feel like getting up, but if I wanted Lydia to be in a semi-good mood when I confronted her, coming when called to dinner would only improve my chances. Surprisingly, the meal was relatively normal. The boys talking nonstop about a variety of topics helped. Lydia loved her boys and they could distract her from just about anything. James, who was normally on the quieter side, did what he could to keep the conversation upbeat as well. We had always gotten along really well. He had three sisters of his own, and seemed to quickly adopt me as one of his soon after he and Lydia started dating. I threw him a thankful smile when he drew the boys away from the dining room after dinner so I could talk to Lydia. “Here, let me help with those,” I said. I reached for the dishes still left on the table, but Lydia gestured at my splinted hand. “It shouldn’t get wet, remember?” She took the plates from me and turned away. “Besides, I’m just rinsing them to put them in the dishwasher.” “Well, I can help you clear the table, anyway.” I was limited to cups and silverware, as some of the larger plates were a little awkward to pick up. Lydia didn’t object this time and we cleared the table together. I stood nearby as she rinsed dishes and set them in the dishwasher racks. I was sure she knew why I was hanging around, but she didn’t prompt me or give me an easy opening. Sighing, I knew I’d have to take the first step if I wanted an answer. “I need to know why you’re so upset with Roman.” Lydia froze, but said nothing. When she went back to rinsing dishes, I pressed a little more. “Look, I know it seems like we’ve rushed things, and maybe you weren’t prepared for that, but isn’t this a good thing, Lydia? How long have you been pushing me to open up and have a real relationship with someone?” Dropping the silverware she’d been rinsing in the bottom of the sink, she set her hands on the counter. “Yes, but with someone worthy of that kind of trust,” she snapped. Shocked by her response, I didn’t know what to say. “Lydia, what are you talking about? You do trust Roman, and so do I.” “I used to.” She snatched the silverware back up from the bottom of the sink and continued rinsing them. She was jamming them one by one into the silverware caddy in the dishwasher before I came up with a response. “What did he do to make you not trust him anymore?” Exasperated, Lydia spun around to face me. “The past two weeks with Jen, for starters!” I would freely admit I’d been angry with him for how he let Jen’s aggression trump Sammy’s needs that first week, but we had talked things out and he’d recognized how letting her bully him into fights had been hurting Sammy. I felt the need to defend him, but Lydia already knew all that. “I don’t understand. You know he’s working to correct things with Jen and protect Sammy. There has to be something else.” “Protect Sammy by letting her weasel her way back into their lives? And lying to you about it?” Lydia spat. “I’m sorry, Greenly, but I won’t stand by and let Roman Carpenter break your heart. I just won’t.” “What are you talking about?” I finally yelled. James’s head peered around the corner, gaze bouncing between the two of us. I gestured for him to stay, because if Lydia didn’t have a good explanation for the accusations she’d just thrown down, he might have to step in. Irritated even more by my bringing James into this, Lydia threw the towel she was holding onto the counter and parked both hands on her hips. “Wednesday night, do you know where Jen was?” “At her hotel, I’m guessing, or out doing whatever she wanted. How the hell would I know?” A mixture of superiority and crushing disappointment played on Lydia’s features. “She was at Roman’s. All night.” “What?” I demanded. “No she wasn’t. She left at seven, and Sammy called me right after she left.” “Then why was her car still there?” Lydia glared at me, but her bottom lip was trembling. She was furious with Roman, not just for my sake, but because she felt like he’d lied to her, too. Her words twisted my insides as insecurity pushed at me, but everything else said she was wrong. Roman wouldn’t do that. Even if she had stayed for some reason, it wasn’t so they could have sex or rekindle their relationship. He was done with her. He was in love with me. I simply couldn’t believe it, and part of me was angry that she had. Reaching forward, my good hand clasped around her wrist and I started dragging her behind me. She was shrieking for me to let go of her. James only raised an eyebrow as we passed. “We’ll be back,” I told him, and kept moving. He didn’t try to stop me. All of Lydia’s struggling and demands died away as soon as I dragged her out the front door. She wasn’t about to let her neighbors see her being hauled around the neighborhood like a child throwing a tantrum. Thank goodness, too, because I seriously doubted I could stop her from getting away from me with only one hand. I think she knew I’d keep walking if she did, though. Roman was quite surprised to open the door a few minutes later to find me and my captive. Done putting up with Lydia’s fits for the day, I put the question to him bluntly. “Why was Jen’s car here all night on Wednesday?” While Lydia had the good graces to looked embarrassed at the admission she’d been spying on Roman’s house for my sake—and in a way, hers too—Roman only raised his brows in surprise. “Because her rental car wouldn’t start. She called a cab to take her to her hotel and the rental company picked up the car the next morning.” Feeling vindicated, I dropped Lydia’s hand and glared at her. “Are you happy now? You’ve been horrible to him for days, because instead of simply asking him what was going on, you jumped to conclusions.” “I was just trying to protect you,” Lydia whined. “Well, stop it. I am a grown woman, Lydia. I don’t need you hovering over my shoulder every second. Now go home.” My voice was firm without being mean, something I had learned from her, and she recognized it. A small bloom of panic rose in her expression. “But, your hand, you need help for a few days!” Turning away from my sister, I looked at Roman squarely and asked, “How would you feel about a houseguest?” “Greenly!” Lydia hissed. For a second, Roman didn’t seem to know what to do. Lydia had been his friend for five years. She watched his son after school and they had each over for dinner all the time. I was just a girl he’d known for a few weeks. An apologetic expression crept onto his face. “Lydia, I’m sorry, but you could have just asked about the car. Greenly probably does need help for a few days, even if she doesn’t want to admit it, and if she doesn’t want to stay with you right now…” Instead of storming off like a child as she’d done earlier, Lydia squared her shoulders and ignored me while addressing Roman. “I’m sorry. I should have just come to you from the beginning. I’ll send James over with Greenly’s things later this evening.” Then she turned around and walked off with her eyes fixed anywhere but in my direction. Roman sighed, and then started laughing quietly. “I’d say Sammy put you up to this just so he could have you around more often, but I know your sister all too well.” Feeling suddenly guilty, I said, “I’m sorry. I really shouldn’t have dragged you into this. You guys were friends way before I stumbled into your life.” Sliding his arms around my waist, Roman shook his head. “I’m disappointed she didn’t trust me enough to just ask about the car. I didn’t think she’d be keeping track like that and get upset. I should have, knowing how protective she is of you, but it never crossed my mind.” “This is in no way your fault. I love my sister, but she has got to figure out how to give me a little breathing room when it comes to my love life.” My hopes that finding someone Lydia approved of, and I actually found myself attracted to, would finally cool her jets, but it seemed to have only made her worse. Roman’s thumb brushed along my cheek, pushing at my frown. “Well, on the bright side, Sammy is going to be ecstatic.” “And you?” I asked as the thought hit me that I’d really left him with little choice. The cheeky, boyish smile I knew would be the death of me, spread slowly across Roman’s lips. “Me? I guess you could say I’m not against the idea.” He pulled me into the house and closed the door behind us. A moment later, he called out, “Sammy, guess who decided to come have a sleepover?” A frenzy of movement and stomping feet brought Sammy running from his room. “Greenly!” He rushed over to throw his arms around me and started off on everything we could do together. “Hold up there,” Roman said. “It’s a school night, remember? You can watch one movie before bed, then if you ask Greenly very nicely she might be willing to read you a story. It’s off to bed after that. No arguments.” Sammy pouted for a moment before conceding. “Can Greenly take me to school in the morning?” he begged. He looked to me for an answer, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew I wouldn’t be able to drive him, and while I didn’t mind walking with him, I couldn’t remember how far away the boys’ school was from here. I’d only been there a few times for plays and music programs. “I think that might be a little far to walk,” Roman said. “Oh yeah, Greenly can’t drive with her broken hand. I forgot.” Roman ruffled his son’s hair with a smile. “How about Greenly rides with us to school? She might even be willing to come with me to pick you up after school.” Sammy’s eyes lit up. “You’re going to pick me up instead of Miss Lydia?” “I thought I might work from home tomorrow and keep Greenly company. Maybe we can all go to dinner after I finish my work.” He turned to me and said, “If you feel up to it.” I nodded wordlessly, surprised he was so willing to upend his day like that. When Sammy scampered off to select the movie he wanted to watch, I turned to Roman apologetically. “You don’t have to do all that. You could just drop me off at my apartment in the morning so you can go to work. I really will be fine. I was planning to email my professors and boss to let them know what happened. I’m sure the new weekend librarian will be happy for a few extra hours while I figure out how to function with a broken hand.” Roman shook his head. “After everything with Jen the past few weeks, I had been contemplating working from home this week so I could spend more time with Sammy. We’re not terribly busy right now, so it’s not a big deal. Now, I have even more of a reason.” He smiled and drew me closer. “I kind of like taking care of you.” A blush crept up from my neck to spread over my face. He must have been amazed by just how much taking care of I seemed to need lately. I swore I wasn’t usually this much of a mess. Things had just been crazy lately. “I think I love watching you blush almost as much as I love taking care of you,” Roman said with a chuckle. Before I could come up with something to say that would most likely not have been in any way witty, Sammy called out that the movie was ready and we should hurry up. Roman kissed my red cheek, then led me over to a waiting Sammy. I expected Sammy to snuggle up next to me when I sat down. What I didn’t expect was to be hit with such a strong sense of home that I worried I’d made a big mistake. I hadn’t been thinking when I pretty much invited myself to stay at Roman’s. During her tirade, Lydia said she was trying to keep Roman from breaking my heart. I already knew I couldn’t abandon Sammy. Roman, well there was no point now in denying to myself how much I was already in love with him. It was pretty much out in the open by that point. This was perfection in my mind, but it was all so new, so fragile. The letters and prowler crept into my mind, along with half a dozen other reasons this could all fall to pieces. I knew right then that if it did, if things with Roman didn’t work out, the last few whole pieces of my heart would be forever broken. Chapter Seventeen My plan was to leave as small of a footprint at Roman’s house as I possibly could. As I stood in front of his dryer, pulling my clothes out and into a basket, I paused at the sight of one of Sammy’s shirts in my hands. I’d only planned to do my own laundry, since I intended to go back to my apartment when Roman got home…I mean, back. He hadn’t complained about my presence once in the last three days, but when he said he needed to go in to work that morning to handle some sort of cement issue, I decided it was time to stop getting in the way. Washing the clothes Lydia had sent James over with Sunday night was a must because they were all I had, as evidenced by the fact that I was still in my pajamas. A pile of Sammy’s clothes had been sitting on the laundry room floor, still damp from an attempt to pour his own milk from a brand new jug and spilling it all over himself and the kitchen. I’d thrown his clothes in and went to gather the rest of his dirty laundry from his room without thinking much about it. Now I was thinking. There was something about folding Sammy’s laundry while standing in my pajamas on a Wednesday morning that got to me. You just don’t do other people’s laundry when staying as an uninvited house guest. That was weird, right? A small, scary bit of fear lodged itself in my throat. There was something frightening about the level of comfort I felt at being in Roman’s house. It froze me for several long minutes as I tried to decide what to do about it. What could I do, though? The clothes were dry and in need of folding. Maybe if I folded them and put them away, no one would even notice and I could pretend I hadn’t overstepped my role. So, I carried the laundry to the living room and started folding. My pile was taken care of quickly enough. I was nearly done with Sammy’s clothes when the door to the garage opened. I heard Roman’s footsteps before I saw him, and froze. While I was trying to figure out what his reaction might be to this scene, he walked into the room, saw me, and frowned. “Greenly, you’re supposed to be relaxing, not doing laundry.” He dropped his keys and papers on the kitchen counter and walked over to me. The shirt I was still holding in my hand was tugged out of my grip and tossed back into the basket. “You have a broken wrist. No cleaning up, especially not when you’re here as a guest.” “I didn’t have anything clean to wear,” I argued. I should have mentioned that I needed to restock the night before, but I’d fallen asleep early and didn’t want to bother him that morning when he had work things to deal with. “Oh, I didn’t realize. I could have done this for you, or taken you back to your apartment to get a few things,” Roman said. His gaze turned back to the basket of clothes, his head tilting to one side as he considered the contents. “Why are you doing Sammy’s laundry, too? Greenly, you’re supposed to be taking it easy.” He shook his head at me. I blinked. Was he really only annoyed that I wasn’t letting him do everything for me? “You’re not upset that I washed his clothes?” “Upset?” Roman asked. “That you’re up doing chores, maybe, but not that you tried to help out. I should have thrown his clothes in the washer right after he spilled all that milk everywhere. I completely forgot.” “Well, the wet clothes were just sitting there…” Roman eyed me. “The rest of these weren’t.” Sighing more forcefully than was believable, Roman’s mouth pulled down in a falsely aggravated expression. “I’m supposed to be taking care of you, remember? Not the other way around.” “I just…” My phone buzzed against the end table where I’d set it while folding laundry. Sara’s face popped up on the screen and I felt my whole body tense. I lost track of what I’d been discussing with Roman and picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Hey, girl. How’s the hand?” Sara asked. The question was innocuous enough, but there was an edge to her voice I couldn’t help but pick up on. Swallowing slowly, I felt the need to prepare myself for this conversation. “It’s okay. How are you?” “Oh, fine. Just, you know, calling to check in, see if you were planning to come back to your apartment any time soon.” Whatever hint of something I’d heard in her voice a few seconds ago, it was growing more noticeable with every word. “Why do you ask?” Silence, the kind that was chocked full of tension, filled the gap between our words. “Um, well, I was just thinking that maybe you should hang out at your sister’s a little longer.” “I’m not at Lydia’s,” I said before thinking through the impact my words might have. “Oh?” She said it slowly, interest overcoming her worry for a moment. “Where are you staying then?” There was a pause, then her voice changed completely. “Have you gone from babysitter to live-in nanny? Please tell me you’re staying with the yummy single dad and not holed up at a hotel because Lydia is smothering you with an overdose of help.” While I hadn’t forgotten her concern from a moment ago, I felt myself relaxing a little. “His name is Roman.” I could admit I’d completely forgotten Roman was standing right next to me. The mention of his name brought him to my side, arms wrapping around my waist and drawing my gaze up to his face. “Everything okay?” he mouthed silently. I nodded, then instinctively tilted my head to the side so he had easy access to kiss my temple like he’d developed a habit of doing. He slipped away then, giving me privacy to finish my conversation with Sara. “So you are staying with Roman?” Sara asked. “Yes, but it’s not a big deal. Lydia and I got into a fight and he didn’t mind having a house guest for a few days.” I felt silly standing there in front of the laundry not doing anything while I talked. Folding with one functional arm and a nearly useless splinted hand had been hard enough. Folding while one-handed and on the phone…impossible. So I sat on the arm of the couch and wondered why Sara had called. “Sorry Lydia is driving you nuts, but it sounds like it all worked out in the end, right?” The I’m dying to know more leer in her voice made me laugh. There really wasn’t a whole lot to tell. Getting frisky with a broken, uncasted wrist wasn’t really a possibility. My hand felt a lot better and I really only needed a pain pill at night, but I still had to be really careful with it. Yes, I slept with Roman every night, but sleeping had been the extent of the excitement. Stupid foul ball. “Thank you for checking up on me,” I told Sara, making it clear we weren’t discussing what had or hadn’t been going on at night. “Why did you ask how long I’d be away from my apartment?” Her anxious tone returned immediately. “Look, I don’t want to freak you out or anything, but that creeper has been back. Your neighbors called the cops last night because they saw him skulking around outside their place peeking in the windows.” “Around their apartment?” Maybe the first note hadn’t been for me after all. “Well, they thought he was targeting them, but when the cops started looking around, they said it looked more like it was your apartment that was being watched. I told them you weren’t around, but they asked for your number. I assume they’ll get in touch soon.” Sara paused. “I told them about the notes you’ve gotten. The detective didn’t know anything about that, but he said he’d check into it today.” Feeling lightheaded, I was suddenly glad I was sitting down. “How could they really tell whose apartment it was?” “Footprints, I guess. You know how that sprinkler is busted over by your apartment and it’s overwatering everything and making it muddy? I guess there was mud on your porch and some soggy prints around the side where your bedroom windows are.” I couldn’t hear any indication that Sara reacted, but the way she paused and the way I couldn’t hold back the shiver that ran down my spine, I suspected she’d had the same response. “I was planning to go home today,” I said quietly. Sara didn’t say anything for a moment. Shuffling noises came over the line as she debated her words. “Look, I don’t want to totally freak you out, but this guy seems like more than a casual weirdo. If Roman doesn’t object, stay a little longer. Let Detective Cordova poke around a little to see if he can figure out what this guy’s deal is before you come home, okay?” The more selfish side of me jumped at a reason to stay with Roman and Sammy a little longer. Practicality said I was probably on the verge of wearing out my welcome and I would be fine at home. It was probably just some perv the police would pick up next time he tried to peek in someone’s windows. Sara knew me well enough to guess my thoughts. “You’ve got a broken wrist, Greenly. How are you going to defend yourself if this creep were to actually come after you, or God forbid, get into your apartment?” She huffed out a breath, sounding a lot like my sister for a moment. “Look, if you’re not comfortable imposing on your guy, bury the hatchet with Lydia and stay with her a few more days. Play it safe, okay?” Sighing, I knew she was right. I was not in the mood to deal with Lydia, but if I had to, I would. “Thanks for calling, Sara. I’ll give it a few more days. Let me know if you find out anything else.” “I will, and don’t be surprised if Detective Cordova calls later today.” She sounded relieved, but there was a hint of cheekiness to her voice. I found out why as soon as she started talking again. “If things don’t work out with Roman, Detective Cordova is a doll. I wouldn’t mind him checking up on me if I were still single.” Laughing, I said, “You’re shameless. Don’t let Joseph hear you saying things like that.” I was just teasing, but I remembered her saying the last time we talked that Joseph had been out of town. “Is he around? He’s not out of town this week, is he?” “Joseph should be here in town all week,” Sara reassured me. Joseph was a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company and traveled frequently. He made good money, but Sara was in the middle of graduate work and they stayed in our nice, but slightly rundown building so she could be closer to campus. Campus security usually patrolled the grounds as well, since the university owned the complex even though it was off campus. I thought it had originally been purchased for short term professors and exchange students, then slowly morphed into housing for families and graduate students who didn’t want to live in the dorms. Feeling better that Sara wouldn’t be there by herself, I said, “Let me know if you hear anything else, okay?” “Yeah, you too. I want to know what the police find out.” After promising her I would, I set the phone down and went back to awkwardly folding Sammy’s jeans and t-shirts. I couldn’t manage to do anything with the socks, so I stacked them next to the clothes as I worked and thought. I wasn’t sure where Roman had gone. I really hadn’t even considered his absence, my mind was so preoccupied, until he immerged from his office and frowned at me. “I’m beginning to see why Lydia gets so frustrated with you. I thought I told you that you didn’t need to do that.” His appearance and voice startled me and I dropped the shirt I’d been folding. “What?” My thoughts were so jumbled I wasn’t sure I’d even heard him properly. Teasing melted away and Roman approached me slowly. “Is everything all right?” “Yeah,” I said quickly, “of course.” Roman took the shirt I’d just picked back up out of my hands and tossed it in the basket. “I was just teasing. You know that, right?” He reached out and took my non-broken hand in his. “I really do appreciate that you want to help out. You don’t need to, though.” “I just feel like I’m imposing, a lot.” Crossing my fingers that he would accept my answer without pressing too much, I tried not to let my anxiety show. Roman had already swooped in to save me more than once in the past few weeks. I felt like I would owe him for a long time after this. Whoever was creeping around my apartment building had me on edge, but he wasn’t Roman’s problem. Bringing it up felt like asking him for more help. Roman gently pulled me toward him, tugging until I was sitting in his lap. I knew he probably had work to do, but he held me for a few minutes without speaking. “Even though Sammy’s generally a pretty happy kid, he hasn’t been this happy in a long time.” Roman stroked my hair, pulling it back from my face. “And neither have I.” He kissed my hair and breathed in and out slowly. “I’m in no hurry for you to leave, Greenly. If you’re not comfortable staying any longer, I understand that, too. We haven’t been taking the most conventional path, which I’m sure is driving your sister insane, but having you here isn’t an imposition.” It was the opening I needed. I hesitated responding. Being near Roman made me happy. Spending time with Sammy made me even happier. Even though I hadn’t known either of them for very long, they felt as much like home as Lydia’s family did. Saying yes to staying right now felt like using Roman, especially when I didn’t want to tell him about what had been going on with the creeper and the notes. The words to say I needed to go home were forming on my lips when another thought occurred to me. Even if my apartment had been completely safe, I still wouldn’t have wanted to go home yet. Letting the tension ease out of my muscles, I turned to face Roman. “Are you sure you don’t mind me staying a little longer?” “A little longer…a lot longer…” He shrugged playfully. “I’m good either way.” My breath caught a second before he leaned in to kiss me. It was light, teasing, and tempting, but it left me feeling lightheaded all the same. I felt muddled, my thoughts leaping around my head and defying any sort of order. Was I making a mistake, or was this exactly how all of this should be going? I couldn’t tell anymore. “I do need to get a few things from my apartment,” I said, grasping at a reason to put some distance between us so I could think. Roman nodded. “I have some work I need to get done, then how about I take you to lunch and we can swing by your place on the way back?” “Sounds perfect.” I stood, then, using his mention of work as an opening to go take a shower and try to look semi-presentable. Roman watched me walk away, not that I looked back to see him, but I felt his eyes on me. The last few nights at my apartment before the fateful baseball game, I’d moved quickly from my car to my apartment, fearful of eyes on me then. Roman watching me didn’t inspire anxiety. It felt like a caress, an almost physical expression of his desire to be near me. What I sensed at my apartment felt like a threat. I half expected that if I asked Roman if I could simply stay, permanently, he wouldn’t tell me no. As appealing as that sounded, I didn’t think I was ready for that quite yet. I didn’t know if he was either. It was difficult to understand what was going on in his head sometimes. What I did know was that I couldn’t hide behind Roman’s generosity forever, and that was beginning to scare me. Chapter Eighteen Sara had been right about Detective Cordova. I felt a little guilty about hiding him from Roman and Lydia alike. Aside from the fact that I’d yet to tell Roman about the notes and everything else, it felt wrong to invite the detective over to Roman’s house to discuss what had been happening. It wasn’t my house, after all. Lydia was a different story. I knew she was still watching Roman’s house, and if she saw a cop car parked in the driveway, she’d freak. We still weren’t on great terms and I did not want to deal with her hysterics. So, even though I wasn’t supposed to be driving myself around, when Roman left for work that morning, I grabbed my keys and carefully made my way to a nearby coffee shop. Detective Cordova walked in, not dressed in uniform, but in jeans and a light sweater, badge clipped to his belt. The badge wasn’t the only thing that clued me in to who he was. Just as Sara had said, he was a doll. He had a kind face, his dark skin showing just enough hint of age that his welcoming expression didn’t trick you into thinking he was too young to know what he was doing. A thin layer of black stubble coated his cheeks and jawline, taking away some of the boyishness I felt sure would be there without it. His walk was confident as he approached me. Something about it set me at ease and I shook his hand when he approached. Detective Cordova gestured at my hand after sitting. “How have you been feeling?” I’d told him about my broken hand over the phone so he’d be able to recognize me, even though I suspected Sara had already given him a lengthy description of me. “Pretty good,” I said. “I still have to be really careful until they cast it, but it’s not hurting nearly as much.” “How did you break it?” His expression remained politely interested, but I swore I could see more than average interest in his expression as he spoke. “Baseball. Foul ball came down right on all those little bones, and snap.” He flinched. “Ow. I can imagine that hurt.” “I think I was too shocked to feel it at first. After that wore off, yeah, it hurt.” Shaking his head, he removed a small notebook from his back pocket, evidently ready to get to work. “I hope it heals fast, but I don’t want to keep you longer than necessary. I’m pretty sure your neighbor mentioned you aren’t supposed to be driving yourself places.” Flushing slightly, I said, “It wasn’t far.” Whatever questions Detective Cordova had, he seemed to put them on hold. “Can I ask why you wanted to meet here? Your neighbor mentioned you were staying at a friend’s for a while, what with your broken hand and all, but I got the impression when we talked that you don’t want anyone else to know what’s going on.” “I just don’t want to worry anyone,” I said defensively. “My sister or Roman.” “Roman?” he asked, interest piqued. “Is he your boyfriend?” “I, well, kind of. I guess. Yeah.” I sounded like an idiot. “It’s complicated.” The corner of Detective Cordova’s mouth inched up. “Apparently.” Schooling his expression, he asked, “Which one are you staying with, your sister or your maybe boyfriend?” “Well, I was staying with my sister, but we got into an argument and now I’m staying at Roman’s.” “What did you and your sister argue about?” Pulling back, I tried to fold my arms, but the stupid splint got in the way and I only succeeded in hitting my arm on the table and sending a wave of pain up my arm that made me nauseous for a moment. By the time I got a hold of myself, I found Detective Cordova had leapt to the rescue. His hand on my shoulder steadied me and I felt equally grateful and annoyed. “Are you okay?” he asked. “I’m fine, just not used to moving around with this bulky thing.” He pulled back, for which I was grateful, and I went back to eyeing him. “Why do you want to know what Lydia and I argued about? It doesn’t have anything to do with this guy sneaking around my apartment building.” “Probably not,” he admitted, “but with a stalking case, you never know what could play a part.” My mouth went dry. I felt nauseated again, and this time it had nothing to do with pain. I must have gone pale, too, because Detective Cordova reached for me again. I waved him off and took a very deep breath. “Stalking?” I whispered. That sounded so much more serious that some creep trying to get a look at young women undressing. I’d been trying to downplay this whole thing so much, I hadn’t let it really get to that level in my mind. “Taking into account the notes, the eye witnesses, and the extended timeline,” he said slowly, “I don’t think this is just some random sicko. Whoever this guy is, he seems to be fixated on you, Greenly, and he’s intent on pursuing his interest. This is serious and could be dangerous.” I nodded slowly. I heard his words, and I was trying to process them. Actually wrapping my head around what he was saying was a million times more difficult. “Do you…have any ideas?” I swallowed slowly. “Of who it could be, I mean?” “Right now, I don’t have enough information,” he said. “The people who’ve seen him have been able to describe his height and build, a few general facial features, but nothing concrete. The hood or hat he usually wears makes it difficult to see his face.” He stopped talking, the pressure of his silence somehow pushing me to meet his gaze. When I finally looked at him, he nodded, like he’d been waiting for me to reconnect with reality. “I’m going to need your help to identify this guy. Can you do that?” “What…do you need?” I asked. I really didn’t think I’d be much help. Even though I’d tried not to think about this over the last few weeks, it was impossible not to consider options. “What I’d like you to do is start making a list for me. Every guy you’ve dated recently, anyone who’s been confrontational or aggressive, enemies, anyone you can think of who might have reason to do something like this.” He focused his gaze on me more intently. “This could be someone from your past as well. Don’t rule someone out just because it’s been a while. This could be something that’s been brewing for months or years.” It all seemed simple enough, but what he was asking seemed like a monumental task. I tried to consider all the blind dates Lydia had set me up on, weird confrontations with seemingly random people, patrons at the library who might have…. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t thought to ask the campus security guy when I’d shown him the second note. “Could you ask the library where I work to see their security tapes?” Detective Cordova’s shoulders squared. “Do you have a particular date and time I should look for?” I’d brought the notes with me with the intention of showing them to him just in case he hadn’t already seen the copies I left with campus security. Dragging them out of my purse, I set them in front of him and pointed out the second note. “This one was left on my desk at work. Maybe a camera saw who left it.” He scribbled down the date and time range for when the note could have been left, then refocused on me. “I still want you to start making that list, okay? This guy is careful, so even if he was caught on camera, his face might not be visible. Your list can help point me in the right direction.” “I’ll start making a list,” I said, “but what about Jason? I told the police about him a few weeks ago. Could he be behind all of this?” Detective Cordova frowned. “I can’t rule him out completely, but he was my first stop after getting this case. He has alibies for some of the instances, but not others. We’re keeping an eye on him, though.” I felt better knowing he’d be watched, but more unnerved that the most likely suspect probably wasn’t involved. From what it sounded like, this person could be someone I didn’t even know, or met in passing. What if they couldn’t find him before…? “You said, earlier, you said this could be dangerous.” I forced myself to take a steadying breath. “Do you think he wants to hurt me?” I didn’t want to look at Detective Cordova. Most people’s expressions were more honest than their words. Dread ate at me, but I forced myself to meet his gaze. Brows pinched together, his mouth was firm as he choose his words. “If it were just him creeping around your building, I’d be inclined to say this was more of a fascination for him than aggressive interest, but taking the notes into account and the fact that he’s becoming bolder with his investigation of your apartment, he seems to be escalating.” “Escalating to what?” I begged. His expression stayed neutral, but it was his body language that gave him away. Drawing himself up protectively, he said, “To physical confrontation.” It took everything I had to not to lose it. Things were getting completely out of hand. Lydia and I weren’t getting along, I was on the verge of jumping head first into a relationship I was almost certainly not ready for, and there was a crazy person out there who may or may not want to hurt me. I had come to Sacramento to get my life under control. “Greenly?” Detective Cordova asked. “Look, I know this is a lot to take in, but I want you to know I’m doing everything I can to get this guy and keep you safe, okay?” I nodded. I think I did, anyway. “I need you to do something else for me, okay?” He said it slowly, like he was talking to a scared child. “Greenly, can you do one other thing for me?” He waited patiently until I acknowledged him. “I need you to tell your sister and Roman about all of this.” That snapped me out of my thoughts. “What? Why?” “So they can be aware and watchful. They may notice something you don’t, and if this guy does come after you, you don’t want them to be caught unaware. It could put everyone in more danger.” He held my gaze, making sure I was listening and understanding. He knew the second it sank in. I sucked in a breath as my eyes widened. “I need to go home, back to my apartment. What if he finds me at Roman’s, or my sister’s? What if they get hurt? I have to go home.” I hadn’t realized I’d started to move until Detective Cordova grabbed my arm. “Greenly,” he said sharply, “listen to me. Do not go back to your apartment alone. Putting yourself in danger will hurt your friends and family, too. You need to stay away from your building until we have a better idea of who’s harassing you. Do you understand me?” “But, but Sammy and the boys,” I argued. “I could be putting them in danger.” Detective Cordova’s grip softened on my arm. “I wasn’t trying to make you panic when I said this guy could be a physical threat. I just wanted you to know the risks, okay? It’s possible, yes, but you’re making the safest choice for everyone involved if you stay with Roman or your sister for a while. There’s a better chance he’ll stay away if you’re surrounded by other people. Look at when he’s tried to contact you so far. He left the notes when no one else was around and he’s only come prowling late at night when he thinks no one will see him. You need to stay away from your apartment and keep yourself surrounded by other people, okay?” I repeated everything he said in my mind as he was saying it. I had to. I had to hear it all one more time, convince myself what he was saying made sense, and tell myself to listen to him. Slowly, I started nodding. “Okay…okay.” “Okay, you’ll stay at Roman’s house?” he asked. I nodded again and his hand slipped from my arm. “Good. Thank you.” He released a breath he must have been holding since I tried to bolt. “You still need to tell them what’s going on, though. Can you do that? I’m happy to be there to explain and answer questions if you’d like.” An argument flashed through my mind as I debated which would be less frightening for Lydia and less likely to make Roman think he’d made a huge mistake getting involved with me. I seemed to have no limit when it came to crazy. Eventually, I shook my head. “I’ll be fine. I can explain things. It will freak my sister out a little less if I don’t show up at her house with a cop on my heels.” I glanced up at him and cringed. “No offense, or anything. I just know my sister and her low panic threshold.” Detective Cordova chuckled. “Trust me, I understand.” He held his smile a few seconds longer before it faded completely. “What about this Roman guy? You seem uncertain about your relationship with him, yet you’re staying at his house right now. Why don’t you want help explaining things to him?” Where did I even start? “We’ve had a rough start and I’m afraid of scaring him away.” Without getting into the details, I felt like that pretty much summed things up. Detective Cordova’s eyebrow rose. “Scare him off?” His skepticism mellowed into a bare smile. “I doubt that would be as easy as you seem to think.” Red flooded my cheeks, not just from the compliment, but because if he knew the entire story it was hard to believe he’d think that still. “Regardless,” he continued, “you need to tell him and whoever Sammy is.” “Sammy is his son. He’s only seven, so I don’t think he needs to know about this.” He nodded. “Ah, it didn’t realize.” He closed his notebook and set it aside. The pen was abandoned as well. “I’m going to check in with you tonight. See how you’re doing and make sure you told Roman and your sister. If you need anything in the meantime…” He took a card from a pocket on the inside of the notebook cover and handed it to me. “Call me right away if you see someone suspicious, remember something important, or need my help.” I stared at the card, still a little shocked by this entire experience. Detective Monroe Cordova. I remembered the last time an officer handed me his card. He had come to find me at school. Lydia was halfway across the country and I was the only other family member in the area, my dad’s next of kin and emergency contact on file at the hospital where he’d been taken after collapsing at the hardware store. Somehow, as soon as the officer stepped into my Intro to Biology classroom, I knew he was there for me and my entire body had gone numb. It was impossible not to imagine Lydia answering her front door to find Detective Monroe Cordova standing there. She would know, too, as soon as she saw him. I was the one who told her about Dad. There was no one else. If something happened to me, there wouldn’t even be a family member to tell her, just a stranger. I knew what that felt like and everything that had been building since I sat down at the coffee shop table finally spilled over. “It’s okay, Greenly,” Detective Cordova said reassuringly as he squeezed my hand. He didn’t sound surprised that I had dissolved into tears. He didn’t sound annoyed or impatient, either. Maybe it was just part of the job. He sat with me, holding my hand just tight enough to remind me he was there as I cried and wiped away tears. Chapter Nineteen As much as I hadn’t wanted to talk to my sister quite yet, I kept my promise to Detective Cordova and went straight to her house as soon as I left the coffee shop. After she finished berating me for driving when I wasn’t supposed to be, she let me talk and then proceeded to have a meltdown. The one benefit of telling her about the stalker was she forgot about our earlier argument and went into full-on big sister mode. She refused to let me leave until it was time to go pick up the boys from school, and even then, forced me into staying there until Roman made it home from work. While I appreciated her smothering concern, it left Roman more than a little confused. “Are you not feeling up to going out tonight?” he asked after showing up at Lydia’s house. I’d texted him as soon as I saw his car pull into his driveway to let him know where I was and that he’d have to come rescue me. I shook my head. “No, I definitely want to go out tonight. I just…” Where did I even start to explain this? “Did you forget?” Roman asked. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, laughing. “There’s no way I forgot about our first official date. Something came up and…I’ll explain over dinner. It’ll be easier that way.” He still seemed plenty confused, but shrugged. “If we want to make our reservations, we should head back to the house so you can get ready.” “Sounds perfect,” I said with probably a little too much emphasis. Roman gave me another funny look, but I dodged any other questions by saying goodbye to Sammy and all but shoving him into his father’s arms as a means of distraction. It worked on Roman, but not so much with Lydia. “Are you leaving?” she demanded. The hint of panic in her voice caught both Roman’s and James’s attention. James had just gotten home as well and hadn’t been filled in, so to the men in the room, it looked like Lydia was really overreacting. “Yes,” I said firmly as she strangled me with a hug. “I need to go get ready for dinner and pack a bag for Sammy since you wouldn’t let me do it earlier.” Lydia’s gaze darted between me and Roman. I’d asked her to keep her mouth shut until I could explain things to Roman. That might have been asking too much. “Well, uh, the boys were just, um, having too much fun.” I could see the questions and logical arguments running through Roman’s mind, but he seemed uncertain on where he stood with my sister after the blowup earlier in the week and closed his mouth without saying anything about it. Instead, he asked, “You’re sure you don’t mind Sammy spending the night tonight?” “Not at all,” Lydia said a little too cheerily. She shoved a dress she’d insisted on loaning me into my arms with a smile that was stretched too thin. “You two have fun.” When Roman looked to James for help, my brother-in-law held up his hands in defeat. I could have just explained everything right then, but I knew it would mean sitting around at Lydia’s for a few hours, missing our dinner reservation, and ruining everyone’s mood. I just wanted a few hours with Roman first. Was that really so much to ask? “I’ll have James drive your car back to Roman’s,” Lydia said, then immediately bit her lip. Wheels were turning and she backtracked almost immediately as I was sure possibilities of my car being spotted and causing trouble dashed through her mind. “Or maybe not. You’re not supposed to be driving anyway. I’ll have him put it in the garage. So you’re not tempted.” That’s was it. I pushed Roman out the door and started towing him down the walk one-handedly. Roman allowed me to drag him along, but still asked, “Did I do something to offend her again?” “Nope, this one’s all on me,” I said, “but I really don’t want to miss our reservations because I’ve been looking forward to tonight all week, so even though I know it’s probably going to drive you nuts, can you wait for me to explain until dinner? I’m never going to be ready in time otherwise.” Roman hesitated for a moment and then sighed. “Sure, I guess. I’ve been looking forward to tonight, too.” We reached the front door of his house a few minutes later and I darted inside and toward the back of the house. A week ago I didn’t have a clue where anything was when Evan threw up and I needed cleaning supplies. Now I raced into Roman’s bedroom, tugging off my sweatshirt and shoes as I went and dashed into the bathroom. I paused in the middle of undressing as I caught sight of all my bathroom stuff mingled with his. I told myself it didn’t mean he wouldn’t bail when I told him everything, and went back to tearing my clothes off. I washed and shaved my legs in record time, despite the plastic covered splint, and was wrapping a towel around my body when a knock sounded on the bathroom door. I clutched the towel around my otherwise naked body and tried not to panic. Had Lydia burst at the seams and told him everything and now he wanted to call things off? “We need to leave in twenty minutes to make the reservation. Will that be enough time?” Roman asked. Relief flooded me. “Yeah,” I squeaked, “I’ll be ready.” His footsteps were soft against the carpet, but I waited until they disappeared before breathing again. Then I sprang into action. Twenty minutes was not enough time, but I was determined. No time for careful blow drying meant I’d have to go with damp beachy waves. I’d rather skimp on hair than makeup. I knew I didn’t look my best like I had pictured a dozen times that week, but I looked at myself in the mirror and decided it would have to do. Still partially wet, the waves cascading down my back didn’t look half bad, and even though my makeup was simple, it did the job of highlighting my good features and downplaying the ones I was less fond of drawing attention to. Doffing the towel, I shimmied into Lydia’s dress and burst out of the bathroom in search of shoes. Halfway through a turn to scan the room, I realized I didn’t have any dress shoes. I hadn’t been thinking far enough ahead to get them from my apartment and Lydia hadn’t sent any along with the dress. I stared down at my feet and considered my options. All I had with me were sandals and tennis shoes. Neither would look great, but leather sandals would certainly be preferable to tennis shoes paired with a merlot colored sheath dress. Another knock, this time on the bedroom door, startled me into a spastic jump-turn that left me facing a shoe-bearing Roman. “Uh, I take it Lydia was right about you not having shoes for the dress?” He held out the pair of black kitten heels. “She just brought them over and picked up Sammy’s overnight bag.” “Oh, great. Thank you. Yes, I definitely needed some shoes.” I tried to pretend my heart wasn’t racing as Roman walked over, or at least that it was racing because of him and not panic that he’d reach his limit with me by the end of the night. Roman handed me the shoes when he reached me, but before I could put them on, his arms were around my waist and he was kissing my neck. “I told you that you didn’t bring enough stuff when we went to your apartment the other day.” I leaned my head to the side, suddenly not caring if we were late. It was difficult to care about anything with Roman’s lips on my skin. “I’m only…supposed to be staying…for a few days.” I stumbled through my answer, my thoughts scattering as Roman’s mouth moved behind my ear. Roman’s only response was a muffled, “Mmm.” Fear from half a dozen different sources pulled me out of his grip. I was breathing hard, and so was he, but I couldn’t let it go any further. Not until after we talked and he knew what he was getting into, for real this time. The playfully disappointed look on his face was mingled with just a hint of confusion and maybe even hurt, but he let me get my shoes on and then took my hand with a sigh. “Ready to go?” he asked. I nodded, not trusting my voice right now. It was a small miracle that we made it to his car without incident. I half expected Lydia to jump out of a shadow. A small measure of relief allowed me to relax once we were both in the car and backing out of the garage, but I knew Roman could still feel the tension in my body as he held my hand. Without Lydia’s less than subtle performance earlier, he might have just mistaken it for nerves. Even with as much time as we’d spent together over the past few weeks, it was the first time we had managed a night out without Sammy. Normally, that would be enough to make me panic all on its own. Now, it was at the bottom of my list of concerns. The ride to the restaurant was quiet, so stepping into the hushed murmuring of polite conversation at a nice restaurant felt a little loud. Considering the fact that I’d only been to a restaurant this nice a few times in my life, it should have been unnerving. I couldn’t really pack any more anxiety about tonight into my body, so I found it strangely comforting instead. Roman smiled when he felt me relax and pull in closer to him. We were seated a few minutes later, and Roman seemed content to leave any big discussions until dessert, so I took in a calming breath and smiled. That was right about when things went south. “Roman,” an older, smiling woman said cheerfully as she sauntered up to the table. A tall, well-dressed man about her same age stopped next to her, and while I didn’t recognize the man at all, the woman seemed familiar for some reason. “Mrs. Westerfield,” Roman said as he stood to greet her with a polite kiss on the cheek. “George, it’s nice to see you as well,” he said as he shook the man’s hand. “Please, let me introduce you to my girlfriend, Greenly Kendrick.” It was all a little more formal than I was used to, but I followed Roman’s example and stood. Mr. Westerfield was closest to me, so I shook his hand first, then extended my hand to Mrs. Westerfield as well. She took my hand and shook it politely, but her eyes narrowed as she considered me. “Didn’t I see you earlier today?” “Uh, I don’t know.” My gaze darted to Roman nervously before focusing on her again. “I was at my sister’s most of the day.” She let go of my hand before it got weird, but kept staring at me. “Yes, I’m positive I saw you. At the Corner Coffee Shop. This morning.” Taking another breath was like swimming through sand. “Oh.” “That’s it,” she said triumphantly. Then her eyes narrowed even more. “Yes, I saw you there, with a black man. Sitting right near the door. He was,” she paused, her expression turning hostile, “holding your hand, if I remember right.” I was pretty sure that if I fainted, no one would catch me. Mr. Westerfield didn’t look that spritely. His wife would let me drop even if she’d been within reach. Roman was not only too far away, the stricken look on his face said that even if he wanted to catch me, he probably wouldn’t have been able to react fast enough. My bet was he wouldn’t feel the inclination even if he was in full control of his faculties. “Darling, why don’t we let them enjoy their dinner. The waitress is waiting to show us to our table.” Mr. Westerfield seemed unfazed. Maybe his wife blurted out things like that all the time, and he simply swept her off as he tried not to dirty his shoes in the aftermath. Feeling like my legs might give out on me, I used my good hand to grip the edge of the table and lower myself back to my seat. Roman must have sat back down, too, because when he spoke, his voice seemed level with me. “I just introduced you as my girlfriend,” he said slowly. “I don’t understand…what she said, is it true?” I didn’t look at him. “Not in the way she said it.” I drew in a steadying breath, ready to explain, but Roman jumped in before I could. “This is why Lydia was acting so weird, right? She knows about…whatever this is. Are you seeing someone else?” The hurt in his voice was excruciating and I rushed to explain. “No, of course not, Roman. It wasn’t like that. The man I met, he’s a cop, and…” “A cop?” Roman demanded, more confused than ever. “Why were you having coffee with a cop? Why was he holding your hand?” “Because I was crying? Or maybe because I tried to leave and he stopped me. I can’t remember,” I said quickly. “He was just being nice, trying to calm me down.” Roman shook his head. “What?” “There’s a guy,” I said, “not the cop, but a different guy, who’s been leaving weird notes and snooping around my building. I didn’t want to think it was a big deal, but the neighbors started complaining and someone called the cops and Detective Cordova needed to talk to me but I didn’t want you to know about it so I drove even though I’m not supposed to and met him at the coffee shop this morning so he could ask me some questions and I kind of lost it while I was there.” Roman’s eyebrows rose slowly as he took in my rambling. I didn’t breathe or move as he processed everything. “Why,” he said very precisely, “didn’t you want me to know about all of this?” A little surprised that was his first question, I answered it honestly. “Because I was afraid you wouldn’t want to see me anymore.” When his eyes closed, my heart sank. “I mean, I get it, I do. You’ve already got Jen to deal with, and my sister’s been a nutcase since we started dating…hanging out…whatever, and I’m just one disaster after another, and now I’ve got a stalker to top things off.” “Wait,” Roman demanded, “stalker? Are you serious? I thought you said some guy was creeping around your building and leaving notes. You didn’t say he was targeting you specifically.” His eyes widened. “Is that what you’re saying? This guy is stalking you?” The intensity of his focus on me made me shrink down in my chair. “Yeah, at least, Detective Cordova thought so, and the notes, they were, um, to me. I don’t think anyone else has gotten a note.” Roman dragged both hands down his face. “What did they say? Were they threatening? Romantic?” “Um, not super threatening, but definitely not love notes or anything like that.” I imagined there was this warning sign flashing in his head, right next to a crazy-o-meter that was nearing the level that indicated running away as fast as possible was the best course of action. “Greenly,” Roman said, an edge to his voice that startled me, “how could you not tell me about this earlier? You’ve been at my house, alone, the last three days. What if this lunatic had found out where you were?” My mouth fell open just a little. “I…” “No wonder Lydia was freaking out when I got there and looked like she didn’t want to let go of you. And why she wanted to park your car in her garage.” He fell back against his seat. “Greenly, this is serious. You can’t just pretend it’s not and hope it will go away.” “I reported all of it,” I said quietly. His head shook back and forth slowly. He was quiet for a moment before his expression turned thoughtful, and maybe a little sad. “Is this why you agreed to stay with me longer?” “No, I mean, a little, but I wanted to stay regardless, I just…things are moving so fast and I felt ridiculous taking over your whole life like that.” The last, last thing I wanted to do was embarrass myself at a nice restaurant, on what was supposed to be a beautiful night with just the two of us and no distractions or drama. Regardless of what I wanted, tears welled in my eyes. “If you asked me to move in with you right now, I’d probably say yes even though I know it would be crazy, because I love being with you and Sammy that much, but I can’t bring myself to believe you would actually ask or that you don’t spend half your day wondering how you got wrapped up with this crazy girl who walks around getting food spilled on her and accosted by puppies and hit with baseballs and stalked by lunatics. This has to be that last straw and I didn’t want to lay it on the pile only to see it all fall apart.” A few diners at nearby tables were casting wary glances in my direction, but I kept my focus trained on Roman. It was hard to kid myself and believe he wouldn’t throw his hands up. I wasn’t sure what to think when the shocked expression he’d been wearing the last few minutes morphed into a slow smile. “Would you really say yes if I asked you to move in with me?” My whole train of thought derailed. “What?” “Would you…say yes?” When I didn’t answer him, his smile widened. “If I asked you right now to move in with me, would you say yes?” My lips felt numb. So did my fingers, but numb lips were more of a hindrance to talking. “Are you?” “Would you say yes?” “Why would you ask me?” If this was just because of what I’d told him about the stalker, I couldn’t do it. I felt bad enough just staying at his house a few extra days because I was scared to go home. Reaching across the table, Roman took my hand in his. I couldn’t respond, because I couldn’t really feel my hand anymore. Instead, I stared at his fingers as they brushed back and forth across my skin. Not even his voice could pull my gaze away. “I’ve been considering it all week,” he said. “Lydia will either have a fit or start planning a wedding, I’m not sure which yet, but her reaction isn’t nearly as much of a concern as yours is, Greenly.” He squeezed my hand, somehow drawing my gaze up to his with that simple touch. “I’m not asking because your apartment doesn’t seem safe. I’m asking because I’m in love with you, my son loves you, and I can’t stand the thought of you going back home.” My eyes had to be the size of saucers by now. “Are you serious? You’re really asking me to move in with you?” “Yes.” That was it. Simple. Honest. Completely insane. Regardless of the fact that I knew we were moving too fast, I licked my lips, swallowed my doubts, and said, “Okay. Yes.” Roman’s smile grew, and I was pretty sure I was smiling as well. In all honesty, it felt like I’d had a few too many glasses of wine and my head might float off my body. There was a good chance I was grinning like a complete idiot. “How are we both doing tonight?” a waitress who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere asked. There was a lilt to her voice that suggested she’d been waiting off to the side for a chance to approach, maybe overhearing some of our conversation, and she really was asking if we were both okay. “We’re doing just fine,” Roman said easily. “Thank you for asking.” The woman let out a held breath and launched into the night’s specials and asked for our drink orders. As stunned as I still was, I was relieved when Roman took the lead and ordered for me. At this rate, dinner was going to be over before I got my head back together. I had just agreed to move in with Roman Carpenter. Lydia was going to freak out. Or maybe Roman was right and she would be delighted. It was hard to tell with her lately. “Greenly,” Roman said in a way that made it clear he’d already said my name a few times with no result. I look up and focused. “Your phone is ringing. Do you need to answer it?” I’d forgotten I’d even set it on the table just in case Lydia called. It wasn’t my sister, though. I slid my finger across the screen slowly and pressed the phone to my ear. “Hello?” “Greenly, this is Detective Cordova. Where are you right now?” I knew without him saying that he wasn’t just checking in. “Out to dinner with Roman. Why?” “I’m at your apartment.” “What? Why?” “Your neighbors called because they were hearing a lot of noise and they knew you weren’t home,” he explained. “What happened?” Roman reached across the table and took my hand, anxiety making his grip tight. The detective hesitated. “He broke into your apartment, Greenly. I’m not quite sure why, yet, because it doesn’t look like anything’s been taken, but it’s another escalation.” “We can be there in twenty minutes,” I said. I started to stand, but his words brought me to a full stop. “He’s still in the area, Greenly.” He gave me a minute to take that in. “We had uniforms patrolling the area, so they responded quickly to the call, but he took off as soon as he saw the patrol car. They went after him on foot, but he slipped away. We think he’s still on foot, though, and could circle back if he thinks things have calmed down.” “But, how will you know if he took something if I don’t come? That could be a clue, right? Knowing if he took something and what it was?” It seemed logical to me, but I wasn’t sure how well my brain was working. Detective Cordova took a deep breath. “You’re right, but I want the scene secure before you show up. Stay with Roman, eat dinner, then call me. I’ll let you know if it’s safe, then you can come get what you need and let me know if you think anything is missing, okay?” I nodded, then realized I needed to actually say something. “Okay.” I must not have sounded convincing, because he asked to speak with Roman as well. A few minutes later, Roman handed my phone back to me and took my hand again. His voice was steady as he said, “Don’t worry, Greenly. Everything’s going to be all right.” Chapter Twenty It was hard to believe what Roman said when wading through the scattered contents of your own apartment. As far as I could tell, nothing had been taken. That made it even more disturbing. If someone had just wanted my TV or computer, I’d still feel violated, but it wouldn’t have seemed as personal. This was personal. Whoever this guy was, he’d broken into my apartment and destroyed as much as he could before spotting the cops moving in and bolting. I understood, now, what it meant when cops or mobsters on TV would say an apartment had been tossed. That was exactly what it looked like. It was like one of those snow globes after being shaken up, except it wasn’t fake snow. It was everything I owned. Smashed, torn, ruined. Half my wardrobe was a total loss. The rest I didn’t even want to touch because he had handled it. In the end, all I took were the textbooks I needed, a few family mementos, and personal documents I’d kept in a lockbox in my closet that the intruder either hadn’t seen or didn’t have enough time to mess with. Huddled in the front seat of Roman’s truck, I felt exhausted. Roman was settling my things in the backseat when Detective Cordova approached my door and pulled it open. “I spoke to the building manager and she said she’d coordinate with the service your sister contacted to get things cleaned up. I don’t want you coming back to the apartment alone for any reason. I don’t even want you coming back with Roman or your sister. If you need something, call me, okay?” I nodded, more than happy to give that promise. “I know you’re planning on going back to classes next week, but I would strongly encourage you to stay off campus as much as possible,” he said. That caught my attention. “You think he’s a student?” “Or faculty, or support staff. We don’t know, but given how much time you’ve spent on campus lately, it’s the most likely place to have met this person, and the easiest place to get access to you.” That scared me, a lot. I didn’t like the idea of missing classes or work. I was supposed to defend my thesis at the end of the semester and graduate. Taking a little more time off work wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but falling behind in my classes would have a much bigger impact. “If you need me to speak to your professors, just say the word,” Detective Cordova said. I nodded, thankful for his understanding. I was almost positive he was doing a little more hand-holding than he normally would with someone involved in a case, but I appreciated his concern. He promised to check in on me in the morning then stepped back and closed my door again. He and Roman exchanged a few words before Roman was once again sitting beside me. “Ready?” he asked. I took his hand and nodded. “Let’s go home then.” I didn’t think he’d said that out of anything more than habit, but I felt myself shudder in relief at the word home. There were plenty of people who would think I was out of my mind for moving in with Roman, but what did I care? I felt safe with Roman. I felt loved and accepted. No, that didn’t mean we were a sure thing, but for right now it felt right. What felt like a long time later, Roman pulled into his garage, and the door leading to the house burst open. Sammy and the boys spilled out into the garage with Lydia chasing behind them, telling them to be careful. “I hope you don’t mind,” Roman said, “but Sammy was worried and didn’t want to stay the night at Lydia’s anymore. I know we were supposed to have a night to ourselves.” “Of course I don’t mind.” My door was yanked open and Sammy climbed up into the truck to tackle me with a hug. “Snuggling up together for a movie on the couch sounds perfect.” Roman gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before stepping out and opening the door behind him to get my things out of the backseat. James was there helping a moment later and they had everything in hand before I managed to get out of the truck without one of the boys pulling me out on top of them. As soon as I had both feet on the ground, Lydia flew at me. “I was so worried about you! I just can’t believe all of this. They have no idea who it could be? I am just beside myself knowing someone is…” Her gaze flitted down to the boys, all of whom were listening attentively. Shaking off the rest of her words, she hooked her arm with mine and started leading me into the house. “I’m glad you were with Roman when that detective called. I really wish you’d just come stay with me so I can be sure you’re all right, but I guess I understand if you want to stay here at Roman’s for a while.” “For always!” Sammy shouted happily. Lydia blinked, and almost seemed to pass off what he’d said as him being silly, but then she stopped at looked at him. “What?” If Sammy felt her scrutiny, he certainly didn’t show it. “Yeah, my dad said Greenly’s going to live with us all the time now. Isn’t that great?” “You mean for a few weeks, until her apartment is fixed and everything’s taken care of, right?” She was talking to Sammy, but her fingernails were digging into my skin. “I don’t know,” Sammy said. “My dad just said Greenly was moving in with us. Before she was just staying the night because you were mad at her.” A stiff smile spread across my sister’s lips. She waited until the boys had run ahead before yanking me to a stop. I knew what was coming, so I said, “Sammy’s right. Roman asked me to move in, and I said yes.” “Because of the stalker and the break-in, right?” Her stare was expectant, not to mention insistent. “No. He’d been considering asking me all week, actually, and before you say anything that will cause a fight,” I said, “I love Roman, and Sammy, and I love being with them. That’s why I said yes.” There was a moment where I was positive she was planning ways to strangle Roman. Then, her shoulders relaxed and she pulled me in a little closer. “Well, I’m happy for you then.” I had to admit, she surprised me. “You are?” “If this is really what you want, of course I am. You being happy is all I’ve ever wanted for you, Greenly.” She said it like I was silly for thinking otherwise. I chose not to comment. By the time we reached the den, the boys were watching TV, completely oblivious to anything else. Roman and James were standing off to the side, deep in discussion about something until James noticed us come in and elbowed Roman in the side. I swear he muttered something that sound an awful lot like “Good luck,” before giving Lydia a peck on the cheek and taking off with an excuse to check on the boys. Lydia disentangled herself from me and threw her arms around Roman. “Thank you for taking care of her tonight,” she said. A little surprised, Roman hugged her back, but kept a wary eye on her just in case. When Lydia pulled back, he looked like he was preparing for a tongue lashing. Instead, she smiled. “I will warn you that Greenly always used to say she would wear our mom’s wedding dress when she got married. It’s absolutely dreadful and I’m begging you not to agree to her walking down the aisle in something that ugly.” Roman gave her a dry look. “Getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you?” “You met my sister three weeks ago,” she said pointedly. “I met her at your Christmas party, actually.” Lydia rolled her eyes. “I’m just hedging my bets. The way you two are moving, I’ll be an aunt before the end of the year.” Her scathing tone was ruined just a little by a smirk that made it pretty obvious she wouldn’t be terribly disappointed if we proved her right on that. I was trying to suppress a giggle when I cured up against his chest. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush that shade of red before.” “I don’t think I’ve ever had to discuss my sex life with your sister before.” “So far, there isn’t much to discuss,” I said with a laugh. Roman pulled me against his chest. “Don’t remind me.” He pressed a rough kiss against my mouth. “I’d been planning on remedying that tonight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sammy wormed his way into bed with us. He may be absorbed in watching Lego people sing about awesomeness right now, but he was crying earlier when he overhead Lydia talking to James about what had happened.” I turned to look at Sammy, who was indeed glued to the TV as Emmet gave the world’s worst speech. I felt terrible that he’d been upset so much. “I’m sorry about tonight.” “Hey, don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault,” Roman said. “Besides, we’ll have plenty of other nights together, right?” I was still reeling from everything, but that felt like a promise, one I needed to hear. Tipping my head up, I smiled through my exhaustion. “Right.” I suspected neither of us would have been up for more than crashing even if we had been alone, but desire smoldered in Roman’s eyes as he leaned down and kissed me. Worry melted away for a few precious seconds as his mouth moved against mine. Soft, gentle, insistent, he pushed the numbness away and brought life back to my body. “I was joking about becoming an aunt,” Lydia mumbled as she walked by us and into the kitchen. Roman’s chest rumbled against mine as he chuckled. “I don’t understand her at all.” “No one does,” I said. He kissed me again, then asked, “Do you really want to wear your mom’s wedding dress?” “Are you kidding me? That thing is hideous. I only ever said that as a joke. Not even my dad liked that dress.” I shuddered at the idea of wearing that much lace, ruffles, fake diamonds, and tulle. In the middle of picturing such an ordeal, my thoughts finally snapped into order. I looked up at Roman and asked, “Why?” Chapter Twenty-One It turned out that having a dangerous stalker, verified by a local detective, made normally hard-nosed professors become very understanding and accommodating. Not a single one of them complained about me needing to miss class for the next few weeks and handing in assignments over email. I’d even had a few Skype sessions to ask questions and review points of my thesis. Deep down, I figured it was probably less liability on the college if I were attacked off campus, but it was a relief either way. I was actually making a lot of headway. A paper airplane flew into my head, pinging backward and falling to the ground. My slow one-and-a-half-handed typing was interrupted as I lost my train of thought, but I turned and smiled at Evan all the same. “Hey, bud, what’s up? Bored?” He sighed and fell back onto the couch. “You’ve been doing homework all morning and Mommy said I can’t go back in my bedroom until she’s done cleaning. There’s nothing to do.” The one part of having time away from school that wasn’t so great was that Roman and Lydia had combined forces to make sure I was pretty much never alone. While I didn’t mind watching Evan when Lydia was busy, I could see the situation getting old fast. As it was, Sammy had spent the last three nights tucked in between Roman and me. I suspected he was afraid I’d disappear like Jen had. Even though he was scared, I didn’t think he really understood why. It was enough for him to know I might not be there. Roman had tried to reassure him, but neither one of us wanted to push him. “How about we make a snack?” I suggested. “Ants on a log?” Evan bounced off the couch. “Yes! Mommy thinks those are gross.” “They are gross to grownups, but if you like them, I’ll make you some.” Raisins, peanut butter, and celery. Yuck. Little kids seemed to have no taste buds, though, so it worked. Fun was more important than yum when it came to snacks, I supposed. Fifteen minutes later, Evan was happily munching as loudly as possibly on his snack and I was back at my laptop. I was just getting back into my paper when Lydia immerged from the boys’ bedroom and plopped into the chair next to me. “I don’t know how those two manage to make such a ridiculous mess so often. I swear there will be Legos stuck in the carpet for the rest of eternity.” I almost made a smart comment about it being her monkeys and her circus, but I thought about trying to help Sammy find his pajamas last night and tripping over half a dozen toys just trying to get to his dresser. It wasn’t like Roman expected me to suddenly take over all the household chores now that I was officially living there, but I wanted to do my part and stop being a house guest. That meant doing all the things Lydia did for her boys on a regular basis. Thinking about it like that was a little overwhelming. “I recognize that look,” Lydia said. She chuckled to herself, at me. “I remember seeing it on my own face the first time Colby managed to pee all over the changing table because I wasn’t fast enough with the diaper and I thought, who’s going to clean this up? Then I realized, oh yeah, me. That’s when it hits you.” “When what hits you?” Lydia chuckled again, and ignored my question entirely when she spotted Evan running toward her with peanut buttery hands. She caught his wrists before he could touch her and guided him back to the sink to wash his hands. When he was no longer a danger to the furniture, Lydia sat back down and I gave up on my paper until after lunch. “So, I was thinking,” she said. “Why don’t you leave Sammy here tonight when Roman gets home? He can have dinner with us and play for a few hours before bedtime.” I knew when my sister was hatching something. “Why?” “Because even though I was mostly joking about you two adding to the trio, I am well aware of the need for grownup time in a relationship.” She leaned forward, elbows propped on the table. “I’m also aware that Sammy’s been crawling into bed with you two and you’re going a little stir-crazy being babysat twenty-four-seven, even if it has only been a few days.” I stared at her, trying to determine if there were ulterior motives. When I couldn’t come up with any, I decided to take her at her word. “Thanks, sis. That would be really nice.” She beamed and I couldn’t help feeling bad for doubting her. “Are you sure you don’t mind, though? It is a school night?” She waved off my concern. “It’s the week before spring break. They aren’t doing a whole lot aside from driving their teachers crazy.” She stood then, scanning the room for Evan in the face of so much quiet. “I’ll let you get back to your paper. Evan’s got to be up to something.” She walked away mumbling about Legos and no dessert if his room was a mess again. *** Part of me wondered if Roman felt silly having to pick me up from my sister’s house like he did his seven-year-old son. Neither one of them would even let me cross the street on my own. He thought he was coming for the both of us, but didn’t seem all that disappointed when he only got me as his prize. Closing and locking the door behind us, Roman looked at me and said, “Well, go out or stay in?” He stepped away from the door and grabbed my hips so he could pull me against him. “I think we both know what your sister was intending with this plot, but if you’d like to get out of the house, I’d be more than happy to take you to dinner.” “Even though it would be nice to get out of the house, staying here with you sounds infinitely more appealing. I vote for ordering in.” Roman grinned. “Order in, it is.” He kissed me full on the mouth before taking his phone from his pocket and posing a new question. “How does Italian sound?” “Perfect.” I left him to order the food in favor of taking a shower. An afternoon of homework may not sound taxing, but I felt a little drained and was in need of a pick me up. Lydia said she would keep Sammy until bed time, which gave us three whole hours of alone time. I didn’t want to squander away our time in the shower, but I did take enough time to shave my legs. Getting dressed and doing my hair and makeup were a little more rushed as I knew the food would arrive soon. Even so, I thought I looked good enough to steal Roman’s focus, even with my clunky, new cast. Walking into the dining room, I breathed in the scent of rich alfredo and Italian spices. Roman smiling at me as he dished everything onto plates managed to steal the show, despite the fact that I really was hungry. “Everything looks great,” I said, my eyes more on him than the food. Roman pulled out my chair, smiling the kind of smile that said he wasn’t all that concerned with food, either. Once he’d taken his seat, he looked over at me, his gaze seeming to settle there like it had no plans of moving. “As much as I love Sammy, I could almost kiss your sister for offering to watch him tonight.” Chuckling, I said, “I’m sure she’d rather you saved the kissing for me. Although, if you offered to wash her hair…” I let my words trail off, teasing, and enjoying the blush that crept up Roman’s neck. Lydia had made a not-so-under-her-breath comment over the weekend about him washing my hair, and when he’d asked, I’d been honest and told him what Lydia had said about that. He’d blush then, too, at the thought of my sister saying anything he did was sexy. “Kissing and hair washing are strictly reserved for you alone,” Roman said, face still red. Smiling, I said, “Good to hear.” Deciding to give him a break, I took a bite of my penne and let the delicious flavors roll over my tongue. Roman seemed to know all the best takeout places. I suspected that was largely because after Jen left he was at a loss in the kitchen and ended up ordering in quite a bit before his mother came to help clean up the mess Jen had left and taught Roman to cook. She’d done a good job with the basics. Roman could make all the essentials and a few more elaborate meals, but they still ate out most nights of the week. Lydia, on the other hand, was a domestic goddess in the kitchen. She pretty much had to be after my mom died, because my dad could burn water and we all would have starved if she hadn’t stepped up. Every lesson she learned in the kitchen, she drilled into me as well. Even though Roman kept trying to make me rest, he and Sammy both seemed to appreciate my willingness to cook. I’d always enjoyed cooking, but it was a much different experience cooking for Sammy and Roman than it was just making small meals for myself, one I truly enjoyed. “Can I ask you something?” I looked up to find Roman peering at me curiously. The last time he’d asked me that question, we’d gotten into a fight and then ended up making out in his bedroom. “Sure.” “Why does blood bother you so much?” He took another bite of his food and didn’t press me to answer. I knew that if I said it was too personal to talk about, he’d back off. While it wasn’t an easy thing for me to get into, I didn’t take the easy way out. Setting my fork down, I asked, “How much has Lydia told you about our mom?” “Not much, just that she died when you two were little, some kind of blood disorder.” His tone made it clear he wasn’t prying, just curious. Swallowing the difficult emotions talking about her brought up, I made myself answer. “She had a condition where her body attacked the platelets in her blood. You need platelets to stop bleeding. Since she had so few, when she would get a cut, it would bleed more than usual and for a longer time. If she bumped into something, she’d get bruises no matter how light the impact was. She’d get nosebleeds all the time, and bleeding under her skin that looked like this horrible rash. She always had to be careful and she was back and forth in the hospital and doctor’s offices all the time.” “I can only imagine how upsetting that would be for a child,” Roman said. I frowned, not sure how to respond to that. “Well, it was normal for us, I guess. Mom always had to be extremely careful, and she couldn’t do things with us that a lot of other moms did, but we understood why.” “But still, I understand why you don’t like being around blood. That’s a lot for a kid to deal with.” For a long time, I didn’t say anything. I could leave it at that. It was answer enough, I supposed. Except it wasn’t the real answer, not all of it. “I was seven when my mom died. Lydia was eleven. I hadn’t been feeling good, flu or something. Lydia was at school. I was in bed, exhausted from throwing up for two days, but I heard a loud crash and jumped out of bed,” I said quietly. “I knew that if Mom had fallen, she’d need help, and maybe a doctor. I knew how to call 911, so I ran for her.” Roman reached over and took my hand. The comfort his touch provided let me continue when I didn’t think I could have otherwise. “I didn’t know what had happened, because there wasn’t any blood or bruises this time. She wouldn’t wake up, though, so I called 911 like I’d been taught and held her hand while the lady on the phone talked to me and told me how brave I was being. I didn’t feel brave. I was terrified. I knew one day my mom would probably die, but not then, not when I was so young. “They took me in the ambulance with her because they hadn’t been able to reach my dad yet. I didn’t see him until they had taken my mom away at the hospital and a nurse let me sit at her desk. When he ran up to the desk asking for my mom, I threw myself at him. He held me, but I don’t think he even felt my weight in his arms.” I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice calm so I could finish. “I heard the doctor tell my dad that my mom had died on the way to the hospital. There had been a hemorrhage in her brain and by the time they got to her, there wasn’t anything they could do. I didn’t know what all of that meant at the time, but I did understand that my mom had died while I was holding her hand and no one told me.” Blinking back tears, I did my best to breathe and bring my emotions under control. “I was actually okay with blood before that, believe it or not. It doesn’t even make sense that I’m so sensitive to it now since there wasn’t any blood when she died.” I shrugged, because I really couldn’t explain it. “For weeks after she died, every time I thought of her, I remembered how I’d been in bed, throwing up, while her brain had been bleeding, slowly killing her. I guess maybe I felt a little responsible, which I know is crazy, but after that I couldn’t stand to be around blood or vomit or anything that reminded me of being sick or at a doctor’s office.” “Wow, Greenly, I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine Sammy having to deal with something like that. You were only seven and you stayed calm and did everything you could to help your mom. I don’t think anyone would blame you for shying away from blood after something like that.” Roman squeezed my hand, bolstering my flagging strength and warming me with his love. Looking down at my half-eaten meal, I realized I wasn’t very hungry anymore. Then I felt guilty. Glancing back up at Roman, I said, “I guess I kind of killed the mood.” Smiling gently, Roman shook his head. “No, you’re just letting me get to know you better. You amaze me.” I would normally roll my eyes at that sort of comment, but I knew how much he meant it. My personal opinion was that he severely outranked me in amazingness, but saying so would only earn me a shake of his head. “Now it’s my turn to ask you a question,” I said. “Why have you put up with so much craziness when it comes to me?” “I could ask you the same thing,” he said, clearly referring to Jen the Monster Ex. “My answer is easy. I asked you first.” Roman quirked an eyebrow at me. “Your answer is easy? I have to hear it now.” He gave me a look that said he wouldn’t budge until I did. “Fine, but then it’s your turn.” My stalwart expression made it clear I wasn’t kidding. “Thanks largely to Lydia, my entire dating life has been spent learning exactly what I don’t want in a guy and in a relationship. When I got to know you and stopped being mad at Lydia for playing games, it was easy to recognize what I did want, and you’re it.” Grinning, Roman tried to distract me with a kiss, but I pulled back and pointed a finger at him. “Uh, uh. Your turn. And you have to be honest.” Sighing dramatically, Roman gave in. “I have stuck around through broken bones and stalkers because you aren’t the center of your own world. Other people’s needs and feelings mean something to you, and you’re willing to put them above your own when someone else needs you. I don’t think you understand how much I respect and admire that about you.” For a few seconds, I couldn’t respond. I knew the message behind his words was that Jen hadn’t been capable of any of those things. Yet, it wasn’t simply that I was the opposite of her, and logical replacement. Roman saw goodness in other people, and believed that if you loved someone you should be willing to sacrifice for them. I respected the way he loved and cared so deeply about Sammy and honestly wanted to be a good dad. He wasn’t perfect, but he tried to be a good person, and it affected me deeply that he saw all those same things in me. I thought I’d ruined the moment after telling him about my mom, but he had brought it back. I leaned forward and kissed him softly. Which turned into something deeper. Lydia’s original plan to introduce us had a few speed bumps along the way, but eventually worked out. I figured she must have been getting better at plotting, because this plan worked out even better. Chapter Twenty-Two “Does your person have a mustache?” I asked. Round five of Guess Who? was going about as well as the previous four, which made me laugh. Sammy either didn’t understand the rules very well, or he was purposely giving the wrong answers to confuse me. I was pretty sure I knew which one it was. “No,” he replied slowly. I eyed him, doubting the truthfulness of his answer. “Are you sure?” His head bobbed as his deceitful grin grew. Halfway through spring break, we’d played every board game Roman had, indulged in way too many hours of video games, and played at the park under Lydia’s watchful eye for at least an hour every day. Roman felt bad he hadn’t been able to take time off, but Sammy and I had enjoyed our time together. He’d even stopped climbing into bed with us as his fears about me disappearing had lessened. I flipped down a few more cartoon faces and soaked up the moment. It had been a long time since I’d felt this at peace. A burst of sharp knocks on the front door startled me and sent Sammy spinning in his chair. He leaned to see around the kitchen island in an attempt to get a look at the front door and nearly fell out of his chair head first. I practically had to lay across the table to reach his chair back in time to stop the tipping. The knocking came again as I righted him. “You stay put, okay? I’ll see who it is?” Roman hadn’t been thrilled about Sammy and I staying at the house alone, but I’d finally convinced him we’d be fine on our own if we stayed inside and didn’t attract any undue attention. There hadn’t been any sign of the stalker in the neighborhood, and the police had been patrolling regularly. I approached the door cautiously, even still, hoping it wasn’t someone unfamiliar. I was under strict order not to open the door to anyone who wasn’t family or close friend. Looking through the peephole, I decided I would have rather dealt with a stranger, even one there to abduct me. Sighing, I unlocked the door and pulled it open only partially. “Jennifer, what are you doing here? I doubt Roman forgot to tell me you’d scheduled time with Sammy today. In fact, I doubt he even knows you’re in town.” As far as Roman knew, Jen was supposed to be on her way back to New York for some play or something. I couldn’t even fathom why she’d show up here in the middle of the day when she knew Roman would be at work. “I ended up staying in California longer than planned. Multiple shows were interested in having me audition while I was in town.” The tone of her voice implied I should be very impressed. I wasn’t, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Anyway, I’m heading back to New York soon and thought I’d stop by and see my little Sammy before I left.” Not moving from in front of the door, I said, “You’re supposed to call Roman first and schedule time with Sammy. Not show up unannounced.” Jen waved her hand dismissively. “Forgive me if I don’t let the babysitter stop me from seeing my son.” Ah, so that was why she’d shown up now. Clearly she thought she could push me around more easily than Roman, and I was sure having a chance to fling a few barbs in my direction at the same time was only a bonus for her. While Jen was still extremely intimidating on several levels, I was past scurrying out of her way to avoid conflict. I was about to tell her to take it up with Roman and shut the door in her face, but I hadn’t realized Sammy had followed me to the door. “She’s not my babysitter,” he said angrily. “She’s my new mom.” Neither Jen nor I said anything for a moment. At first, I was too shocked Sammy had said that to her, especially since it wasn’t true, and then I lost my words all over again when I saw the devastated expression on Jen’s face. The last thing I wanted to do was sit down for a lengthy conversation with Roman’s ex-wife. As much as I wished I could leave her standing on the porch all afternoon, I had to do the right thing. So I opened the door the rest of the way and sighed. “Jen, come in, please.” I didn’t wait for her response, and instead turned to Sammy. “Sammy, I think you owe your mom an apology.” Red flooded his face. “No!” Realizing Jen had stepped into the foyer, I closed and locked the door behind her before responding to Sammy. Jen still hadn’t said a word. “Sammy,” I said, pinning him with a stern look, “you…” “I won’t apologize,” he shouted. “I hate her!” Strangely, there was less reaction from Jen to that statement than his first. I, on the other hand, was shocked. “Samuel, we do not tell people we hate them. You’re angry and upset, but we do not say mean things to our family like that. Apologize to your mother, right now.” “No!” Tears welled in his eyes as his anger rose. “She left me and she only wants to see me so she can be around Dad! She’s not my mom anymore. I won’t let her be my mom anymore! You’re my new mom and she can’t say no because…She. Left. Me!” He didn’t wait for me to demand again that he apologize. With tears pouring down his face, Sammy bolted for his bedroom. I’d dealt with fits and tantrums with my nephews plenty of times, but nothing like this. Sammy wasn’t upset about not getting ice cream or someone taking his toys. The poor boy was frightened and angry, on a deeper level than he probably knew how to fully process, and he felt like he had no control over what happened in his life. That would scare me, too. Sighing, I turned to face Jen and offer my own apology in Sammy’s place. “Is it true?” she spat. Not sure which part of his outburst she was reacting to, I hesitated. “Is what true?” “Are you and Roman engaged?” It took a few seconds for my brain to catch up with what she’d said. Her only child just screamed at her that he hated her and didn’t want her to be his mom anymore, and her first question was about whether or not Roman and I were engaged? Where had that even come from? I was still trying to wrap my head around that when another knock on the door startled me into gasping. Practically jumping away from Jen and having to answer her questions, I reached for the door and peered through the peephole again. Relief hit me when I recognized Detective Cordova, then it turned into a silent groan that echoed all the way down to my toes. Sluggishly, my fingers twisted the deadbolt and opened the door. “Detective Cordova, it’s nice to see you. Any news?” If Jen hadn’t been able to see me doing it, I would have crossed my fingers that he’d have a quick answer and leave. This was my life we were talking about. Of course it couldn’t be that simple. “Yes, actually, do you mind if I come in?” Forcing a polite smile onto my face, I stepped back and gestured him in. He got past me so I could shut and lock the door before spotting Jen and stopping. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you had a guest,” he said, gaze bouncing back to me after seeing Jen’s hostile expression. “Unexpected guest,” I grumbled. “Jen, this is Officer Cordova. Officer Cordova, this is Jen…” I trailed off, at a loss suddenly. Coming up empty, I had no other choice than to go to Jen for help. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what your maiden name is.” A sharp, cutting smile spread across her perfectly shaped lips. “I never changed it back.” She focused her full charm on the detective and extended her hand. “Jennifer Carpenter. Roman and I were married.” “Yes, were,” I said. “Yet, here you are in our living room. Uninvited.” My sympathy for her after Sammy’s hurtful words was slipping fast. Hoping to get both visitors out of my hair as quickly as possible, I gestured toward the couches. “Maybe we should all sit down and everyone can say whatever they need to and then we can all go our separate ways.” I meant for that to be more polite than it ended up being. Jen sauntered over to the couch like she was on a catwalk. Officer Cordova hesitated, glancing over at me with a look that asked if I needed help. As much as I wanted to jump on that offer, I could only shrug. I was sure throwing her out would only make things worse in the long run. Accepting that, albeit grudgingly, I took a seat on the arm chair across from Jen and looked over at Officer Cordova. “So, you said you had news?” Silently, I was pleading with him to say he’d caught the guy and everything was great now. “There hasn’t been any sign of the stalker around your building since the break-in, however, I was able to get the security footage from the library.” He reached into his jacket pocket and I tensed, anticipation making it difficult to breathe. “We didn’t get a clear enough image of his face to ID him, but I thought maybe you’d recognize something about him that could help us.” I expected Jen to jump in with a billion questions, throwing all of this in my face as proof she was better than me. Surprisingly, she sat primly on the edge of the couch, interested, but not overly so. I kept her in the corner of my vision just in case. The rest of my attention went to Officer Cordova and the photos he was holding out to me. I took them with only my fingertips. The corners of the three thick sheets separating enough to let me count them. Touching them felt like too much of a physical interaction with this creep. I laid the photos on the coffee table and pushed them apart with one finger until I could see all three images at once. It wasn’t just on TV shows that security camera images were frustratingly fuzzy and all but useless for identifying people. I understood why. Cameras capable of capturing that kind of footage were expensive, and the library housed books, most of which weren’t especially valuable. Plus, I knew the camera watching the circulation desk was mounted high on a wall to get a wide view at the expense of detail. The partial view of the guy’s face as he casually dropped the note on my desk without stopping was barely enough to tell his ethnicity, and in all honesty he could have been Caucasian or Hispanic. I wasn’t completely sure. In all three images, there was never more than a corner of his face in view at once. I couldn’t have guessed whether that was luck or skill. All the images really told me was that the note had been purposely left for me to find, and that my old neighbors had accurately described his height and build. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t see anything clearly enough to say whether I recognize him or not.” Detective Cordova nodded. “It’s okay. I knew it was a long shot, but I wanted you to look at them either way.” He reach back into his jacket and produced his cell phone. I wasn’t sure why, until he spoke again. “I also had the library send sections of the security footage where this guy was visible. I want you to look at a few to see if there’s something about his walk or mannerisms that strike a chord with you, okay?” “A few?” I asked. It was a struggle to keep my rising fear under control so Jen wouldn’t see it. I had no doubt she’d use this to push Roman away from me if she saw an opening. “Yes, there were…several. Some of the videos are from different parts of the library, but they’re mainly around your work area, though he stays in the distance, other than to drop off the note.” Detective Cordova hesitated a moment before handing over his phone. I understood why when I looked at the list of videos. Campus Library 1 Campus Library 2 Campus Library 3 Campus Library 4… Campus Library 17 “When did this start?” I asked, my voice sounding hollow. “The library only keeps footage for four weeks. The old videos are automatically deleted to preserve space on the hard drive.” He watched my reaction, no doubt wondering if I’d burst into tears again. I wanted to. Believe me, a long cry sounded pretty good right about then. “I can’t believe he was there so often. That’s almost every day of the week.” I couldn’t keep my breathing from picking up no matter how hard I tried. He was there, nearly every day, watching me, keeping track of me and what I was doing. Scanning through the files, I noted the dates on each one and quickly realized another pattern of—what had Detective Cordova called it?—escalation? I hadn’t been at work for almost two weeks, thanks to breaking my wrist and spring break. The seventeen videos had accumulated within two weeks. Not only that, they went from one visit per day to multiple instances of him being caught on camera near my desk, but just out of my line of sight. Watching and…listening. Detective Cordova picked up on my reaction immediatly and leaned toward me. “What did you see?” I shook my head, “Nothing. I haven’t even watched one yet. I just…the timestamps…they’re…” He nodded. “Yes, I noticed the increased activity over the two weeks before you broke your wrist as well. We haven’t been able to pinpoint a trigger just yet.” He paused when my hands started shaking. “What is it, Greenly?” “I think…I think I know why he started hanging around more often. I think he was…listening.” His brow furrowed as he continued to watch my every move. “Listening to what?” “To me talking to Sammy on the phone.” “You talked to Sammy on the phone at work?” Detective Cordova asked. He seemed confused, which I guess I couldn’t blame him for. Saying that without any explanation did seem a little weird, not to mention unprofessional—especially for a library where silence was golden. “He was upset a lot, around that time. There was…fighting.” I bit my lip when his eyebrow rose. I knew what his next line of questioning would be, and I knew I had to clarify. “Not between me and Roman. I mean, we argued once, about the fighting, I mean, between him and Jen. It was scaring Sammy and making him upset, so he’d call me and we’d talk whenever he was feeling sad or alone. Most of the time I was at work. I was quiet, but someone standing close enough could have overhead our conversations.” Placing both elbows on his knees and pressing his fingertips together, Detective Cordova began to think. For several long seconds, I didn’t say a word. Jen still hadn’t butted in. That seemed extremely out of character for her, but I had to admit I really didn’t know her that well. Maybe she was saving up all her nasty remarks for when the good detective left so she didn’t look like a lunatic attacking me in front of him. “Your conversations with Sammy,” he finally said, “if this guy were listening in, would it be obvious you were talking to a child, and not a romantic interest?” “Well, yeah, unless there are other adults who go around having conversations about dinosaurs and basic math problems.” I started to say that even knowing I was talking to a child might have set this guy off, because it was attention I was giving to someone other than him. Then I remembered things had changed that second week. “After a while, Roman would call as well. Those conversations, I’m sure this guy would have known I was talking to an adult. We talked about getting together and dinner and things like that.” Detective Cordova nodded and took out his little notebook. Whatever he scribbled down didn’t take long to write. He looked back up to say something, but I remembered one more thing and quickly cut him off. “The day the note showed up on my desk, that was the day after I’d talked to Sammy about picking him up for dinner and a movie. I was talking to Sammy, but it might have sounded like I was making a date with Roman,” I said. “Most of the videos are after that date, and that’s when I started talking to Roman in the evenings, too.” He scribbled down a few more notes, then pointed out a few specific videos he wanted me to watch. I did as he asked, a creepy crawling feeling slithering up my spine as I did. The first video showed the date he left the note on my desk. The second one was even more disturbing. No one was allowed behind the desk, but I watched as I stepped away, probably to use the restroom, and he moved behind the desk and ran his fingers over my books and backpack before slipping away again. Eager to get the phone away from me, I nearly threw it into the detective’s hands when he reached for it. “Is there anything about his movements or mannerisms that are familiar to you?” he asked. I shook my head, but the motion slowed the longer I thought about it. I didn’t need to watch the videos again. I feared they would be stuck in my head forever. Closing my eyes, I focused on the way the man had run his fingers along arm of my chair. Something about that one movement stuck in my mind. The hairs on my arms stood up, as if remembering that same touch and not liking the reminder. There was definitely something about it that was familiar, but I could not for the life of me remember why. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m just not sure. Something about how he was touching my things gives me goosebumps, but I’m not sure why. I can’t place him at all.” Despite the disappointment hiding at the edges of his expression, Detective Cordova smiled. “It’s okay. If you do remember, you have my number. Until then, I’ll keep looking.” He stood, then, and I followed. Jen remained seated on the couch, her expression unreadable. Ignoring her for the time being, I walked the detective back to the front door and opened it for him. “Thank you for stopping by.” “Of course,” he said. He gestured at the deadbolt. “I’m glad to see you’re taking this seriously. Keep that locked, okay?” “I will.” Detective Cordova glanced back to where he could see Jen’s head above the back of the couch. “Are you all right with her? If she’s not supposed to be here bothering Sammy, you let me know. I know how fractious custody issues can become.” Sighing, I resisted the temptation. “I’ll be fine. Things are tense between her and Roman right now, but having her escorted off the property isn’t going to solve anything. Roman will deal with her when he gets home.” “All right, if you’re sure,” he said. He pulled his gaze from Jen’s head and back to me. “If you need anything, though, call.” “Thanks.” I sighed as he stepped out onto the porch and left me alone with Jen. Taking my time closing and locking the door again, I tried to mentally prepare myself for whatever she was about to throw at me. Whatever her battle plan was, it wouldn’t be pretty. Chapter Twenty-Three “Now that we’ve established the fact that you have a stalker and are putting both my child and my ex-husband in danger, thanks, I’m sure, to your brainless sister’s disastrous attempts at matchmaking,” Jen said with biting politeness, “how about you answer my original question?” The first time I mentioned Lydia, Jen acted like she had no idea who I was talking about. I’d been too flustered to see it for an intentional dig at me and my sister at the time. Clearly, Jen remembered Lydia quite well, and it wasn’t just me she despised. It was also perfectly clear to me that Jen was still more concerned with whether or not her ex-husband had really and truly moved on without her than her son’s safety. Holding onto my temper like it was a lifeline, I carefully sat down on the couch cattycorner to Jen and took a long, deep breath. “No,” I said, “Roman and I are not engaged.” I paused just long enough to see the corners of Jen’s mouth turn up. Then I added, “But we are living together.” She snorted like what I’d said meant nothing, but her pinky finger was twitching. “So what if Roman wants to slum it for a while? Eventually, he’ll get tired of putting up with all your many mishaps and get bored of playing the hero when he realizes you’re not worth the effort. I can’t imagine that will take long.” I’d never wanted to slap someone so badly in my entire life. Choosing not to react to what she’d said, I turned my focus back to the supposed reason for her visit. “I thought when Sammy said what he did, you were hurt because you might have thought he was replacing you. I was so upset with him for saying something hurtful. I tried to make him apologize to you.” I shook my head. “How could you be more concerned with who Roman is dating that the fact that your son doesn’t want you around him? I don’t understand that at all.” Pure ice now, Jen crossed one leg over the other. “Maybe it’s because you have no talents or skills that provide you with any kind of ambition in life and validation from small children is the best you can hope for in the way of success.” I was wrong before. Now I wanted to slap her more than I had ever wanted to inflict bodily harm on another human being. It was killing me not to tell her that I was half a semester away from a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics—which was a very difficult discipline, if I did say so myself. I was dying to rub it in her face that my GPA was excellent and I’d paid for the majority of my schooling with scholarships and research grants. It was on the tip of my tongue that I already had three job offers from local companies when I graduated, and the department head told me that if I ever wanted to pursue a PhD he’d be more than happy to recommend me. It wasn’t because I knew Jen wouldn’t care about any of my accomplishments that I didn’t say any of that. As much as I wanted to hate her, I thought I understood her just well enough that I couldn’t bring myself to despise her the way she did me. “Jen, I really am sorry Sammy said all those things to you. He’s angry with you right now, but that’s still not an excuse for purposely trying to hurt you.” I paused when her expression changed from haughty to confused and a little wary. I could tell she was looking for my angle, my line of attack. I sighed. “I also realize that you’re still very much in love with Roman, and finding me here with them hasn’t been easy for you.” Jen shook her head and pulled back from me. “I’m not…you only think you know me, or anything about me…Roman and I, we were…” Her breathing hitched, but she squelched any show of emotion like it was an ant. “Roman blames me for everything, but he’s not as perfect as he pretends to be.” “I know he’s not perfect,” I said. “So does he. He accepts part of the blame for why you two divorced, but he done his best to raise Sammy and be a good father to him.” “Of course he has,” Jen snapped. “Sammy was all he ever wanted. Even before he was born. Roman wanted children. Even though I told him when we were dating that I didn’t want kids, he kept pushing, kept bringing it up, talking about how great it would be, how a child would bring so much happiness into our home.” Tears glistened in her eyes, though she was doing everything she could to keep them from falling. “I was already happy. We were already happy. I didn’t want things to change, but it wasn’t good enough for Roman. I wasn’t good enough. He had to have a baby, so I finally agreed, and when I got pregnant and Roman was so thrilled, I thought maybe he was right. Maybe a child would only add to our happiness.” Even though nothing she was saying truly surprised me that much, I didn’t dare say a word to interrupt. Especially when Jen leveled a glare at me that could have frozen the blood in my veins. “Roman was wrong. Having Sammy didn’t make us happier. I was miserable being cooped up at home while Roman was at work nonstop. When he was home, everything was about Sammy, like I barely even mattered to him anymore.” She shook her head, the motion sending an angry tear down her cheek. She swiped it away quickly and powered on to hide the slip of her control. “I tried, for as long as I could, but I had to get out. I missed working, traveling, performing. I missed that attention, yes, but not just because I wanted praise. I wanted someone to notice I existed again and care that I was talented and beautiful and had something to give to the world. I wanted to matter.” Silence fell between us. There was a lot in what she’d just said. I understood much of what she’d felt and expressed. Some people find their happiness in family and home, and others found it through their talents and work. Who was I to say which one was better or right? While I thought it was horrible of Jen to leave her family like she did, and stay away from Sammy for so long, I sympathized with how unhappy she had been trying to play a role she had never wanted and felt suffocated by. “Have you ever told Roman all of this?” I asked without even a hint of bite or judgment. “He wouldn’t have listened,” she said, frustration lacing her words. “Roman had a recipe for a perfect life, and I was just supposed to just go along with it whether I wanted that same vision or not. Any time I tried to bring up going back to work or altering his plan, he got frustrated and blamed me for not wanting what he wanted.” I felt like she was possibly painting herself more of a victim than she really was, but that might have been a little unkindness from earlier still lurking in the wings. Either way, that wasn’t really what I’d been asking her. “No, Jen, have you told him any of this recently?” She huffed and turned her nose up at me. “When? After I saw he’d changed the guest room into an office? When I learned he was dating you? When he brought up altering the custody arrangement and threatening to take me court?” She rolled her eyes. “When was I supposed to have this discussion with him?” “The office had nothing to do with me,” I said. I might have sounded a little defensive. “So?” Jen snapped. “Do you want an award for only screwing up my life two out of three times?” My patience was getting thinner by the second. “No, I’m just pointing out that Roman made the decision to turn the guest room into a home office long before we met. He was starting to accept that you would never be a part of their lives like he wanted long before he started thinking about dating again.” “He did it so I wouldn’t be able to stay at the house when I came by to visit.” Her spiteful, nasty tone did a lot to detract from her prettiness. “He was being petty and—” That was when I lost it. “You hadn’t been back for two years!” I shouted. “How was he supposed to know if you were ever planning to visit again? He turned the guest room into an office so he could work from home more often and be with Sammy! I honestly doubt the decision had a damn thing to do with you, Jen. You are so self-centered and wrapped up in your own drama, you completely missed what was right in front of you for the last five years.” “You think you know anything about my marriage?” Jen scoffed, her knuckles paling as she clenched her handbag. “I know Roman was devastated when you left, and he granted you open visitation with Sammy hoping you’d eventually realize what you were missing out on and come back. I know he didn’t file for divorce because he hated you or stopped loving you.” Frustration burned through me, not just because Jen got under my skin, but because I was sitting here telling my boyfriend’s ex-wife how much he loved her and wanted her to stay after she’d left. I didn’t even understand why I was doing it. Part of me said I should have just thrown her out and let Roman deal with her theatrics. The look on her face when she thought Roman and I were engaged ate at me, though. It was so similar to the one she was wearing now, I bit back my anger and waited for her to say something. “Why did he…file for divorce?” Jen asked quietly. Sighing, I wanted to shake my head at this entire conversation. Why was she just now asking that question, five years after the fact? And why was she asking me instead of Roman? “He was trying to protect Sammy,” I said. “It killed him to have Sammy ask when you were coming home and seeing how hurt he was when he told him he didn’t know, or you didn’t show when you were supposed to.” Jen’s expression slipped into a sneer. “Of course it was all about Sammy.” “Stop it,” I snapped. “Stop blaming Sammy for you and Roman divorcing. It wasn’t his fault, and you know that. Roman didn’t love Sammy more than he loved you, but he did choose to protect him over letting you break his son’s heart over and over again. Sammy was a baby when you left, but it still devastated him to lose you, Jen. It hurt both of them, and yes, Roman chose to protect an innocent little boy over staying married to you, not because he didn’t love you enough, but because he realized you two wanted different kinds of lives.” “I told Roman,” Jen said, tears pooling in her eyes. “I told him I didn’t want kids from the beginning.” “I know. He does too, believe me. You have no idea how much guilt he carries around over trying to push you into what he wanted.” I glanced back at the hallway, worried about Sammy and wanting to check on him. Eager to wrap this conversation up, I turned back to Jen. “Look, I think you two need to sit down and have a real conversation about all of this. Not a fight, but really talk to each other.” Blinking red-rimmed eyes, Jen looked away. “It won’t change anything. Roman doesn’t love me anymore, and my feelings for him won’t change that.” “No,” I agreed, “but it can help you both, and Sammy, move on from here.” “Move on to what?” she demanded. “To finding happiness with someone else, and hopefully to having some kind of real relationship with your son.” I shrugged, because that would be what most people would want in this situation, but with Jen I really didn’t know. She had been clinging to Roman since she left, but did she really not want to be a part of Sammy’s life at all? Slowly, Jen’s hostility came down a few notches. “Would you really be in favor of me seeing Sammy?” As much as I sometimes wished Jen would fall into a bottomless pit, I had to put Sammy first. “Of course I would, Jen. You’re his mom.” “Why?” “Because I know what it feels like to lose a parent. I lost my mom when I was around Sammy’s age, and my dad when I was eighteen. Family is important, and even if being here for the day to day stuff isn’t what you want, you could still be a part of his life,” I said. Jen shook her head. “He hates me.” “He’s angry with you,” I corrected. “And scared of things changing again. Give him time. He wants you in his life. He just doesn’t know how to deal with the hurt he feels about you leaving and staying away so much.” Thoughtful, Jen didn’t look completely convinced, but she wasn’t yelling or hurling insults anymore, so I figured maybe I’d gotten through at least on some level. Her fingers were no longer strangling the handles of her purse when she stood. “Will you please have Roman call me when he gets home? We do need to talk before I leave.” “Sure,” I said. I hesitated, wanting to hurry her along despite the fact that we were ending things better than they had started. “Would you like to tell Sammy goodbye? I won’t ask him to apologize again right now, but it might be a step in the right direction.” “Yes, thank you,” she said. She waited there by the door while I headed for Sammy’s room. Knowing he still might be upset with me, I eased the door open slowly and peered into his room. When I didn’t see him anywhere, I went to his bed and knelt down beside it. Expecting to find him huddled under the bed with a book, I started to panic just a little when I found nothing but toys and shoes. Stumbling back up to my feet, I went to the closet, the bathroom, anywhere I could think of to find him…and came up empty. Chapter Twenty-Four Jen called out from the basement that she hadn’t found him as I was tearing apart the office and master bedroom. I was shaking, and on the verge of breaking down in tears as I ran back to the living room to grab my phone off the end table where I’d left it. Detective Cordova picked up on the first ring. “Greenly, is everything okay? I was hoping you’d remember—” “Sammy is missing!” I shouted. “I went to get him out of his room to say goodbye to Jen and we can’t find him anywhere and the sliding door to the backyard was unlocked and I know it was locked this morning. Please, you have to help us find him.” I was crying now, full on sobbing as he reassured me he’d call it in and get the patrol car already in the area out looking for him immediately. Jen rushed back into the room looking frantic but not bawling, though she looked to be on the verge of breaking down as well. “Is he going to send someone?” I nodded and relief washed over her, but her eyes were still darting around the house like Sammy might pop up at any second as if it were all a game and we could laugh about his antics. Knowing that wasn’t going to happen, my panic edged a little higher. “We have to go look for him. You go to the park. I’ll check with my sister and some of the neighbors. I’ll call Roman on the way to Lydia’s.” Jen nodded and we both darted out the front door. I lost track of her as soon as we separated, too focused on combing the streets for Sammy to focus on anything else. I called Roman as I hurried down the street toward Lydia’s and tried my hardest to stop crying before he picked up. I didn’t even come close to managing that, and Roman knew something was wrong the second the line was active. “Greenly? What’s wrong?” “It’s Sammy. He ran away. I’m so sorry. I can’t find him. Jen came by and he said some really mean things to her so I sent him to his room while I talked to Jen and when I went to go get him, he was gone. We searched the whole house and Detective Cordova is coming to help us look and Jen went to the park to see if he’s there, but I’m so scared, Roman. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I dissolved into another round of tears and had to stop walking because I couldn’t see anything. Roman blew out a long breath, and I could hear sounds of movement over the line. “Greenly, take a deep breath,” he said. His voice was shaking, and I knew he was scared even though he was trying to sound as calm as he could. “Sammy did this once before. I want you to go down the street to where that running trail cuts through the neighborhood. We took Thor on a walk there last weekend with your nephews, remember?” “Yeah, yes, I remember,” I said as I spun in the opposite direction and started running. “A quarter of a mile down the trail, there’s a bench, and behind that is a row of bushes. Look behind the bushes. It’s his favorite hiding place when we go out there to play hide-and-seek with the boys.” He said the instructions slowly, like a prayer that I’d go there and find Sammy with no problems. His calm wasn’t fooling me, because I could hear the tremor in every word. “I’m on my way to you right now, okay? Stay on the line. Don’t hang up.” “I won’t,” I promised. I needed to hear his voice as much as he needed to know everything I was seeing. I was almost to the trail by then, and nearly plowed right into the trailhead marker trying to stop and turn onto the dirt path without slowing down. I wasn’t a runner, but I sped through the trees, head whipping back and forth as I yelled Sammy’s name and scanned every inch of the surroundings. After only a few minutes, I spotted the bench and hurled myself forward. “There’s the bench! Sammy!” I called, praying he’d pop his head out from behind the bushes and run to me with an apology for scaring everyone. I skidded to a stop in front of the bench and tried to find a way around the bushes. They were prickly and shielded the bench in a half circle. The growth was thinner than it might have been in the summer, but still difficult to see through. Trying to push branches from nearby trees out of the way, I strained to get around the bushes. A small body like Sammy’s would have no trouble slipping back there to hide, but I only made it halfway. It was enough to get my head into a position where I could see behind the bushes. When I did, my body sagged. “I found him,” I whispered tearfully to Roman. Lowering the phone, I squatted down so I could get a little further behind the bushes. “Sammy?” He shook his head, the movement revealing his tears and reddened face. “Go away,” he sobbed. “Sammy, please come over here. I was so scared when I couldn’t find you. So was your dad and your mom. I thought I’d never stop crying if I couldn’t find you,” I told him. “My mom didn’t care,” he blubbered. “Yes, she did. She’s over at the park right now looking for you.” He looked up at me, tear-streaked cheeks quivering as more tears rolled down his face. “I won’t tell her I’m sorry. You can’t make me.” “You don’t have to apologize, Sammy. Not right now, okay?” “Promise?” I nodded. “Once everyone is back home and safe, we’re all going to sit down and talk, no fighting, just talk, so we can figure out how to get along and be friends, okay?” “What if I don’t want to be friends with her?” Kneeling down, I felt my adrenaline finally starting to drop. “It’s okay if you don’t want to be friends with your mom right now, but you might want to later. Even if you’re mad at her, she’s still your mom, right?” “But I want you to be my mom, Greenly. I don’t want you to go away like she did.” Tears sprang to his eyes again, but his arms were too busy hugging his knees to his chest to allow him to wipe them away. “Buddy, I’m not going to leave you and your dad, not even if your mom wants to see you more often. We can both be there for you, okay? I love you so much, and I’d miss you way too much if I didn’t see you every day.” I smiled at him, even though I was still shaking and wouldn’t feel okay about this until I had him in my arms and back home. Slowly, Sammy started to smile as well. His grip loosened on his knees and one hand moved to reach out for me. I didn’t understand why his eyes suddenly widened until a hand clamped down on my shoulder and yanked me away from him. I barely had time to react before an arm wrapped around my middle and began hauling me backward. “Sammy, run!” I screamed as I kicked and bucked against my captor. Terror coursed through me, though most of it was directed at Sammy being hurt by this lunatic than for my own safety. I didn’t see whether or not Sammy listened to me. I was whipped away from the bushes and dragged back toward the trail before I could see anything. Rustling sounds from behind me gave me hope Sammy was running away. Fear that he might try to follow or help me renewed my terror and I fought harder. “Stop it!” a harsh male voice snapped. Like the video I’d seen earlier that day, there was something familiar about the voice. It sent a chill through my entire body and my struggling faltered for just a moment as I tried to place it. Detective Cordova had said I probably knew the stalker, and he must have been right, but I couldn’t remember from where. Struggling again, I quit trying to get away and twisted in an effort to see his face. Pain seared down my side as something hard dug into my ribs. “You know I don’t want to hurt you, Greenly,” he hissed, “but you’re making this more difficult than it needs to be. Just come with, and everything will be fine.” Hearing his voice again, I still couldn’t place it, but the tone reminded me of the letters. It was the same delusional confidence with underlying threats that were all too real. “Why…why are you doing this?” I begged. “Why?” he mimicked. “Because you like playing games, don’t you? You played them with me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. I pushed again, digging my elbow into his stomach, trying to get a little separation from him. All it accomplished was another flash of pain in my side. I hadn’t even considered what the object might be the first time, but I suddenly couldn’t breathe as the rectangular shape pressed against my body again and I realized it might be the muzzle of a gun. I was too terrified to cry, but my entire body was trembling. “I’m sorry,” I pleaded. “Whatever games I played, I didn’t mean to, I promise. It wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t trying to hurt you.” His laugh oozed out of him, thick and choking. “I knew you’d say that. I knew you’d try to lie to me and pretend you hadn’t led me on only so you could humiliate me.” I was even more confused now, because I was the one always being humiliated. I never would have done that to someone else, not when I knew how it felt. Scouring my mind, I couldn’t think of a single date I’d been on that had ended disastrously for the other person. It was always me getting food dumped in my lap, or stood up, or made a spectacle of when a date lost it because the steak was slightly overcooked or the cell reception was bad and he couldn’t watch the game during dinner…at a restaurant…on a date. My thoughts froze as we emerged from the trees and I found myself being shoved up against an SUV. I couldn’t breathe. Panic strangled me and the trembling upgraded to uncontrollable shaking. Every puff of labored breathing fogged up the paint. It was blue, deep blue, the kind that could blend into the surrounding night, which wasn’t that far away, I was pretty sure. I’d lost track of the time, but I knew Sammy and I had eaten lunch several hours before Jen arrived. Even in the daylight, there were about a billion dark SUVs running around, and no one would even know what kind of car I was being shoved into. That was when the tears came. “Stop crying,” he hissed, his mouth right next to my ear. “I know you’re faking. Stop it!” All his demands accomplished was make my cry harder. I’d finally found happiness in Roman and Sammy, and this guy was going to take it all away. Pity for myself was outweighed by the devastation I knew this would wreak on them, Sammy especially. I had just told him I’d be there for him, never leave him, and now I was breaking that promise. He was breaking my promise. “Let me go!” I shouted. “Leave me alone!” His weight pressed me against the car more firmly. I’d already known I wouldn’t be able to get away from him through force, and struggling to breathe while being crushed up against the car only served to shatter any remaining hopes. The sound of the seal popping on the back door was like a physical blow. I was almost certain that if he managed to force me into the car, I’d never get away from him. Pure panic gave me a burst of strength, enough to shove him a few inches back so I could make a move. I spun halfway before he recovered and pinned me again. Then I was left staring in confusion. “Thomas?” Seeming startled by something, I was still in too much shock to resist when he yanked me from my feet and pretty much threw me into the backseat. I jumped for the door handle as soon as I righted myself, but the child safety locks must have been turned on, because it wouldn’t budge. Scurrying away from him when he climbed into the driver’s seat, I huddled against the far door and watched him warily. “I don’t understand,” I braved saying. “You were so nice when we went out. I really liked you.” Thomas sneered at me from the rearview mirror. “Yes, you liked me so much you cancelled our date and picked up some new guy at the airport the next day. Then went out on another date with some random stranger the next weekend. Clearly, you cared so much.” Shaking my head, I struggled to believe the sweet, seemingly normal guy who’d rescued me from my wrecked car, visited me in the hospital, and had a really good time with at dinner could have been so unstable. Had I just not seen it? Had he been normal, and somehow I managed to flip a switch in him to turn him into a lunatic who stalked and abducted women? I doubted I had that much influence over anyone, especially a guy I’d only met a few times, but my absolutely horrible luck whispered that if anyone could, it would be me. “I only cancelled our second date because my sister was really sick and she needed me to take care of her boys while she was in bed with the flu,” I said. I was positive I’d explained that in the message I’d left when I’d called him to cancel two years ago. “Sure, sure. And the guy at the airport was nobody important. Single women pick guys up from the airport all the time, right?” Twisted disdain blanketed his expression as he glanced back at me. “That was my bother-in-law. He was on a work trip and my sister was sick, like I already told you,” I said. I supposed it shouldn’t have surprised me he had been watching me even back then, given his recent hobby, but it did. It truly shook me to the core that it hadn’t just been the last few months. He had been watching me for nearly two years. “I’m sure it was. And all those other guys you dated right after we went out, they were all just friends, I suppose.” I could have tried to explain they were all blind dates, set up by Lydia. What would be the point? Not only would he not believe me, it wouldn’t make him stop the car even if he did. I’d gone on one date with this guy. One. In his delusional mind, that seemed to mean I was his from there on out, not allowed to see anyone else or even think about anyone else, most likely. Nothing I said to him now would make him see how ridiculous that was. “Where are you taking me?” For a few seconds, he didn’t answer me. I thought maybe he wouldn’t. His gaze flicked up to glare at me through the rearview mirror before saying, “I told you that you’d regret playing games with me.” He refocused his attention on the road. “I could have put up with you screwing with all those other guys’ heads. Clearly, they were no threat to me, and just playthings to you. But then, you went out with that guy from the library, the one who tried to keep you for his own, when clearly you’re already mine. I couldn’t put up with that. When you ran away from him, I almost thought maybe you were just teasing me, but then you had to go and get involved with Roman and little Sammy. Then, I knew you were tempting me, seeing if I would do something to stop you. You pretend to be surprised, but you pushed me to this, Greenly. You forced my hand.” I wasn’t sure I even understood what he was saying completely. What I did know was that he was very serious. In his mind, the last two years had all been some elaborate game, one he really thought we’d both been playing. One I had lost. Too shocked to even react, I sat there staring at the back of the seat in front of me, silent as I tried not to think about what Thomas had planned for me now that he’d won his game and claimed his prize. Chapter Twenty-Five We crossed out of Roman’s neighborhood and into an area cluttered with businesses and restaurants. Every mile dimmed my hope of rescue and my panic escalated. Even if someone had seen Thomas force me into the SUV, how long before that information made it to the police, and how long after that before someone spotted this one vehicle amid a sea of similar models. I didn’t know what to do. I’d lost my phone when Thomas grabbed me. The only ways out of the car were through the front passenger door, and possibly the rear lift gate in the back, but I wasn’t sure how to open it from the inside or even if it could be. A wild leap into the back only to find myself trapped there would accomplish nothing, aside from pissing Thomas off even more. I hadn’t been able to confirm my suspicion that he’d had a gun on me, but I thought it a safe enough bet to think leaping into the front of the car in an attempt to get the door open would only get me shot. I already had a broken wrist, no need… Stilling out of pure instinct, I barely breathed at all as I contemplated an idea. It was almost certainly a bad plan. Chances were high I would end up hurt, or worse. It was all I had. If it worked, I might be able to make it far enough to get help or attract some attention, at the very least. If he caught me…I shook my head, knowing I would pay for it if I failed. When he signaled for a right turn, I made an attempt to relax my body in preparation. Thomas might have been insane, but he was unfortunately a very safe driver. Slowly, he turned, and my original plan to pretend the force had tipped me over became a swift movement to place myself more toward the middle of the bench seat. He seemed content to drive silently forward for several more blocks. I knew the area well enough to know we were headed back toward a neighborhood, and if I waited too long, I’d have a hard time finding help or getting the attention of passersby. Slowly, I shifted again, inching my way closer to him as my fear spiked and my stomach turned. I was about to make my move when I looked up to make sure Thomas wasn’t looking at me and spotted a familiar car in the rearview mirror. The back window of the SUV held a dark tint, making it a little challenging to see the details, but I’d seen that car earlier in the day and was almost positive I recognized Detective Cordova’s shaved head. Sitting there without moving another centimeter, I debated my options. I could sit and wait for Detective Cordova—if that was really him—to come up with a plan and rescue me. Did he have a plan? Would he just follow us until Thomas stopped and then grab him as soon as he got out of the car? What if Thomas recognized the sedan as an unmarked police car before we made it to wherever it was Thomas was taking me and decided he’d rather take us both out than be arrested? What if he caused a car accident and hurt other people? Half a dozen more what ifs ran through my mind before I wanted to scream. I thought I might lose it if I had to stay in this car much longer, not knowing whether Thomas planned to kill me or lock me in his basement for the next decade. I looked up again and was now almost positive it wasn’t Detective Cordova following us, but even if it wasn’t, a girl leaping out of a moving car was bound to cause whoever it was to stop, right? If nothing else, I’d make a run for the nearest building and hope the door was unlocked. Two more blocks before the businesses dropped away and houses took their place. I glanced at the car behind us again, trying desperately to remember if Detective Cordova’s car had been blue or black. The one behind us was black, but I was almost sure I remembered the sun making the blue of his car sparkle a little as it sat in front of the house earlier that day. Why would it be him, anyway? He was looking for Sammy, not me. Even if Roman had heard me being taken, he would have had to hang up on Sammy to call the police, which he would have hesitated doing. Detective Cordova probably didn’t even know I was missing yet. Realizing that, I decided I only had one option. Bracing myself because I knew it was going to really, really hurt, I took a deep breath and swung my cast at Thomas’s head. The crack sounded a split second before the car lurched to the side. Pain nearly crippled me, but my adrenaline had spiked high enough to keep me from losing focus and I leapt into the front seat. Reaching for the door handle, I yanked as hard as I could, realizing too late that I still needed to unlock the door before it would open. My one good hand flailed, searching for the lock button as Thomas stirred and growled. Desperate, I started kicking out at him as I slapped my hand against the lock button and continued to yank on the door handle. I felt the door give right as Thomas stomped the brakes and I was sent straight into the dashboard. The impact rocked me and I slid down to the floor without protection. I was screaming at myself to get up and run, but my breath had been knocked out of me and everything hurt. It ran through my mind that I had probably just secured my fate. Then the boom of a gunshot split the air and I felt my body give up as the sickening scent of blood filled the car. *** The beeping woke me. Thinking it was my alarm, I tried to reach out and smack it a few times, too tired to even think about getting up quite yet. For some reason, I couldn’t lift either of my arms. I was about to tell Roman to quit squishing me, but everything that had happened slammed into me in a rush and panic hit so fast there was zero chance of me calming back down. There were noises around me instantly, but I couldn’t force my eyes open because I didn’t want to see anything. I remembered the gunshot, the blood, blacking out. I remembered the pain before I’d lost consciousness, and the only thought in my mind was that I’d been paralyzed by the shot and would never be able to move again. Tears poured down my face as I tried and failed to suck in another breath. “Greenly, Greenly? Open your eyes. Calm down. You’re hyperventilating. You’re safe, Greenly. Can you hear me? Everything’s okay now. Just calm down for me, okay?” I tried to focus on Roman’s voice, but what he was saying didn’t make sense. How could everything be okay? How could it ever be okay again? My eyes weren’t open to see black spots, but I felt my head start to swim and knew I would lose consciousness again if I couldn’t calm down. Knowing it didn’t matter. My body did what it was supposed to when deprived of oxygen. It shut down. Again. *** “Let’s try this again,” a soft female voice said. I felt myself come back to the surface of consciousness slowly. One eye blinked open, then the other. I startled at finding an unfamiliar face hovering over me. Her round face held warmth, her smile cheer I didn’t feel. Her calm did help me keep mine, however. I could feel the panic hovering just off to the side, but I held it back firmly, desperate for answers. “Where’s Roman?” A hand settled over mine, and I was confused at feeling the touch. His voice was too distracting to focus on anything else when he said, “I’m right here, Greenly.” Dragging my gaze over to him, I braced myself for his reaction. I didn’t understand when a relieved smile lit up his face. “What’s going on?” “What do you remember?” Roman asked. He was still smiling, but the intensity dimmed as concern moved in. “Sammy…” As soon as I said his name, the rest of what happened hit me and I started to panic again. Roman’s grip on my hand tightened and he said, “Sammy is fine. He’s safe and completely unharmed.” Profound relief hit me and I started trembling as unused adrenaline pumped through my body. “Where is he?” “With Jen and Lydia, out in the hall. He was in here earlier, but when you woke up and started hyperventilating, he panicked and they had to take him out to calm down,” Roman explained. Feeling horrible for scaring him like that, I looked away from Roman. Things still weren’t making sense, but I couldn’t unscramble my frazzled thoughts enough to ask the right questions. “Do you remember what happened?” Roman asked again. I nodded slowly, despite my confusion over the aftermath. “After I found Sammy, Thomas grabbed me and I told Sammy to run. Thomas dragged me to his car and forced me in. I didn’t know where he was taking me. I thought I saw Detective Cordova behind us, but then I realized it wasn’t him, so I hit Thomas with my cast and tried to get out of the car so I could reach the police. I couldn’t get the door open, though, and then I heard a gunshot and I thought…when I woke up I couldn’t move my arms and I…” Roman’s face fell. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t mean to scare you, Greenly. You’re fine. You weren’t shot.” “I wasn’t?” I thought maybe he was lying to me so he could spare me the ugly truth, but I looked down at my hand to find my fingers wrapped around his, then tested my legs. I tried to make sure my other arm was working, but that one still proved difficult to lift. I stared at the brand new, not drawn on cast and blinked. “What happened?” “We thought being thrown around when the SUV slammed to a stop re-broke your hand, but now I’m guessing it was using it as a weapon that did the trick,” Roman said with a wry smile. “You’re going to be bruised and sore for a while from hitting the dash, but breaking your arm again is the worst of it. I promise. Thomas was the one who was shot, by Detective Cordova. It was his car behind you.” Feeling faint, I gripped Roman even more tightly. “Is Thomas…dead?” “He had a gun pointed at you. Detective Cordova didn’t have a choice. At that close of a distance, he didn’t miss.” I was relieved to know I hadn’t been shot and wasn’t paralyzed, but I didn’t know what to think about Thomas being dead. He had stalked me, threatened and scared me, kidnapped me, and meant to either hurt or kill me. I had barely known him, but the little I did had shown me two drastically different men. I didn’t know if the kind man who’d helped me had been real or not. If he was, I felt bad that he had disappeared somehow. That other side of him, though, I couldn’t fault Detective Cordova for taking action to save my life. Knowing I would probably need more than a few minutes to work through everything that had happened, I tried to distract myself with another question, the one I originally meant to ask. “Why couldn’t I move when I woke up the first time?” “Aside from you getting a little loopy when given pain meds,” the nurse said, “your two wardens pretty much fell asleep on top of you waiting for you to wake up. Sammy would have been curled up next to you in bed if I’d let him.” She laughed, then gestured at Roman. “This one wouldn’t let go of your hand even if the building had been on fire.” Walking around the bed, the nurse patted Roman on the shoulder. “I need to let the doctor know you’re awake and lucid, but I’m sure Roman will keep an eye on you while I’m gone.” She chuckled and started for the door, but turned back after a few steps. “Is it all right if I send the cavalry in? Looks like Sammy’s climbed up on a chair and is peeking through the window.” “Send them in,” Roman said, chuckling at his son. The second the nurse twisted the doorknob, Sammy burst though and made a beeline for the bed. He controlled himself enough that he didn’t launch himself on top of me. Of course, it might have been the height of the bed that stopped him more than anything. Ignoring a plea from Roman to be careful of my arm, Sammy sprung into the chair next to the bed and threw his arms across my body. Jen and Lydia came in slightly less dramatically, though my sister was in tears and Jen looked decidedly less composed than usual. “I was so scared,” Sammy wailed. “I thought that man was going to take you away forever.” That was as far as he got before dissolving into tears. Nobody said anything as I held him with one arm and let him cry. Okay, we were both crying, and so was Lydia. Roman was holding strong by sheer force of will. Only Jen remained dry-eyed, though she was struggling to keep it that way, surprisingly enough. Eventually, Sammy cried himself out and lifted his face. “I never want you to go away again, okay?” I glanced over at Roman, knowing that was a big promise to make. Part of me still feared Roman would wake up one of these days and decide I was more trouble than I was worth. His hand tightened around mine and he smiled the kind of smile that was both pleading and reassuring. He was asking for the same thing Sammy was, and giving me permission to make such a bold promise to his son. It was a challenge to speak over the lump in my throat, but I said, “I’m not going anywhere, buddy.” “Promise?” “Promise.” Considering the matter closed, apparently, Sammy sat back up with wide eyes. “Did my dad tell you how me and my mom saved you?” Glancing between Roman and Jen, I sought some kind of explanation. Jen looked embarrassed while Roman grimaced. Before either of them could offer any sort of answer, Sammy dove back in. “When that man took you, you dropped your phone, so I picked it up and told my dad what happened. Then my mom ran up because she saw you running to the trail from the park where she was looking for me and followed, but she was slower and didn’t get there until the man was taking you down the trail. I wanted to come with her when she followed you, but she told me to stay put or I’d be in super big trouble, so I did even though I was really scared. She saw the car that man put you in and told my dad, and he told the policeman who’d come to our house before and then they found you.” When Sammy ran out of words, it took me a few minutes to process everything. When I did, I looked at Jen. “You really did that? You followed Thomas when he took me?” Shrugging, she looked everywhere but at me. “Sammy was hysterical, and Detective Cordova made it sound like this guy was dangerous. I was afraid he’d hurt you and I, well…” She trailed off, like she didn’t know whether to be embarrassed about helping me or not. “Wow, um, thank you, Jen. I don’t know what to say.” She waved off my apology, her face flushing by the smallest degree. “I should be the one thanking you,” she said quietly, still not looking at me. Lydia’s face scrunched in confusion, but Roman’s grip on my hand tightened as his thumb rubbed back and forth across my skin. Jen finally forced herself to meet my gaze. “You were right, about a lot of things. Roman and I talked while you were asleep, and well, I’m glad he and Sammy have you.” Her lip trembled and she looked away. I knew it wasn’t easy for her to say that, and that my drawing attention to her words would only embarrass her. So I didn’t say anything. Later, when things calmed down, I thought maybe she and I could start over. She may not have been a blubbering mess like I was when we couldn’t find Sammy, but she had been scared. We both knew she’d never be the kind of mother Roman and Sammy had hoped she could be, but she did love her son, and I hoped that meant she’d make more of an effort to be involved in his life. Lydia filled the silence by storming over to my bed, and pushing Roman out of the way enough that she could get in to hug me fiercely. “I’m so glad you’re all right. I wouldn’t know what to do without you, Greenly. I love you so much.” “I love you too, sis.” She squeezed me once more before backing off and turning me over to Roman again. She threw him a look that said he’d be in trouble if he didn’t take care of me as well as she would, then hugged him as well. Sammy, who was now sitting on the bed next to my leg, reach out for a hug as well, and got one without having to ask twice. When Lydia pulled back, she looked at Sammy and asked, “Now do you want to come home with me and rest for a while, or stay here?” Sammy didn’t even hesitate. “I’m staying here with my mom, my second mom, I mean.” He must have seen my eyebrows rise. Saying things like that was what had gotten him in trouble earlier, and while nobody seemed upset about it this time—even Jen—I was still surprised he’d said it. “It’s okay,” Sammy reassured me, “my other mom already knows and Dad said it was okay too, since…” Roman cleared his throat, eyeing Sammy with a look that said he better zip it, and fast. Really not up for any more surprises or fights, I said, “What else did I miss?” “Nothing,” Roman said. “Sammy’s just jumping the gun a little.” “But, you said you were going to ask her when she woke up!” Sammy complained. “I thought you already did it.” He huffed and crossed his arms in a frustrated pout. When Roman didn’t respond to his theatrics, Sammy screwed up his face and said, “Well, are you going to ask her, or what?” Everyone in the room laughed, but me. “Ask me what?” I said slowly as I turned to stare at Roman. He was still glowering at his son, though it didn’t have much sting. “I didn’t mean the exact second she woke up. I meant when she was feeling better and I could do it right.” Sammy rolled his eyes. “Well, why didn’t you say that before?” “Ask me what?” I demanded. Shaking his head, Roman turned to face me. “I guess we’re just bound and determined to do everything out of order and faster than we should.” He ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “Despite what Sammy thinks, I wasn’t planning to do this today. I don’t even have a ring yet.” I could feel my eyes widening. Even though I suspected this was what Sammy had inadvertently spilled the beans about too early, actually hearing the word ring come out of Roman’s mouth left me stunned. “He overheard me talking to Jen. When she asked if I planned to propose to you, I was honest and told her yes. Sammy heard me and apparently thought that meant right now.” He reached out and ruffled his hair, drawing an annoyed whine from him. When he looked back at me, he had a goofy smile on his face that was a little lopsided. “I guess it’s not much of a surprise anymore, but I really do want to marry you, Greenly. You don’t have to say anything right now, but…” “Say yes,” Sammy whispered, right next to my ear. Really, he shouted it more than whispered thanks to his excitement, and I flinched away from the noise. Roman pulled him back so he wasn’t lying on my broken arm, but I barely noticed. I was still staring at Roman in disbelief. “Are you serious?” Chuckling, Roman shook his head. “Why do you always ask me that? Do I joke about things like this? Would I really ask you to marry me without being serious?” Swallowing, I reminded myself to breathe. I had no clue what I was doing when it came to dating or falling in love, but I had yet to regret a single decision involving Roman. I knew it was crazy, but that was my specialty, after all. “Yes.” Roman’s mouth split into a grin, but Sammy attacked me with a hug before he could do more than that. A few minutes later, Lydia was peeling him off me. “Come on, you little nut, you’re coming home with me.” “But, I want to stay!” Sammy whined. Lydia tried for stern, but didn’t quite get there. “She said yes. That means she’s not going anywhere, so you’ll see her later at home. Right now, Greenly needs to rest and you keep jumping on her arm, so let’s go.” Jen seemed to see that as her exit cue as well. She picked up her purse and said, “I better get going as well. When you’re feeling up to it, Greenly, maybe we can talk again.” “Sure, Jen. That would be nice.” I was surprised to find I actually meant it. I had no expectations that we’d ever be best friends, but I’d be happy with cordial co-parenting. She nodded and stepped out of the room a moment later. “Now it’s our turn,” Lydia reminded Sammy, who’d edged closer back to the hospital bed when she hadn’t been looking. “Greenly needs to rest a little longer before she comes home.” His shoulders dropped, but he followed when Lydia dragged him toward the door. “All right, fine.” They reached the door before Sammy stopped and turned back around, gaze fixed on Roman. “Now that Greenly’s going to be my mom, that means we can have a new baby, right? When I asked before, you said not until you guys got married.” Lydia groaned and dragged him out of the room before Roman had to answer. I felt a small flutter of…something when my gaze slid from the door to my brand new fiancée. “The nurse didn’t forget to tell me something, did she?” The squeak in my voice sounded like it could have been either panic or excitement. I wasn’t sure which, even though it was my voice. Roman, on the other hand, could only chuckle. “No,” he said between laughs, “nobody forgot to tell you that you’re pregnant, because you’re not. At least not that I know of.” “You’re the only person I’ve slept with in, well, quite a while. And that was only a week ago, so unless things are working way faster than they should in there, nobody would even know yet, so…” “Well, we do tend to fast track just about everything,” Roman said, laughing even harder now. I closed my eyes, a completely muddled mess of emotions at the moment, but they fluttered back open when Roman kissed me. It was just a peck, to get my attention. When he had it, he smiled slowly even though the corners of his mouth were trembling. “I was so scared today, Greenly. For Sammy when you told me he’d run off, and then when I heard you scream, I could barely even think. I was terrified of losing you both and I’m so glad everyone is all right. Even though you’ve only been a part of our lives for a short time, I can’t imagine you not being there. I know that was the worst proposal ever, but I’m so in love with you I feel just like Sammy. I never want you to go away again, either.” “Neither do I,” I said tearfully. Roman kissed me again, this time more slowly. All of my hurts and aches disappeared for a few precious seconds as I drank him in. The feel of his lips on mine was so much better than whatever was in my IV. I missed him the second he pulled back, but my brain started working again and I bit my lip. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Frowning, I said, “There’s really no chance I’m pregnant, but if it were to happen sooner rather than later…” “If you were to get pregnant now, or a few years from now,” Roman said, “it wouldn’t change how I felt about you or any new additions to our family. Besides, what’s one more big, life-changing event at this point?” He laughed and kissed my forehead. Roman stood and nudged me to the side so he could sit on the bed next to me. I was happy to comply and rested my head gently against his chest. Every muscle in my neck and back ached, even with whatever painkillers they were giving me. As sore as I was, my body slowly relaxed against his. As the tension seeped out of me, so did my fear that Roman would ever give up on me. We may not have been the most conventional couple, but we were happy together. Even so, I still felt a little guilty about all the upheaval I’d caused lately. “I really had no intention of turning your entire life upside down when I dragged my nephews to that baseball game on Valentine’s Day,” I said. “That’s okay,” Roman said, “I think my life needed a little shaking up.” I scoffed. “Nobody’s life needs that much drama all at once.” Pulling me in a little closer, Roman’s body relaxed next to mine. “I don’t know about that. I seriously doubt I would be this happy right now if Evan hadn’t spit his gum in your hair that day. Everything after that just pulled us closer together. I wish we could have done without today’s events, but I’m just glad you’re here with me now, and plan to stay for a long time.” His fingers ran through my hair, lulling me back toward sleep with every stroke. “I love you, Greenly.” “I love you, too,” I said before yawning. I had no idea what time it was. Very late, or more accurately very early, judging by the pink-tinged sky outside. Even after having slept for what must have been quite a long time, my battered body was exhausted. I was emotionally spent as well, from both the good and bad. Any baby-making activities were going to be off the table for a while yet, but I couldn’t help thinking about the future and what little surprises it might hold. I used to think I knew how my life would turn out. Now, I couldn’t even begin to guess, but I was ready for whatever came our way. The End The Handbook Series will continue in late 2016 with a new round of crazy and lots of laughs along the way! Acknowledgments I owe the always lovely Serene Heiner a steak dinner when it comes to this book. When I was asked to participate in a Valentine themed box set, the only idea I could come up with was gum. That was it. Serene was sweet enough to not only let me borrow the name Roman even though she was using the same name in her book, she suggested I use my gum idea by having Greenly’s nephew accidentally spit it in her hair. It was a brilliant idea, especially when paired with who would have to fish the gum out of Greenly’s hair. That was the beginning of the chaos, and it just kept going from there. Serene is awesome! I owe a big thanks to Conner Kressley, as well, for jumping in when I came up blank for female character names and suggested Greenly. I absolutely adored it! I couldn’t get any of my books ready for print without the help of my beta readers! A really, really big thanks to Serene Heiner, Sneha Mohite, Michelle Zeplin, Nikki Jeffrey, Roxanna Huffman, Brittany Willis, and Rocio Reyes. Thank you so much for all your comments, suggestions, and support! Eliza Carlisle Mystery, Book One Trouble Magnet 1: Grandma Crazy Town I was going to kiss my sister full on the mouth the next time I saw her. Staring out the window of the cab at the gorgeous old apartment building, I couldn’t believe how things had worked out. Four years older, Bernadette had always taken care of me. This was above and beyond. The moment I called her to gush about my acceptance to culinary school, she had all the answers. Her boss had been trying to talk her into taking an overseas assignment for months, but she was still under lease on her apartment and didn’t want to have to put all of her stuff in storage for the next year or sublet to a stranger. Solution: let me move in while she was in Spain. I got super cheap rent while going to school and she didn’t have to box everything up. Stepping out onto the curb, I could barely stop myself from jumping up and down. At twenty-three, I was finally living on my own in a big city, ready to start a top notch program at my dream school. It was a few years later than originally planned, but it was perfect. I was startled out of my glorious revelry by my one, gigantic suitcase being dropped at my feet with a loud slap of plastic wheels against concrete. “This is where you’re going to live?” the cab driver asked. His skeptical tone seemed ridiculous. And why did he look like he was shying away from the building like it might have cooties? “I should have known when your sister called me at the cab company to pick you up at the airport.” “Isn’t it great?” I said, determined not to let him ruin my moment. “That’s what everyone thinks…at first,” he grumbled. He shook his head. “Good luck.” Having already paid my fair, he walked back to the driver’s side and drove off a few seconds later. I had no idea what his problem was. I didn’t have more than a second to dwell on it before a woman burst through the double doors of the apartment building and bounded down to shake my hand. It seemed a little overenthusiastic, but I was beaming and shaking back with equal gusto. “You must be Eliza Carlisle. Bernadette’s sister, right?” The woman stared at me expectantly, looking ready to pass out from her excitement. This place was really friendly, apparently. No wonder Bernadette liked it. It might take me a little getting used to. Me and people hadn’t been real tight lately, but I was pretty sure I could manage. “Yeah, I guess she told you I’d be here today.” Either that, or my sister had the world’s most perky stalker. Her smile grew, which I hadn’t thought possible. “Of course she did! She told me all about you.” Well, hopefully not all about me. Whoever this lady was, even as aggressive as she seemed to be about making friends, Bernadette knew how to keep her mouth shut when she needed to protect someone. It was no surprise to anyone when she went into journalism. “I’m, Sonya, the manager, and I’m here to welcome you and get you settled.” She reached for my suitcase, and I thought about trying to stop her, but it seemed slightly rude to say no, and I was just a little afraid of provoking her into some kind of super welcome mode as well. Instead, I followed her up the steps while she continued to talk. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to have another woman my age around here. I mean,” she said, looking back at me while she yanked my suitcase over another step, “your sister is really nice, but she was hardly ever around. It’ll be great having someone to talk to.” She was still smiling, even as she wrestled my bag up another step. I guess I hadn’t really thought about how old Sonya was until that moment. She was young, but I hadn’t realized she was that young. “How old are you?” “Twenty…four,” she said, her words broken up by the effort of hauling my suitcase up and over the last, unusually tall step. “My grandma owns the building. When managing it herself got to be too much, she offered me a rent free apartment in exchange for keeping an eye on things.” That explained how she came to manage an entire building at such a young age. “Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.” For the first time since meeting her, Sonya’s smile faltered. “Yeah, well, it’ll be better now, right?” Not really sure how to respond to that, I nodded and hoped it was the right response. When her smile wattage went back to blinding, I figured I’d guessed correctly. Sonya pulled one of the doors open and gestured for me to go ahead of her. Stopping to stare as soon as I entered the lobby, it took me a moment to take it all in. It was beautiful with its dark wood scrollwork and vintage wallpaper. The carpet runners were a little worn from traffic, but high quality and well cared for. It instantly felt like home. “I closed the dumpster lids. Are you happy now?” some shuffling, grumbling older gentleman snarled as he made his way across the lobby. I looked back at Sonya, hoping he was talking to her and not me. She was rolling her eyes, but her voice was perfectly pleasant as she said. “Thank you, Mr. Piper.” He flapped his arm a few times in annoyance without turning back and disappeared around a corner. “Never mind him,” Sonya said as she directed me to the office. “He’s always like that.” She brushed it off quickly, but I tucked the warning away for later. Avoid angry old men ranting about dumpster lids. If Sonya and I were the only younger residents, I hoped that didn’t mean all the elderly people in the building were as irritable as Mr. Piper. Old people kinda creeped me out. Angry old people even more so. “So,” Sonya said once she was tucked away behind her desk and I was seated in front of her, “let’s get all the paperwork out of the way and then I’ll show you to Bernadette’s…well, your apartment, okay?” “Sounds like a plan.” I swear it was like watching a little kid handing over a birthday present to their best friend that they knew was going to be the best possible gift on the planet. Sonya seemed nice—a little overly so—but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she was about to bust a seam over this. It was just a lease agreement. She pushed the paperwork across the desk and I was happily signing away when the office door burst open so hard it slammed into the wall behind me. Spinning around in my chair, I gaped at the man in the doorway. His dark hair and emerald green eyes were certainly something to take notice of, as was his height and broad shoulders. What had my fingers turning white as they clutched the chair arms was the livid expression on his face as he thrust a piece of paper out in front of him. “If I get another damn complaint from Ms. Sinclair about my TV being too loud after seven p.m., I swear I will take that tabby cat of hers that spends half the night yowling and pitch it right out the window! Not everyone goes to bed at seven in the evening, and the only way she can hear my TV is if she’s got a glass against the wall again!” He didn’t even wait for a response before tossing the paper at Sonya and storming out of the office, the door slamming closed behind him. As soon as it felt safe to speak again, I asked, “Who on earth was that?” Sonya sighed. “Baxter. Never mind him. He’s always like that. Those two…” She shook her head again, but dismissed the whole encounter a moment later. I wished I could have done the same. “Anyway,” Sonya continued, “if you have any questions about the lease agreement, just let me know. You’ll actually be subletting from Bernadette since her lease isn’t up yet, but all the same rules and requirements apply.” “Rules and requirements?” I asked. Rules, sure, there were always rules, I supposed. Requirements? Like a credit check? I hoped that wouldn’t be an issue as I had almost zero credit to speak of. Tilting her head to one side, Sonya frowned. “Bernadette did explain how this building works, right?” “It’s an apartment building. How complicated could it be?” I mean, I’d never lived on my own before, but still. Pay your rent on time, don’t annoy the neighbors. What else was there? Slumping into her chair, Sonya’s posture made it pretty clear there was definitely more to it than that. “Oh dear.” She sighed and her smile was taken over by worry. “I really thought Bernadette would have explained everything already. I was so excited.” She said it like my moving in here was suddenly out of the question. That got me worried. How bad could this place possibly be? Classes started the next day and I had nowhere else to go. All of my savings had gone toward tuition. I barely had enough left to pay the inexpensive rent here for a month while I looked for a job. I couldn’t afford anywhere else. “Why don’t you just explain,” I said warily. Sonya bit her bottom lip, but nodded in a defeated sort of way. “My grandma, she’s a little…odd.” Sonya looked up at me, her brows knit together. “Her and my grandpa have owned this building forever, but after my grandpa passed and all the kids were gone, she was lonely and she…made some changes to the standard lease agreement, but not the rent amount.” I was beginning to feel like I was sitting in the lobby of the Bates motel, waiting on a key that would surely unlock my doom. “The changes? What were they?” “Well, there’s kind of two parts.” She took a deep breath, the kind a doctor might take before he tells a patient they have terminal cancer. “The first part, one of the reasons rent is so low here, is because the residents all have a job…something they’re responsible for to keep the building running smoothly so Grandma doesn’t have to staff a maintenance guy.” “So, all the repairs are done by people who have no clue what they’re doing?” I was suddenly wary of leaning too hard on anything or flipping on a light switch. Sonya shook her head quickly. “No, no. Anything serious, we have a licensed repair person come in. Small things though, like changing light bulbs or repainting a scuffed up piece of railing, keeping the dumpster lids closed so trash doesn’t blow down the alley, things like that are the residents’ responsibility. Everyone has a job.” “You’re going to assign me a chore, then?” That didn’t sound so bad. “Well…Bernadette said you’d just take over her assignment.” Great. Just great! Bernadette the overachiever, who could do anything and everything, said I’d slip right in and fill her shoes like I’d never, ever been able to do before. I loved my sister, but we couldn’t be more different if we had tried. I had one talent, cooking, and honestly, I wasn’t even sure I was that good. It was just one of the few things I didn’t suck at, so I figured I better attempt to make a career out of it since nothing else seemed all that promising. “What was her assignment?” I held my breath, hoping for once she’d picked something simple and easy to learn. Sonya’s eyebrows pinched together again. “Um, minor plumbing repairs.” “Plumbing?” I shrieked. Seriously? I had no freaking clue where to even start with that! I was pretty sure I knew what a screwdriver was, but that was about as far as my mechanical knowledge extended. Daddy banned me from laying even a single finger on his tools after I tried to replace the pedal that fell off my bike when I was eight and ended up with my hair stuck in the spokes and a broken finger. “You might be able to talk one of the other residents into trading with you.” She tried to force a hopeful smile, but it died a short death. No one wanted to fish lost rings out of drain pipes or unclog someone else’s nasty sink. I didn’t have to be a plumber to know that. “So…the other part,” Sonya said slowly. She waited for me to focus on her again, although zoning out in that moment would probably have been preferable. “My grandma really likes to be social, but she has a hard time leaving the building much anymore. Several times a week she hosts these, uh, get togethers, and…well, you’re required to attend at least one…per week.” It took me a moment to process that tidbit of weirdness. I had to repeat it a few times in my head to make sure I had it right. “So, let me get this straight. Part of the lease agreement says that I have to hang out with your grandma and all the other residents at least once a week, whether I want to or not?” She nodded. “What happens if I don’t?” Fiddling with some of the papers in front of her, Sonya said, “You get two warnings before you’re given thirty days’ notice to move out.” She looked up at me, her expression a mixture of hope and apology. “If that happens, Bernadette will lose her deposit and the option to renew her lease.” Too me, that didn’t sound all that bad. Sure, losing the deposit money would suck, but Bernadette had a good job and could easily afford higher rent to live in a building not owned by a kooky old lady who probably should have been living in a retirement facility instead of forcing unassuming strangers to be her unwilling friends. Why on earth hadn’t Bernadette warned me about all of this? “The rules,” Sonya continued, “are pretty basic. Rent’s due on the first. Five percent late charge after the tenth. No loud TV or music after ten. No damaging the apartment. Hanging pictures is okay, though. No physical violence against any of the other residents, either.” That last one slapped me out of my self-pity and shot me up ram-rod straight in my chair. “Physical violence? Is that a problem here?” Sonya blanched. “Not recently.” I was going to die here. That was the real reason rent was so cheap. I’d finally escaped my past only to be roped into living in a funny farm where one of the other residents just might kill you in your sleep for playing your TV too loud or forgetting to put down the dumpster lids. Or maybe they’d just push you down the stairs. There were a lot of stairs here. What had I gotten myself into? No, what had Bernadette gotten me into? She was supposed to be looking out for me, not putting a target on my back! I stared down at the final page of the lease agreement. One more signature to go. Clearly, Sonya was certain I’d walk away. If I’d had any other options—and I mean any other options—she’d have been right. Instead of running from the insanity of this place, I sighed and scrawled my name one last time. As soon as I lifted my pen, Sonya grabbed both my hands and squealed in delight. “I’m so glad you’re staying! I was so sure you’d walk away when I realized Bernadette hadn’t prepared you.” Which was exactly why my traitorous sister hadn’t said a word. Before I could come up with a solid plan to pay my sister back for this, Sonya was back around the desk, my suitcase in hand, yanking me up from my chair and out of the office. The clunk-clunk of my suitcase banging its way up the stairs sounded like a death march. I was so focused on my own misery that I didn’t realize someone was coming up behind me until I was body-checked into the wall and another raised voice started ranting while waving a paper in Sonya’s face. “Is your grandmother serious about this?” a Hispanic woman in her forties yelled. “She demands I come to these stupid potlucks, but now she doesn’t want me to bring my son? She really expects me to find a sitter just to show up to one of her weird dinner parties?” A look of well-practiced patience settled over Sonya. “Marlene, you know my grandma is usually happy to have the entire family come to dinner, but Alonzo did take a permanent marker to her walls last Tuesday night. Anyone would be upset about that.” “He’s just a kid!” As mad as I’d probably be about marker on my walls, toddlers weren’t the easiest little beasts to control… “Alonzo is ten, Marlene,” Sonya said, which shut her up and made my mouth snap closed as well. Ten? Seriously? Never mind. I would have banned the little brat, too. “Why don’t you check with Beth in three-thirty? She’s the resident babysitter and I’m sure she’d be happy to keep Alonzo company while she does homework.” Marlene huffed, then spun around and marched back down the stairs without another word. Sonya shook her head and said, “Don’t mind Marlene…” “She’s always like that?” I finished. When Sonya nodded, I sighed. I was beginning to see a pattern. A few minutes later, Sonya stopped in front of a door with shiny brass numbers stating that we had arrived at apartment two-sixteen. “This is you,” she said as she handed over the keys. “Grandma’s dinners are at six o’clock on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and she’ll usually do something on holidays, too. Everyone brings a little something and you only have to stay for an hour.” She paused and bit her lip. “Really, it’s not that bad. I’ll be there.” She said that last part like it was supposed to erase everything else. All I could do was sigh in response. The only escape I was going to find was holing myself up in my new apartment. Reaching out with the key, I was jiggling it around in an attempt to open it when shouting from next door erupted only moments before two sets of doors burst open. “I can hear your TV!” some crazy old woman—who I assumed was Ms. Sinclair—shouted at an equally peeved Baxter. “I don’t even have my TV on!” The old woman span around and stomped back into her apartment, of course, slamming the door behind her. Baxter looked ready to do the same, but as he twisted around, he caught sight of me and glowered. “You’re my new neighbor?” I nodded, not daring to speak. “Complain about noise of my TV once and…” His hands balled into fists as he tried and failed to contain his anger. “I don’t play my TV too loud, no matter what that old bat says.” I just nodded again, hoping he’d go away. Granting my wish, he turned back toward his apartment and I released the breath I was holding. “I’m going to kill my sister,” I muttered. It was barely loud enough for Sonya—who was standing right next to me—to hear, but Baxter paused and looked back at me, his eyes narrowing before disappearing into his apartment. Feeling suddenly weak in the knees, I leaned against the wall to steady myself. That last rule about physical violence was looking more and more necessary by the minute. The best I could hope for at this point was that the residents were as diligent about not killing each other as they were about not missing dinner with Grandma Crazy Town.


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