Only In His Sweetest Dreams
BOOK 2 in the Secret Dreams Duet
A family divided…
When Mercedes Kimball’s sister abandons her children, Mercedes takes in her confused niece and nephew, jeopardizing the job she loves at a retirement community. The sexy new handyman’s bedroom eyes promise to fix anything, but he can’t fix this.
L.C. Fogarty is trash, not Father Of The Year, but he’s happy to be Mercedes’s sounding board. Given their white-hot attraction, he’d love to see what they could do to a headboard, but he’s keeping a secret she won’t forgive. Confessing means facing untold heartache and going back to where he never belonged. He’d rather stay with Mercedes and her misfit family.
She might not get to keep that family, though. Which means she’s going to need him.
He smiled at her as if he knew she possessed a learning disability where guys like him were concerned.
— Mercedes, Only In His Sweetest Dreams
There are so many things I love about this book, most especially the setting in the senior’s complex. The older folks in this book were a ton of fun to write, especially Edith Garvey and loveable Harrison.
The kids were fun, too. In fact, this entire book is one hundred percent my jam because it’s filled with multi-generational, complex relationships that are imperfect at the beginning, and still imperfect at the end, but the characters have made their peace with that. To me, that feels like real life.
I could go on, but really, I just want you to read it and tell me what you think. And if you can’t get enough of these folks, please check out Not In Her Wildest Dreams, which is the prequel about L.C.’s sister, Paige.
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Only In His Sweetest Dreams
Her phone vibrated as Mercedes Kimball had finally settled her niece and nephew and was turning in herself. Reaching from her sister’s futon to the coffee table, she muttered, “That had better be you, Porsha.”
She knew it wouldn’t be. Porsha would text, not wanting to risk an actual conversation. And texting would be a miracle at this point.
When Mercedes saw the call display read Coconino Vista, she hurried to accept the call. “Hello?”
“Mercedes?” an aged, female voice asked. “Boys have broken into the empty Fairmont unit. The police are here. I know you asked Harrison for another week, but we need you back immediately.”
“Mrs. Garvey,” Mercedes breathed in recognition and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to snap her overloaded brain into work mode. The Fairmont unit. Vandals.
“Is everyone all right?” She thought of heart conditions and little dogs barking an alarm. Brittle-boned legs stumbling down dark hallways to investigate.
Mrs. Garvey didn’t answer. She was speaking to someone, saying, “I have Mercedes on the phone now.”
Ayjia came to the end of the hallway, rubbing her eyes. Porsha’s nightgown slid off her bony shoulder and the hem puddled around her feet. “Is it Mommy?”
“Pardon?” Mrs. Garvey asked, coming back.
“I’m just speaking to my niece,” Mercedes said. “The phone woke her.”
The fact that the five-year-old had been so on guard for voices that she’d come out right away told Mercedes how distressed Ayjia was at her mother’s prolonged absence.
“The sirens have awakened the entire community,” Mrs. Garvey said stiffly. “The boys were caught, thank heavens, but they had matches. They could have burned us to the ground.”
“There was a fire?” Mercedes sat up and flattened a hand over her T-shirt, trying to contain the leap of her heart.
“Where?” Ayjia’s eyes widened.
“At my work.” Mercedes forced a calm tone. She didn’t have the luxury of freaking out right now. Waving Ayjia to come sit beside her, she asked Mrs. Garvey, “Is the fire still burning? Where are you?”
“The police caught them in time.”
“So there’s no fire?” She should have known Mrs. Garvey was exaggerating. She was an alarmist, always thinking the worst.
Mercedes hugged Ayjia anyway, needing the comfort of her warm, wiry body. If anything had happened to anyone—
“So everyone is okay? Is the complex damaged? The unit?”
“The unit needs repair, as does the back fence. That fence should have been rebuilt long ago.”
Mercedes bit back a huff. She’d been trying to get the budget for the fence repairs past the board for months. “I’ll see to it the minute I get back.”
“Later tomorrow is fine,” Mrs. Garvey said. “It needn’t be your first priority. Other matters will require immediate attention.”
“Right. Um…” Mercedes glanced at the girl snuggling into her side, the weight of her head leaning against the side of her breast. “But as I told Harrison, the kids have school this week.”
Mrs. Garvey’s silence held such thick censure, Mercedes cringed.
“You were supposed to be back last week,” Mrs. Garvey said in her schoolmarm scold. “You should be the one speaking with the police right now.”
“Porsha assured me she was on her way.” But that had been Thursday and here it was Sunday. What were vandals doing out on a school night? At least on a Friday she could have packed up the kids and gone straight back to Flagstaff.
“You’ve used all of your holiday time, Mercedes,” Mrs. Garvey reminded.
“I know. I’m taking this week without pay.” Mercedes held her breath, hoping that would appease Edith Tightfist Garvey.
“But you’ve used all your time. This isn’t another situation like Christmas, is it?”
“Of course not.” Porsha wouldn’t do that to her. Mercedes cuddled her niece closer so Ayjia relaxed and her eyes drifted shut. Porsha wouldn’t do that to her kids. She wouldn’t dare. Mercedes had made it clear that once was too much, especially on top of all those weekend disappearances.
In her ear, Mrs. Garvey spoke to someone else again, her thin voice muffled. Mercedes imagined the senior pressing the receiver to whatever sweater set she’d chosen for a consultation with the police. Never mind the record temperatures Arizona was setting this March, or that potential arsonists had pulled her from her bed at half past nine. She would still be dressed in a light wool skirt, nylons, and orthopedic shoes.
A male voice roughened by a lifetime of whiskey and cigarettes came on the line. “Mercy?”
Oh, no. Was the entire Administrative Board standing there? Some of these people she just couldn’t say no to.
“Hi, Harrison.” She sounded like a sheepish teenager who’d missed curfew. She cleared her throat. “Sounds like a bit of a circus there.”
“Three rings, my girl. Wish you were here.”
Code for Get your ass back home. Ouch.
“Wednesday?” she pleaded. Surely she’d be able to track down her sister by then. If she couldn’t, she was calling child welfare. This time she really meant it.
No, she didn’t, she decided just as fast, cradling a protective hand over Ayjia’s fine hair. After a really scary bout in foster care herself, she’d sworn her niece and nephew wouldn’t experience anything like it. But she dreamed of threatening her sister with it. Porsha needed to wake up.
Harrison filled her ear with a deeply pained sigh. “That the best you can do?”
In the background, she heard Mrs. Garvey working herself into a lather. “She needs to be here now.”
Mercedes winced. “It’s that bad?”
“It’s not that it’s so bad, Mercy-girl. It’s that we’re so damned old. The coppers want us to inspect the damage, but I left my glasses back on the counter and really can’t be bothered walking all that way to pick them up. Pete ought to bring his notes from that inspection we did last fall, but he took one of his nappy pills. Shirley is barely getting a pulse out of him. Mrs. Yamamoto says the little shits seem like nice boys and ought to be given a second chance, but Edith wants ‘em castrated and stewed in oil. We could use your steadying presence.”
Guilt and concern weighed heavier. “I could drive down after school tomorrow.”
More silence, the ominous, disapproving kind.
“Harrison, they’re children.” Mercedes begged for understanding. The seniors were adults. She knew who couldn’t survive without her.
On the other hand, she couldn’t exactly buy groceries for herself or her sister’s children if she didn’t have a job. She would need her life at Coconino Vista when Porsha finally decided to be a mother again. That was home and those people were like family. She hated letting them down.
“I’ll be there by late afternoon, I swear.” She wouldn’t even try to imagine how she would get the kids back for school on Tuesday.
“Can’t your mother take them?” he asked.
“I pick them up from Mom when Porsha leaves them there because—”
Like mother, like daughter, she’d been about to say, but cut herself off as six-year-old Dayton showed up from the hall, his hair sticking up, his cheek wearing the print of his dinosaur pillow.
“Is that Mom?”
“No, hon. It’s my work.”
“What do they want?”
“Mercedes?” Harrison asked. “The police want to talk to us again, but listen. We need you here.”
“I know.” And she wasn’t Porsha, she wasn’t. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” she promised, silently adding, Please don’t fire me.
L.C. Fogarty had just fallen asleep in the hard, college dorm bed when his cell phone hummed.
He was too old for midnight calls. It had to be a wrong number. Or his son. Might be his sister. Their father had been doing all right since his latest heart attack two years ago, but still smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish.
Reaching for the phone, he opened one eye to see the lack of photo and his ex-wife’s initials. A cement-like weight hit his gut, heavy and sloshing with foreboding.
“It’s me,” Britta said. “Your son was arrested tonight.”
Not dead. He let out a breath and sat up, light-headed with relief. “Finally showing some Fogarty colors. Good for him.”
He pushed his fingertip and thumb into his eyes, pinching the sleep out of them. Waiting out her annoyance. Waiting for the inevitable—
“So you don’t care.”
He ignored that. “What happened? Party? Oh, hell, he wasn’t protesting, was he?” That he could believe.
“Attempted arson. In a senior’s complex.” Her tone was sharp with can-you-believe-this-shit.
“They’ve got the wrong kid,” he said, even as he pictured his family home leveled by fire two years ago. But blame had been assigned. Zack had nothing to do with it.
“Of course they’ve got the wrong kid!” Brit sounded like she was red-lining.
“Hey. Come in off the ledge. He’s fine.” He wasn’t dead.
“He’s not fine! God, you never take anything seriously.”
He quit reaching for his jeans in the dark, begged the ceiling for patience, and reached for the pencil and notebook on the table instead. “Tell me where he’s being held. I’ll make some calls. You can go back to bed.”
“That’d be great, but we’re teething and out of gel, so there’s no point, is there?”
Don’t go there, he thought, but it came out anyway. “My fault too?”
How was it they could be pushing forty, be divorced longer than they had been married, yet continued to needle each other like they were still in high school?
She must have thought the same thing. Her tone lowered to something more civil.
“He was released a while ago. He’s probably back at the dorm by now.”
“So he’s not in jail.” That was good news, but L.C.’s tension shifted to resentment. “Your cop husband spring him?”
“My lawyer father did.” It was still vintage Britta, cleaning up the mess then blasting him for not doing it himself.
If he’d been paying attention, he would have known Zack was fine from the moment he answered. She only got snotty and unbearable once a crisis had passed. Recognizing that didn’t lighten him up any.
“So you’re just calling to inform me. Zack doesn’t need anything.”
“Well, I thought you should go make sure he’s all right.”
“Did he sound all right?”
“I don’t know! Dad talked to him.”
“Zack didn’t call you?” That surprised him, but it explained why Brit was so testy. L.C. smirked. Welcome to being a redundant parent, sweetheart. He’d had to get used to it, but it was nice to know it irritated the hell out of her, too.
“Dad said Zack made a good case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the college is still liable to make him an example. I think you should go make sure they don’t expel him or anything.”
“I should do that.” Last he’d heard, his parenting efforts weren’t necessary. When had he become a valued part of the team?
“Well, I have my hands full, don’t I? And you’re not doing anything. Paige said you’re not working.”
Ah. Of course she had called his sister first. It didn’t surprise him, but aggravated him all the same. “Paige doesn’t know what I’m doing.” No one did. It was too close to the bone.
“So you won’t go and help your son.”
“I didn’t say that.”
She wasn’t listening. She was talking to someone in the room with her.
“He doesn’t even care that his son was arrested and could be expelled.” She came back on the line, strident and full of the self-righteousness that made her great in the practice of family law, but a bitch of an ex-wife. “Is partying really more important than your child?”
“I’m not at a party.” He spoke through tight lips, thinking of the one-week high-school equivalency boot camp he was starting tomorrow. He would dump it in a heartbeat if Zack asked, but after this attack, he’d be damned if he’d do it for her. “I’m also not in Arizona. Zack’s eighteen. If he wants me, he knows how to reach me, but it sounds like he’s got things under control. Got himself out of jail, didn’t he? It took me a few tries to get good at it.”
“Are you in jail now? Is that why you won’t go?”
“Jesus, Brit. If Zack asks for me, I’ll go.”
“He shouldn’t have to ask. I’m asking on his behalf and I shouldn’t have to— Now she’s up again!” She made a noise of sheer frustration while a baby cried in the background. “Do whatever the hell you want. You will anyway.” She hung up.
“Kisses for baby,” L.C. muttered as he stabbed to end the call and dropped the phone on the blanket beside him. His chest hurt and it wasn’t just his son’s arrest causing it. Those healthy cries from the baby held his lungs in a vice for a long few breaths until he pulled himself back from helpless terror and futile anger to bleak acceptance.
Is partying more important than your child?
He stared into the darkness, focusing on Zack so he wouldn’t think about heading to the nearest bar and ordering a drink.
Surely Zack knew all he had to do was ask. Maybe they hadn’t spent a lot of time together in the last couple of years, but they texted all the time. And okay, maybe it wasn’t right to make Zack ask him for help, but what was he supposed to do? Take for granted he was needed? His own father had never shown up for anything unless subpoenaed. That’s how L.C. had learned not to rely on anyone.
He rubbed his face again. Swore. Reached for his jeans and stood to tug them on.
Wandering the Flagstaff campus at nine o’clock the next morning, L.C. kicked himself for being too lazy to walk to the office for a map. Zack wasn’t answering his texts and he was about to write off this escapade when he overheard a pair of girls talking about ‘those guys who were arrested last night.’
“Any idea where I’d find them?” he interrupted the girls to ask.
Wearing startled doe-eyes, one pointed. “Dean’s office.”
Nodding his thanks, L.C. followed the sidewalk and practically bumped into Zack talking on his cell as he exited a building with a handful of young men. Most of them walked with hunched shoulders, tails lodged well between their legs, but Zack wore an intent expression and nodded as he spoke, gaze fixed on the distance in concentration.
Watching his son was like looking at his wedding photo—without the dorky swooped hair and tightly tailored suit, of course—but Zack’s lanky six-foot height and swarthy dark coloring were pure Fogarty.
Homesickness struck L.C. He had left because he couldn’t face what had been coming at him, but he had missed his son. A lot. If women had maternal instincts of softness and nurturing, he had paternal instincts of readiness to protect. All his muscles and sinews tightened, followed with a slap of failure that he was getting good at sloughing off. He shrugged now, pulling away from everything except what was right in front of him.
“Thank you. I really appreciate that,” Zack was saying. “Ten o’clock. I’ll be there.” Without looking up, he pocketed his phone and turned to unlock his bike.
“Hey, jailbird,” L.C. greeted, coming up beside him.
Zack looked up, his frown blanking into surprise, then a wide smile of recognition. “Dad!”
He straightened and almost moved for a hug, which would have been natural a few years ago, but evaporated every time Zack remembered he was still mad at him. Zack faltered and L.C. ignored the pang that hit him, offering to shake.
“What are you doing here?” Zack asked, cautious as they dropped their grip.
“Heard you got yourself into hot water last night.”
Zack waved it off and turned to his bike lock. “I was trying to stop the other guys.”
L.C. rubbed his stubbled jaw. Sounded about right. Just like his Auntie Paige, Zack only ever got into trouble when his do-gooder instincts went too far.
“So you don’t need anything.” It was a let down, but not a massive one. His worst nightmare was that his son would make the same mistakes he had. He was disgusted he’d let Britta’s ‘he shouldn’t have to ask’ comment get to him. He could have saved himself this sense of irrelevance.
“Yeah, everything’s fine.” Zack strapped on his helmet. “You should have texted. Sorry it’s a wasted trip.”
“I did text. And it’s not a waste if you join me for breakfast. Or do you have class?”
“No, I, uh….” Zack mounted his bike than slouched on the seat. “I mean, I do have class, but I actually have to move out of the dorm right now.”
“Oh.” L.C. absorbed that. “So everything’s fine except you’re kicked out.”
“Just from rez. The other guys got expelled, but I talked the Dean into letting me stay in school.”
Impressive. “Where will you go?”
“Not sure, but I’ll figure it out.” Zack leaned his elbows on the handlebars and skiffed his feet as he rolled forward at a speed L.C. could pace. His shoes scrape-scraped and his tires ticked. He nodded at a girl they passed.
L.C. waited for Zack to ask for help moving, or money for rent.
L.C. dug for his keys. “Let’s get a coffee. Then I’ll help you pack.”
Zack pulled out his phone to check the screen, then said, “I don’t really have time. I, um, the other thing about letting me stay is, I have to repair the damage the guys did. And serve a hundred community hours. I’m going over at ten to make sure the people at the old folks home are okay with that.”
L.C. choked on a snort.
Zack braked to a stop. “What?”
Not about to voice his doubts, because he knew his son was capable of a lot when it came to swinging a hammer, L.C. said, “Getting expelled sounds like the easier punishment. Why do you have to do all that and the other guys don’t?”
“Because they don’t care if they stay. I do.” Zack kicked off again before L.C. could question him further.
“You’re passing my truck,” L.C. called and Zack braked again to look across the parking lot. “We might as well load your stuff. We can find you a place after your meeting, if you’re allowed to stay. Am I reading that right? These old folks have to agree, otherwise you’re gone?”
“They’ll agree.” Zack rolled his bike across the pavement, then swung it into the bed of the pickup. “My dorm is across—”
L.C. shook his head. “You drive.”
Zack closed his hand over the keys. His thick dark brows came together like anvil heads. For the first time, he took in his father’s appearance, scowling as he noted rumpled denim and red eyes.
“Should you have driven here?” Zack asked with a new, more mature sort of challenge than L.C. had ever seen in his son.
“I’m not drunk. Or hungover. I’m tired. I drove all night from New Mexico.”
Zack made a noise that suggested reasonable doubt.
“Look, you said you have to move.” L.C. fought to keep his tone level, even though inside he was fuming and yeah, sick with guilt. His kid had every right to be suspicious, but he still hated it. “I’ll help you pack, then we’ll go to this meeting and I’ll look at the repairs with you. See what’s involved.” It was a fair offer. He’d been twisting wrenches all his life. He didn’t expect Zack to fall apart with relief, but a nod of thanks would be nice.
Jaw offset with indecision, Zack said, “You don’t need to. I’m handling this.”
The less than subtle Get Lost caused a twist of anguish in L.C.’s chest. He’d told himself Zack understood why he’d left Liebe Falls, but he had suspected, and now saw first hand, that Zack viewed his escape as running away from parenthood.
He was running from so much more than that.
But he loved his son and had never intended to run out on him. “I want to help, Zack.”
Edith Garvey couldn’t sleep for worrying last night’s pack of young criminals might return, seeking revenge. She said as much to Lindy Bellacerra, that busybody, when Lindy accosted her at Mercedes’s desk.
“That’s not likely, is it?” Lindy said, lunging to stretch. “They were all arrested.”
Honestly, this woman and her morning parade of flesh. Spandex didn’t belong on any female and Lindy was old enough to know it.
“Harrison said the police only wanted to put a scare into them,” Edith said, sorting the mail. “Which means they could be out by now. If Coconino is forced to hire private security, we’ll go bankrupt, not to mention the assaults they might perpetrate—” Edith glanced up, already worrying where she would go, and caught Lindy rolling her eyes, actually rolling her eyes at her.
Your imagination’s running away with you again, Edie, Thomas’s voice teased in her mind.
Setting aside the mail, Edith sipped the tea she’d purchased from the cantina, upset that no one, even the likes of Lindy Bellacerra, took her seriously. It wasn’t as if these fearful thoughts were unfounded. Those boys last night could be exactly like the ones who had swarmed and killed her husband.
Sorrow thickened in her throat. See, Thomas? Even my imagination is no match for what can really happen.
She set down her tea and tried to bring order to the files and sticky notes and clipboards. “That’s two prescription deliveries Mercedes has missed,” she told Lindy. “We’ll have another Frank Barclay situation on our hands if we aren’t careful.”
“Mercedes isn’t going to rob us blind!” Lindy stretched her arms above her head so her voluptuous figure thinned and her breasts mashed together. She held the pose as Harrison came through the sliding doors.
It was Edith’s turn to roll her eyes, but she refrained. She, at least, had been raised to show some manners. “Good morning, Harrison.”
“She thinks Mercedes is cooking the books like Frank,” Lindy told him.
Stirring the pot was so like Lindy. Edith searched out the scissors with more impatience than she wanted to show, but it was upsetting. Why was it the only person built to understand her had taken too long to come into her life and left far too early? And no children. She wasn’t one to cry about life not being fair, but when Harrison sighed like that, his disparagement directed right at her, the injustice was impossible to take. She straightened to offer Lindy a cold glare.
“Don’t let us keep you from walking before the heat.”
Lindy twitched her mouth and might have even flipped her hair as she turned, if she hadn’t had her gray locks secured in a small bun and wrapped in her green visor. “See you later, Harrison.”
“That is not what I said,” Edith clarified indignantly when Lindy was gone. “I meant that we may have to find a replacement for Mercedes, if she continues to leave us at loose ends. She should have been here last night.”
“It’s not something anyone could have predicted. You know that. And she’s on her way. I just spoke to her. She promised to be here by ten o’clock.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.” It showed the young woman had her head on straight after all. Finally things could settle back to normal.
Edith carefully cut the plastic away from the golf magazine that was subscribed for the lounge.
“We’ll ask her to start with quotes on installing higher fences. I can only imagine what an electric gate costs. Then there’s the aggravation of people forgetting the pass-code. This desk has been left empty too long, but I suppose it will stay neglected while Mercedes calls security comp—”
“We’re not turning this place into Stalag 13,” Harrison drawled.
“Why does everyone insist on interrupting me?” With sarcasm, as if interrupting wasn’t disrespectful enough.
“What you’re suggesting is a waste of time. We don’t have funds for it and that’s not why I asked her to come back. One of the punks wants to meet with us.”
Like a freight train coming to a violent stop, Edith’s heart jammed and thumped with hard, jarring beats. A horrified squeal seemed to drone in her ears.
“Absolutely not.” She meant to sound strong, but the constriction in her chest made the words breathy. Placing a hand below the notch in her collarbone, she wondered if this was what cardiac arrest felt like. Except her blood began moving again, pushing with headache-inducing force. She found her breath with equal suddenness. “We’re not meeting with any of those hooligans.”
“I already said we would.”
“You did not!” The scissors clattered to the floor, nearly hitting her foot. She couldn’t even bend to pick it up. She would fall over. “Without speaking to the board?”
“I’m speaking to you now. If you don’t want to see him, don’t come to the meeting.” He checked his watch. “I wonder if Pete’s out of his coma yet.”
“That’s unacceptable, Harrison,” she scolded as he walked away, but what could she do? He’d already invited the hoodlum. No! This was completely unacceptable.
“A place for family? Why does it say that, Auntie M?”
“Hmm?” Mercedes held open the gold-lettered door for the kids, her gaze going straight to her desk as they entered. The horseshoe shaped workspace had piled with paperwork in the three weeks she’d been gone. The pleasure of homecoming died under a sandbag of guilt.
Ayjia tugged on her hand, insistent.
“Pardon? Oh. Sorry, hon. I don’t know. It’s just what it says. Coconino Vista Adult Living Complex: A Place For Family.” At least there wasn’t a New Girl sitting behind the counter as Mercedes had half-expected. Deserved, maybe.
Rounding the desk, she slid her overstuffed beach bag off her shoulder onto her rolling chair, realizing they’d made worse time than she’d thought since lunch smells drifted from the cantina. Pea soup, if she wasn’t mistaken. Likely made from the ham leftover from Easter, something else she’d missed while babysitting her niece and nephew through Spring Break.
“But if it’s for families, how come only grown-ups are allowed to be here?” Ayjia lifted her face in consternation.
Mercedes really wished she hadn’t had words with Mrs. Garvey last Christmas. Ayjia was so worried.
“Kids are allowed to visit,” Mercedes assured her. “It’s fine that you’re here with me.” She hoped. She looked for one of the board members, wondering if Harrison had explained for her, dreading having to do it herself.
Lifting the nearly empty jar of jellybeans off her desk, she set it on the floor at Dayton’s feet. “Do you want to count those out for you and Ayjia?”
He nodded and knelt. She handed him a magazine to set the beans on.
“Why does he get to do it?” Ayjia asked.
“Because he’s older.” Mercedes spoke over her shoulder as she crossed to where she could see through the double doors into the cantina.
“I’m going to turn six in the summer,” Ayjia reminded.
“And Dayton will turn seven right after. No, don’t tip it, Dayton. Just reach in.”
No board members in the cantina. It held only its dozen or so regulars, sipping coffee and playing cards. One lifted a hand and Mercedes returned the wave with a smile.
In the lounge on the other side of the foyer, two elderly men watched golf on the big screen. Through the windows behind her desk, she saw an empty courtyard, not unusual for a Monday morning.
The board must be waiting for her in the meeting room. When Harrison had called again this morning, he’d said one of the young men had asked to meet with them and she needed to be here. Getting the kids off to school had turned into A New Plan. One road trip later, here she was, but no one else seemed to be. Glancing down the hall, she noted even the sunroom at the end appeared deserted.
Hmph. She’d promised to come straight from Porsha’s, but it looked like they had started without her. She tried not to see that as a bad sign.
Going back to where the kids were bickering over the remaining green jellybean, she popped it into her own mouth and crouched to say, “Remember when I said I need you both to be really quiet when we get here? Because I have an important meeting? Dayton, fingers out of your nose, please.”
Dayton stood and swiped his finger on the seat of his too short jeans. Either the kid grew by the minute or he had inherited the impossible Hertzog legs, like she had. Poor guy would suffer cold ankles the rest of his life. She gave him a quick, empathetic hug, then straightened before he could push her away.
“Can you do that?” she asked him. “Be quiet for a little bit?”
“I can,” Ayjia said.
Dayton said, “Can we go swimming?”
“After my meeting.” Setting the empty jar back on her desk, resisting the urge to finger through the mail, Mercedes collected the beach bag and led the kids down the hall. On one side, they passed a series of closed doors. On the other, a wall of windows showcased the gardens that bordered the courtyard.
“Why can’t we swim now?” Dayton asked, pressing hands and face to the window below the handrail, staring at the fenced pool.
“Because I have a meeting.” And she suspected attending it was a deal breaker as far as keeping her job went. She hurried them past the closed door of the meeting room and into the empty sunroom.
“What does that one say, Auntie M?” Ayjia pointed to a poster on the wall.
Mercedes glanced at the schedule she’d hung a month ago. Out of date and damn, she’d missed the flower arrangement classes. She had wanted to talk to the florist about bouquets for the Spring Swing Fling. Yet another beef she could take up with Porsha when she caught up to her.
“It’s a lot of writing,” Ayjia said. “Dayton can’t read it if it’s too much writing.”
“It’s not that interesting anyway. Just a list of what people can do, like card games and art classes and stuff.”
“What about the red one?”
“That’s an exit sign, sweetie, and don’t you dare go through that door. It will make a big noise if you do and I need you to stay here while I go into my meeting. Dayton, hon, do you have to go to the bathroom?”
“No.” He removed his flexing hand from his crotch.
“Okay.” Mercedes turned the two faux leather armchairs so they faced each other and tugged a side table so it stood between. When she slid the straps of the beach bag off her shoulder, her back wept in relief. “Can you two draw me a picture while I go in the next room for a few minutes?”
Dayton gave her The Look, his shaggy hair hanging over his lowered brows, his chin crinkling with mutiny.
“Please,” Mercedes said.
“We just had a cream cheese bagel.”
“Can I have a soda?”
“You can have milk when I’m finished with my meeting.”
“Is it a party?” A six-year-old shouldn’t be capable of that level of cynicism.
“No, it’s a meeting, hon. Someone broke into a building here and I have to figure out how to fix it.”
“The building?” Ayjia asked.
“Well, that, and meet one of the kids who broke in.”
“Kids broke in?” Ayjia paused in spilling the contents of the bag, eyes wide.
“College kids. Teenagers.” Young adults, she’d since learned, who should have known better. “Keep the crayons on the table, ‘kay, hon?” If one of the seniors came in and rolled an ankle… Mercedes didn’t even want to think about it. “Dayton, will you watch Ayjia for me for a few minutes? You don’t have to color if you don’t want to.”
He swayed away from the hand she combed through his hair. “Why can’t we come?”
Because I want to keep my job. “It’s a meeting for grown-ups. I won’t be long. Just sit here quietly, okay?”
With serious misgivings, Mercedes left the sunroom and entered the meeting room where small private receptions were occasionally arranged for birthdays or anniversaries, and where card tables were set up for the monthly board meeting.
“Mercedes! Finally.” Mrs. Garvey’s Finishing School accent silenced the room as she broke away from the group beside the coffee service at the counter. Her teabag string waved from the edge of her cup and tea sloshed onto the saucer as she marched her thin frame across the room.
“I’m sorry.” Mercedes caught a brief glimpse of a fresh-faced college kid and a face that was definitely that of a man.
Her heart gave a teensy ba-boomp even before she got a proper look at him. Mrs. Yamamoto opened her arms for a hug and Mercedes had to bend way down over the woman’s tiny frame then turn to press a light kiss on Pete Dolinski’s cheek. Her vision was completely blocked by Harrison Michaels’s broad shoulders when she accepted his brief, back-patting hug. He smelled like cotton and cigars and love. Yeah, she loved this ol’ coot.
“Good to have you back,” he said.
“Good to be back,” Mercedes said, and stepped away only to have her attention demanded by Mrs. Garvey.
“We weren’t sure you were going to make it.” No affection from Mrs. Garvey. She was like Dayton. Liked her personal space.
“I was waiting for my sister.” And waiting and waiting. Cocking her head, Mercedes tried to hear the children and doubted it was good news that she couldn’t.
“They’ve been here ten minutes already,” Mrs. Garvey said.
In the quiet, her remark carried. Mercedes sent a faint smile at ‘they.’
She had understood from Harrison that four young men had broken into the back units of the complex, but only one stood across the room. He looked surprisingly clean-cut for a B&E artist.
However, if the man beside him was a relative—and he must be since they shared the same dark coloring—then it explained everything. The older brother or uncle or whatever he was, looked like cheap beer, dirty talk, and sweaty sex.
He smiled at her as if he knew she possessed a learning disability where guys like him were concerned.
Clenching her stomach against flutters of intrigue, Mercedes dredged up a cool smile and approached with her hand extended. “I’m Mercedes Kimball, the Manager of Coconino.”
In his mid to late thirties, the man straightened from a slouch against the wall, giving the impression he was on the wrong side of pulling an all-nighter. His hair was in need of cutting or combing. Both really, and his jeans looked clean, but were faded and frayed. He hadn’t shaved in days and he had to know that old-fashioned senior types like the ones in this room expected a tidier appearance for important meetings like this.
Then again, a man like him didn’t usually give a damn.
“L.C. Fogarty.” He shook with an all-encompassing grip that could easily lead her to the nearest broom closet. He kept her hand while he said, “My son, Zack.”
“Son,” she said with mild surprise and eased her tingling hand free, smiling at Zack.
Zack didn’t meet her gaze, too busy giving his father a weird look.
“What?” L.C. asked.
Zack shook his head, held out his hand for Mercedes, and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Kimball.”
Really the kid was too much a contrast to the punk father, his hair freshly cut, his slacks and collared shirt clean and ironed, his attitude respectful rather than knowing and wicked. He had shaved. Maybe the wrong Fogarty had been copped for the crime.
Mercedes drew back and briefly introduced the board before saying, “I’m not sure why you requested this meeting, Zack. I understood the school and police settled everything yesterday.”
“So did we,” Mrs. Garvey said behind her.
Mercedes sent a questioning glance at L.C.
“Don’t look at me. I just got here a couple hours ago.” His lips were well-defined in a masculine way, speaking of strength and purpose and a restless spirit. “But it seems he doesn’t want to be expelled.” He jerked his head at Zack.
“Right.” She dragged her gaze to Zack.
The young man cleared his throat. “I, um, spoke with the faculty and the judge, and, um, worked out a way for me to stay in school.” He rubbed a hand against his thigh. Sweating, not surprisingly, with the way the residents here resisted the cost of air conditioning. “I’ve, uh, written this apology.” He withdrew a folded envelope from his back pocket and offered it to Mercedes.
“Hardly sufficient,” Mrs. Garvey murmured in the background. “A letter doesn’t repair damage—”
“Oh, Ma’am, that wasn’t us,” Zack said.
“Did he just interrupt me?”
Mercedes turned to see Mrs. Garvey direct the question to Mrs. Yamamoto.
The board had taken their usual seats behind the table. Mrs. Garvey’s narrow cheeks flushed and she sat with her spine very straight, fully adopting what Mercedes privately thought of as her Stork On A Nest pose. Her gaze moved to the notebook in front of Mr. Dolinski. His pencil was poised but not moving, which seemed to displease her. Mrs. Yamamoto hunched over her knitting and Harrison leaned back, eyes closed, napping.
“Hooligan,” Mrs. Garvey muttered.
L.C. shifted, scraping his boot on the tiled floor.
Mrs. Garvey tensed and lifted her nose, but kept her gaze on the notebook, tapping the page. “Write down that due to the extensive damage to the duplex—”
“—that has been neglected for years,” Harrison murmured, rousing himself enough to open one eye at Mr. Dolinski. “Write down that I interrupted her, too.”
Mrs. Garvey made an impatient noise. “The windows were smashed, they left foul messages, and they intended to start a fire.”
“Don’t forget the sodomy they were planning, Edith.”
“Matches were found, Harrison.”
“Two of the guys smoke, Ma’am,” Zack said. He had his hands deep in the front pockets of his chinos. “No one was planning on starting a fire. I, uh, wasn’t planning on doing anything. Just some of the guys saw the hole in the fence and wanted to look around. I tried to stop them.”
Mrs. Garvey frowned at the notebook and said, “He’s wasting our time.”
“I don’t lie, Ma’am.”
Mercedes lowered the eloquent, seemingly sincere apology she’d been reading and walked it over to Harrison. He patted his chest and came up with his glasses.
Mrs. Garvey leaned forward to look past Mr. Dolinski to Harrison. “The police said they had all been reprimanded and the Dean expelled them for the semester.”
“That’s right, Ma’am, but the school is willing to let me finish out the year if I write a formal apology, serve community hours, and take care of the repairs to your building. I’d really like to do that, Ma’am. Finish the year.”
Mercedes felt something in her melt. She remembered her first community hours. The dollar-store earrings she had shoplifted had not been worth the six weeks of litter pick-up, making her forever averse to repeating that particular crime. Of course she’d wound up in a stolen car that other time, but she hadn’t stolen it. Those hours had been even more boring, working in an insurance office, taking calls and filing, but she’d come away with skills that had ultimately helped her on the job front. Serving hours worked for the right kids.
Still speaking to Harrison, Mrs. Garvey said, “In my day, we didn’t allow criminals off the hook by writing lines.”
“It was my idea, Ma’am,” Zack said. “Well, the repairs part. The Dean suggested a hundred community hours and that I serve them here.”
Yes. Mercedes mentally had him painting the main lounge, mowing the lawn, and reading the book club novel aloud before Mrs. Garvey could say, That’s absurd!
“That’s absurd! Let a jailbird into our homes?”
“Mrs. Garvey.” Mercedes forced a tight smile. “If it’s just the one incident, I’m sure he would appreciate the opportunity to turn himself around.”
Looking among the board members, Mrs. Garvey muttered, “I’d like to know if it is just the one incident.”
“Then why don’t you ask him?” L.C. scratched the stubble beneath his chin. “Rather than talking around him like he’s not here.”
Mrs. Garvey flared her nostrils. The rest of the board swung their gazes to Zack.
Please don’t help, Mercedes tried telegraphing to L.C., but only got a hello-there stare that slithered heat from behind her breastbone down to her pelvis. Her heart gave another skip of response and she jerked her gaze to Zack.
He shifted his weight, seeming uncomfortable.
“Is this the only time you’ve been in trouble with the police, son?” Harrison asked.
“Well, there was this one other time—”
“Why in hell would you bring that up?” L.C. asked.
“Language,” Mrs. Garvey murmured, touching the broach on her sweater.
“I just told them I don’t lie.” Zack waved his hand at the board.
“It didn’t count,” L.C. said.
“Now we’re playing horseshoes. How could an arrest not ‘count’?” Mrs. Garvey asked Mrs. Yamamoto.
Mrs. Yamamoto set her knitting in her lap and tilted her head questioningly at Zack.
“He was trying to take the rap for his old man,” L.C. explained.
“Oh, jeez!” Zack rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “You’re supposed to just look at the repairs with me, all right? I don’t need your help with this.”
“Apparently you don’t need help at all,” L.C. said. “Sounds to me like they’ve made up their minds and don’t want anything fixed.”
Zack’s sigh rang with impatience.
Mercedes’s feelings of affinity for the young man grew. She knew exactly how it felt to parent one’s parent. She was just about to go to bat for Zack, despite his convict father, when Zack spoke again.
“Look, that first incident was a big misunderstanding. Dad was accused of something he didn’t do and I— Well, I can give you the name and phone number of the officer involved. He’s my stepdad now.”
“He was only aspiring in that direction when he arrested me,” L.C. drawled. “Which had more than a little to do with why he cuffed me.”
Harrison snorted. Mr. Dolinski scratched his upper lip. Mrs. Yamamoto lifted her knitting so she could titter behind it.
Mrs. Garvey frowned. “I don’t follow.”
Mercedes knew that could be the kiss of death for Zack. He’d come so far, too.
She opened her mouth to plead his case but a huge noise, like a redwood coming through the wall, crashed in the next room. A high-pitched scream trailed it.