Authors: Janice Kay Johnson
In the dining room, she found John and his children seated
at their places at the table, which had been nicely set as if for company, with
quilted place mats and cloth napkins. As a centerpiece, asters in bright colors
made a casual bouquet in a cream-colored pitcher. French doors were closed
against a gray, misty day.
She stood in the doorway unnoticed for a moment, feeling as
if she were outside, nose pressed to the glass, looking in at a perfect family
tableau. Father and children were laughing together, the affection, humor and
patience so obvious she felt a pang of envy. For what, Natalie knew quite well.
Stuart had squelched her first tentative suggestion that they think about
having children. On their wedding day, she had just assumed…
It hurt still, remembering Stuart's quick, thoughtless,
"What the hell would we want brats for?"
She must have made a sound, a movement, because John's head
turned sharply, his grin fading.
"Good morning." He searched her face with grave,
intent eyes even as he gestured at an empty chair. "Mom's making bacon and
eggs. She wouldn't let us help." A faint smile pulled at his mouth.
"We've been complaining about how slow the service is. My tip isn't going
to be big."
"Daddy!" His son giggled. "Grandma doesn't
Evan McLean was a miniature of his father: russet, wavy
hair, vivid blue eyes and big feet that suggested someday he'd match Dad's size
as well. Natalie wondered if John had had freckles, too, at five years old.
From the lines in his face, she doubted he'd slept any more
than she had, if at all, but he had obviously just showered and shaved. His wet
hair was slicked back, the auburn darkened by water. Despite the tiredness that
creased his brow and added years, he crackled with energy and the grin he gave
his son came readily.
"You don't think Grandma would scoop up a buck if I
Evan looked crafty. "I bet she'd give it to me. Why
don't you leave a dollar and we'll find out. Okay?"
"Greedy," his sister scoffed. Maddie McLean had
her mom's blond hair and blue eyes of a softer hue than her father's. Gawky and
skinny at this age, she wasn't pretty in a dimpled little-girl way, but Natalie
was willing to bet Maddie would be a beauty by the time she was sixteen.
"Just to see," Evan insisted.
"Uh-huh." She rolled her eyes. "Like you'd
give it back to Dad."
Her brother bounced indignantly. "I would!" He
stole a glance at his father. "If he said I had to."
John laughed, although he still watched Natalie. "Let's
not put Grandma to the test, shall we?" The door from the kitchen swung
open and he said, "Ah. Looks like breakfast is going to be served."
"At last!" Evan said.
Carrying a plate of toast in one hand and a heaping bowl of
scrambled eggs in the other, his grandmother bent a look on him. "Young
man, that didn't sound very polite."
Even at five, he had the grace to blush. "I'm just
awful hungry, Grandma."
"Ah." Still sounding severe, she said, "You
need to learn to
'at last,' not say it. That's the secret to good
His forehead crinkled. "You mean, I can be really rude,
just to myself?"
"That's right." A tall woman with beautiful bone
structure and gray-streaked red hair cut very short, his grandmother headed
back to the kitchen. Just before disappearing through the swinging door, she
added, "Truly nice people, however, don't think rude things, either."
"Oh." Looking very small, Evan beseeched his father.
"Is that true?"
"Here's a secret, bud." John lowered his voice.
"I can't imagine a single person so saintly that he or she doesn't think
rude things once in a while. Just so you keep 'em to yourself, you can be a
Maddie sat with a very straight back and head held regally
high. "But you're boys. Girls are
nicer. Aren't they, Natalie?"
Weary as she was, Natalie had to laugh. "Let's see,
what grade are you in? Third?"
only in kindergarten."
So much for the illusion of family harmony she had seen like
a shimmering mirage before she stepped into the dining room.
"Right. My point is, girls
nicer than boys at your age. I'm pretty sure boys reach their peak of awfulness
in about fourth grade. But then they do start getting better."
"Really?" both kids said simultaneously.
"I can be
Evan sounded delighted at the prospect.
"You mean, they get
sister asked in horror.
"'Fraid so," Natalie said sympathetically.
"Or, at least, that's my recollection."
John was laughing as his mother returned with a plate of
bacon and another with sausage.
"In case anyone would prefer it to bacon," she
said, slapping down the plate. "If that's funny."
The laugh still lingering on his mouth, John said, "Sit
down, Mom. This looks fabulous. No, we were talking about the horrors boys are
capable of. Fourth grade was definitely my peak of awfulness."
Mrs. McLean didn't hesitate. "For all of you. No,"
she corrected herself, handing Natalie the bowl of scrambled eggs to dish up.
"Hugh was slow maturing. Fifth or sixth grade was his worst. Do you
remember that poor girl who had a terrible crush on him and sent him a poem
John paused with the plate of toast in one hand. A grin
deepened the creases in his cheeks. "Oh, yeah. He wrote
in return. Rhymed pretty well, too, as I recall. Actually—" he cleared his
throat "—I helped. Just with the rhyming. Which, come to think of it,
would suggest that I was
awful in … what would I have been?"
"A freshman in high school." His mother sounded
acerbic. "I can't believe you helped him."
"What did it
"Something about her stink and, um, why she had to pad
her bra and her laugh sounding like…" He stopped. "Never mind."
breathed. "Uncle Hugh?"
awesome," his grandmother snapped. "It was cruel.
Hugh was unable to play Little League that year in consequence."
Evan's eyes grew big. "Oh."
do, Daddy?" Maddie asked. "When you were in fourth
He layered jam on his toast and waved the bread knife
dismissively. "Oh, I was just repulsive. My idea of falling-down-funny was
a fart joke or tripping another kid or somebody making a dumb mistake in an
the boys in my class are like!" Maddie exclaimed.
was like that?"
"Yup." He tousled her hair. "I don't have a
single excuse, kiddo."
"Gol," she muttered.
"If your father had been here," Mrs. McLean began,
with a sniff.
A shadow crossed John's face and was gone before Natalie was
quite sure she'd seen it. "He was here, Mom. I was in fifth grade when he
"Grandad was shot, right?" Enjoying the gory idea
had a relative who had died a bloody death, Evan shoveled in
a huge mouthful of scrambled eggs and chewed enthusiastically while he waited
for the familiar answer.
That same snap in her voice, his grandmother said, "You
know perfectly well that he was, young man, and it's not something we discuss
in that tone."
He immediately seemed to shrink. "I didn't mean…"
he mumbled around his food.
His father laid a big hand on his shoulder. "It's okay.
We know." The gaze he turned on his mother was cold. "Evan is five
years old. Death is very academic to him. And he never knew his
Her nostrils flared, and her stare didn't back away from
his. "Hugh was barely older than Evan when he lost his father."
Tension fairly crackled between them. "And he had to
deal with it. My son doesn't." Deliberately he turned his head, dismissing
her. "Natalie, once you've eaten, we should probably talk."
Aware out of the corner of her eye that his mother had
flushed, Natalie nodded. "Whenever you're ready." She looked
apologetically at Mrs. McLean.
"I'm not very hungry, I'm afraid. Although this is
"A decent breakfast will make you feel better."
"Yes," she said meekly. "I'm sure. It's just
that I keep thinking…" She had to swallow on a bout of nausea.
Mrs. McLean's face softened marginally. "Perhaps a cup
of tea. With honey?" She stood, surveying everyone's plates.
"Children, please eat. Evan, smaller bites." She swept out.
"I…" Natalie tried to think of something tactful
to say. "She's being very kind."
"In her own way," John said dryly.
John brought a cup of coffee and Natalie her tea when they
left the children with their grandmother and retired to his home office.
Family obviously wasn't checked at the door to this room
with warm woodwork, white walls and floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Childish
drawings filled a bulletin board, and some action figures lay on the hardwood
floor in positions that suggested they had died rather like their grandfather.
A one-legged Barbie lay among them.
John nudged at the doll with his foot. "My son is
bloodthirsty," he remarked ruefully.
"Aren't most little boys? I know my nephew is."
He sat rather heavily in his leather office chair, his
tiredness suddenly visible. "Having known the reality, my mother isn't
very comfortable with that fact."
"How could she be?" Natalie said with quick
sympathy. "It must have been horrible to lose her husband that way, and to
have to raise three kids by herself."
He made a rough sound. "I only wish she could have let
us forget, just now and again, how Dad died."
Startled, Natalie asked, "What do you mean?"
John rotated his head as though his neck was stiff. Sounding
impatient with himself, he said almost brusquely, "Never mind. It's
nothing. History." He sighed. "Natalie, we identified the dead
In an instant forgetting his unusual sharpness toward his mother,
she locked her hands together. Her voice came out breathless with the anxiety
that suddenly gripped her. "Really? So fast?"
"Geoff and I both recognized him. We had to hunt
through mug shots to come up with a name, but we'd been in on his arrest four
years ago. Stuart was the arresting officer."
Natalie sat silent for a moment, absorbing the news that her
husband had once arrested the man who yesterday had died in her house, in
"What did he do?" she finally asked tentatively.
"Was it burglary?"
"His name was Ronald Floyd. He was a midlevel drug
A drug dealer? She groped for understanding. "But why
would he have been in my house? Did he think Stuart was still alive and he was,
well, looking for revenge or something?"
John reached out and covered her knotted hands with his for
a brief, reassuring moment. "I doubt it. This guy has been arrested half a
dozen times before. Yeah, he got put away this time for a decent prison term,
but it wasn't because Stuart had hunted him down. We got a tip. A whole crowd
of us was waiting when Floyd docked at the marina with a boat hold full of
coke. The fact that Stuart cuffed and booked him was just chance."