She took a deep breath, trying to contain the explosion of grief that suddenly hit her. Now that she’d relaxed, the reality of it burst in on her.
There’d only been a year between them, and way back when they were still little girls, M and her little sister had been the best of buds. But somewhere around her twelfth birthday, M had begun to realize there was more to life than what her parents had—or didn’t have. But Summer, Summer hadn’t been an achiever like M. She’d been content with what she had, and on the occasions she wanted more, she wasn’t above using her looks—or anything else—to get it.
Over the years, M had made the occasional attempt to reconnect with her sister, but Summer hadn’t been interested. Instead she mocked M for always working so hard.
Now her sister was dead, and she’d never have the chance to recreate the bond they’d shared as little girls.
She looked up as Charlie came around and squeezed into the booth beside her.
He put his arm around her. “Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry. You okay? What happened?”
She sniffed and laid her head on his shoulder. “I don’t know all the details, but she was drunk driving. She killed herself and her husband.”
He just held her for a moment without saying anything. After a bit, he asked, “So what are you going to do? Do you need a place to stay?”
“No. I’m… ah… I’m staying at her house. Her step-son’s house. He and his little sister are living there.”
He pulled back and took her by the shoulders. “What? You don’t even know this guy. You can’t do that.”
“Well, you don’t have room… unless…?”
He pursed his mouth and shook his head, looking a little steamed. “No, the four of us are still sharing the house we bought together a few years ago. And space is about to get tighter.”
“Why? Is someone else moving in?”
He laughed. A sour laugh. “You could say that. Jeff and Kellie got pregnant.”
M’s jaw dropped. “What? I didn’t know they were dating. I thought you guys had a house rule about no dating each other. You all figured it would mess things up.”
“They aren’t dating. Have never dated. They had an accident! Yeah, oops. So in three months, there will be a baby in the house.”
Okay. It wasn’t like she’d thought there was a chance.
She reached up and grabbed his hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll be okay. The place is huge, so it’s like living in a motel. It’s bigger than your parent’s house. And he gave me a job. If I help with his sister, I can live there rent free.”
She looked up at him. “I need to do this, Charlie. I need to prove something to myself.”
“That I can stay in one place. That I can start my own business. That I can be someone!”
He gave her another squeeze, then got up and went back to his seat. “You are someone. And you make sure you let me know if you need anything.”
They spent a comfortable hour getting caught up on each other’s lives, then she headed back to the place where she’d live for the next while.
And wasn’t the fact she thought of it like that a sad commentary on her life? It had been a long time since she’d lived somewhere she’d thought of as home. If ever. Where ever she laid her head at night was just the place she lived for the time being. Not home. A home was more than a roof over your head. More than the place you hung your clothes.
She found the front door locked when she got back to the house. Good, someone had seen her note and locked the door.
Unfortunately, she’d have to knock before she got back in.
Jonathan answered the door.
Feeling awkward, she said, “Hi.”
“Hi. Do you have a few minutes?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess so. Is something wrong?”
He shook his head. “No. There’re just a few things I thought we should talk about. You mentioned a trial period. I want you to know that works both ways. If this doesn’t work for Alicia, or me, the deal is off. Like you said, no harm, no foul.”
While she would’ve liked to take offence, what he said was fair. “Agreed.”
“Good. I’d promised to take Alicia somewhere for the afternoon tomorrow, so why don’t you join us? It will give me a chance to see the two of you together. See if this will work out.”
Oh, yay. That sounded like more fun than she could stand. “That’s a good idea.”
He spread his arms. “And I thought I should show you around. I would have offered before, but you looked like you needed to rest first.”
She raised her brows and thought why not just go ahead and say I looked like a hag?
Her expression must have telegraphed her thoughts because he looked a little chagrined. “Ah, I meant…”
“Forget it. You’re right. I was tired. Sure, I’d love to look around. It will save me from getting lost at a later date.”
He smiled at that. “Let’s start with the kitchen. And I want you to know… well… if you’re going to live here, please treat it like a home.”
That was just weird. She’d just been thinking she’d never had a home and that this certainly wasn’t one, and now he was telling her to treat it like it was?
She squinched her nose. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged and spread his hands. “You don’t need to go out to eat, and you don’t need to let me know if you leave the house. If I’m home, your time is your own. Feel free to come and go and feel free to make yourself a meal whenever you want. Actually, why don’t you join Alicia and me for your meals? Mrs. Brickman cooks for us as well, and I can ask her to start making a little extra. What do you think?”
What did she think? She thought this was way more than she’d expected. She thought she’d be treated like one of the servants, and she was pretty sure servants didn’t get to eat with their employers.
She tucked her fingers into the front pockets of her jeans, not quite sure why this conversation was making her so uncomfortable.
“Well, here’s the thing. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like it’s rude to just leave without telling someone you’re on the way out. I mean… I’m not saying I’m going to tell you where I’m going, that’s none of your business, but I will tell someone if I’m leaving the house.” She lifted her shoulders as if apologizing. “It just… seems like the right thing to do. As far as the kitchen goes, thanks. I’ll use it, but don’t be surprised if I buy my own food. And I wouldn’t feel right about eating with you. If I’m eating in, I can eat in my room.”
“Fine. That’s your decision. One thing though…” He hesitated, clearly choosing his next words carefully.
“I live here. For the time being, this is my home. I expect you to respect my privacy. Alicia is not allowed in my office, and she knows it. You… well, I told you to treat this like your home, and I mean that. To a point. Whatever isn’t on tonight’s tour is off limits. Is that clear?”
M clenched her jaw, and the heat of fury stung her cheeks, while the echo of past allegations rang in her ears. “Crystal. Make sure you lock up all your valuables too. Or have you done that already?”
He opened his mouth, but closed it without saying anything. Instead, he gestured to the left, indicating they should begin walking in that direction. To the kitchen, she presumed.
Oh, the kitchen. It nearly brought tears to her eyes. It also deflated the bubble of anger that threatened to overtake her.
She’d never been in a kitchen like this. Oh, she’d worked in fine restaurants with industrial like kitchens, but this, this was her idea of paradise.
Her eyes swept across an area bigger than her last apartment, and took in the gas cooktop—five burners, and easily three feet wide—to the built-in microwave, the sub-zero fridge, two ovens, and two dishwashers, all in stainless steel.
After taking in the important stuff—i.e. the appliances—she let her eyes wander over the rest of the kitchen. Acres of granite countertop in a black stone flecked with bits of silver set off the stainless steel perfectly. Gleaming hardwood cabinetry, some with wood doors and some fronted in smoky glass.
She skirted a huge island and walked across the ceramic tiled floor to a doorway on her left. An enormous butler’s pantry with another fridge!
M shook her head in disbelief. What she wouldn’t do for a kitchen like this.
She looked at the table, a huge granite slab that extended in an L shape from the island, and wondered if they ever sat in those funky chairs and ate a meal in here. Or did Richie Rich only eat in the elegant, formal dining room that was surely just around the corner? Probably.
Watching her, Jonathan found he had to revise his earlier opinion of her. He’d compared her looks to Summer’s and found her wanting.
He’d been wrong.
From the moment she’d walked into the kitchen, it was if she’d been lit from within. She… glowed. Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks flushed—from pleasure this time. She seemed to overflow with an energy that practically reverberated through the room.
He watched as awe, desire, and longing spread across her expressive face.
For his kitchen!
He couldn’t help but wonder what it’d be like… whoa!
His brain provided him with a visual of both feet slamming on the brakes to halt that thought. He could help but wonder, so he was not going there.
She wasn’t his type, and he already had a master plan for the future Mrs. Davenport, thank you very much.
He realized she’d just said something, but he’d been so entrenched in his little inner battle, he hadn’t heard her. “I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?”
“Do you cook?”
“Me? If you mean do I throw the occasional meal together, yes, I guess I cook. But this…” He swept his arm through the air, indicating the expanse of the kitchen. “I don’t need this. I could make do with just the microwave.”
She shook her head and gazed around longingly.
Ah man, she was killing him.
“My father had a cook, but my needs are simple. Mrs. Brickman does okay, and that’s good enough for Alicia and me.”
For some reason that made her sad. He could see it in her face.
Why did he care? Why was she affecting him this way? He was a sensible man. He refused to live the kind of life his father had led. Ruled by his heart—a foolish heart at that.
Jonathan had decided a long time ago—sometime after his father’s fourth marriage—that his life, his decisions, would be ruled by logic, not emotion.
As far as he was concerned, emotion was nothing but a cloud that obscured reality.
Ironic that he’d lacked respect for Summer for being empty. Shallow. Or his favourite description of her, an abyss of nothingness.
Here was her sister tying him in knots because she was the exact opposite. She may give the impression of being controlled, but her face portrayed a merry-go-round of roiling emotion.
He couldn’t afford to be attracted to her. Or distracted by her. He knew exactly what kind of women he’d settle down with one day. And since he wanted to provide a solid home for his little sister, he guessed one day was here.
He wanted a stable environment for Alicia. Not the kind of hustle and flow they’d both been subjected to.
To that end, the ideal candidate to be his wife would be someone like him. A thinker. A planner. Someone with the same sort of background—not because he was a snob, but because there was a degree of comfort in commonality.
Not someone like Em… Emmie?
What was her name?
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