Jess made the mistake of telling her sister about their backyard creeper the next morning at breakfast.
They were at the dilapidated old picnic table beside the cottage with the kids, waiting on Ellie and Chris to arrive before the day could begin, both of them dressed for work, Jess sipping coffee while everyone else dug into Eggos.
Jo paused in the act of drizzling more syrup onto her plate, big eyes going saucer wide. “Excuse me?” she asked. “There was a – and you didn’t come tell us? Or call us? Or -,”
“What would you have done?” Jess asked. “Sicced Tam and a flashlight on him?”
“It was probably just some drunk stumbling home,” Jess reasoned, though she hadn’t been able to fall asleep for hours the night before, staring at the ceiling and listening, psyching herself out.
“Stumbling home from where?” Jo scoffed. “An imaginary lakeside bar?”
“It could have been a kid,” Jess said, feeling braver in the warm morning sunlight. She took a sip of coffee. “Some teenager slinking around looking for stuff to steal.”
Jo rolled her eyes.
“Was it the boogeyman, Mama?” Tyler asked. He’d barely touched his breakfast, and with sudden horror, Jess realized she’d completely forgotten how inappropriate it was to bring this up in front of her six-year-old. She was the worst mother ever.
“No, baby,” she soothed, while inwardly she flayed herself. She reached up to smooth a stubborn lock of his short dark hair. “It was just a regular man. He was probably lost.”
Tyler wasn’t at all convinced, and stared at her.
She sighed. “Go wash up before Aunt Ellie gets here,” she said gently, and he was so shaken by the prospect of boogeymen that he obeyed without a fuss, heading toward the main house.
“I’m telling Tam,” Jo announced when he was out of earshot.
“Don’t,” Jess said over the rim of her mug, and her sister’s brows shot up.
“Remember when, once upon a time, you told me I needed to tell him about my stalker? Remember how I didn’t? Remember how that turned out?”
There was no arguing with that.
“Like I said: I’m telling Tam.”
“Telling me what?” The man in question had materialized behind his wife, his approach unheard, and now looked expectantly between them. Jess couldn’t get used to him in a suit and tie; she found him much more attractive this way – fitted navy jacket and slacks and red tie – but he didn’t really look like himself.
“Jess saw some guy creeping around back there last night,” she said with a wave toward the back of the property.
Jess looked at Tam, watched the fire that flared in his blue eyes, then watched it cool a fraction as he reminded himself that his father was dead; whatever she’d seen, it wasn’t, in his estimation, as frightening as Hank Wales. She’d seen him intense – had seen him murderous – but that look hadn’t ever been turned on her.
“Where exactly,” he asked, voice suddenly tight, “did you see him?”
“Now, Tam -,” she started and he cut her off with a loud snort that flared his nostrils.
“No offense, Jess, but you can stuff that reasonable female bullshit. Where’d you see him?”
She frowned. “Just off the path, before you get to the lake, between the two biggest pines.”
He gave Jo and Willa absent pats on top of the head and struck off in that direction, the breeze snatching his tie over his shoulder.
“Great,” Jess sighed. “Now he’s going to be obsessed.”
Jo’s reply was drowned out by the loud crunch of gravel as Chris’s white Ford crested the hill and rolled up to the house.
And my morning gets better, she thought, before she gave herself a mental shake and remembered that, annoying or not, Chris was here for one reason: the house. She could endure him if it meant having her inn restored.
“Ladies,” he greeted when he approached them. His head lifted and his eyes swept down toward the lake. “What’s Colombo doing down there?”
Tam had crouched to examine something on the ground and he did in fact look like a detective. All he needed was a hat.
Jess decided not to go through another round of denial with her sister. She gave Chris a flat look and said, “I saw someone in the yard late last night. Tam’s apparently turned into a CSI.”
Chris’s eyes snapped to her face, sharp and narrow. “What do you mean ‘someone’?”
“Well if I knew his name, I’d tell you,” she quipped, and earned a grim half-smile.
“Did he come up to the house?”
“Were all your doors locked?”
“Good.” He glanced at Tam again – who was coming back to them – and then his gaze shifted downward. “Boots?”
Jo swung around on the bench and showed him hers.
“The Kitchen World truck will be here at noon. Arturo’s on the way. Phillip’s gonna show up and help me drywall.” He looked at the two of them expectantly. “You girls can keep working on the dining room and great room.”
“Why,” Jess asked with an insincere smile, “do I feel like an employee in my own house?”
Chris smirked. “You need direction.”
Jess did not. She turned her attention to Tam who drew up to the other end of the table and greeted Chris with a nod. “Shoeprints,” he told all of them. “Five or six. Some kinda off-brand sneaker; no trademarks.”
“Size?” Chris asked.
“Smaller than mine. Nine or ten,” he told Chris, and while Jess watched, some sort of silent, electric male conversation passed between them. Very macho and barbaric.
“Well,” Jess said lightly, “we’ll be on the lookout for short, cheap losers.”
Both of them looked at her with barely veiled frustration; they didn’t appreciate her dismissing their oh-so-manly concerns. She didn’t tell them her heart had been ready to burst out of her chest the night before.
Tam checked his watch – the one Jess had given him for graduation – and said, “I gotta get to work,” with a heavy frown.
“I’ll keep an eye on things,” Chris offered and they shared another of those I-got-your-back, bro looks that left Jess rolling her eyes.
Tam nodded, dropped kisses on his wife and daughter’s foreheads and left them with a stern admonition that Jo was not to go snooping around alone anywhere.
“He’s kinda overprotective,” Jo explained to Chris once Tam was out of earshot.
Chris’s nod was approving. “Nothing wrong with that.”
Jess started to say something about men and caves, but the look he shot her – the way he almost dared her to disagree – lodged the comment in her throat. She said nothing.
The new kitchen arrived in a delivery truck that chewed up the gravel drive, and Jess directed the transferal of all her new, plastic-wrapped fixtures into the storage shed just beyond the cottage. After she’d tipped the delivery men too generously, she and Jo went back to work in the great room where they’d stripped all the wallpaper, patched holes and begun pulling down the sagging, water-stained ceiling with crowbars. They were coated in dust and plaster, exhausted, sore, and it was only midday.
Delta – fast becoming the “it” party planner in metro Atlanta – was in the area working on a baby shower and brought them lunch.
“I got you and the guys roast beef,” she said as she handed Chris a bag of sub sandwiches. “And barbecue chips.”
“You did good.” He gave her a dazzling, white smile – and it was funny how his almost-too-big nose and the harsh angles of his face were the perfect complements to that smile – that was devoid of all the dictatorial subtext it held when it was turned on Jess.
She noticed this with a wry non-smile and was glad he took his food and went back inside to eat with his crew. She picked up her turkey sub, took a bite, and glanced across the picnic table to see the uncharacteristically devious smile Delta was giving her. “What?”
“I have an idea,” Delta said and the words sent a shudder racing down Jess’s spine.
“Why do I have the feeling that’s not a good thing?”
“Just hear me out.” She slanted a look down the table toward Tyler, who sat beside Ellie, and her lips closed, smile becoming small and confidential. “I think,” her dark eyes came back to Jess, “that given what occurred last Saturday, you need to be a little more proactive in your retribution.”
Jo was making Willa a plate – peas and rice and carrots and little bites of chicken breast – and she squelched a laugh.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Jess asked, not amused.
“I’m saying,” Delta went on, “that playing the strong, independent female is not anything a certain…acquaintance of ours…appreciates. He’s weak, so he thinks nothing of your strength. However -,”
“This is the best conversation ever,” Ellie said with a little chuckle.
“ – if you were to, say, show our acquaintance that you are moving on in the…male department. I guarantee you he’d be jealous. And you wouldn’t get treated like such…manure.”
Jess shook her head. “Do you really think I have time for that?” But already, her mind was spinning back to Saturday and the dark frown that had streaked across Dylan’s face when he’d reminded her that she hadn’t been alone. Was that jealousy? Could a man who’d so easily tossed her aside actually be jealous? She dismissed the idea.
“Do you want to dwell on how someone did you wrong?” Delta asked. “Or let someone else do you right?”
Ellie and Jo both failed to suppress giggles.
“And here I always thought you were more practical than this,” Jess accused, and Delta rolled her eyes.
“We just -,”
“Want you to freaking smile,” Jo put in. “We hate watching anyone treat you this way.”
Jess blew out a breath and set her sandwich back in its wrapper. “I appreciate it,” she said, and meant it, even if her tone was short. “I do, it’s only -,”
“Chris,” Delta said, and Jess’s mouth snapped shut.
“What about him?”
“I think he has a certain admiration for you.”
“He’s a pain.”
“Well, I’m not suggesting you -,” she looked at Tyler again, “strike up the church bells or anything, but don’t you want to…”
“Want to what?” Her patience was fraying.
“Get admired?” Delta said suggestively. Her perfect, arched dark brows waggled. “He’s got that whole man thing going on. I bet he’s got tan lines and chest hair and -,”
“Sounds like you need some admiring,” Jess quipped.
Delta shrugged. “Arguing with Mike is worse on me than it is on him, I think.”
“Don’t count on that,” Jo said with a snort.
“All I’m saying,” Delta said, determined despite the scowl Jess was shooting her, “is that if he offers to bend you over a sawhorse -,”
“Delta!” Ellie said, scandalized.
“Oh, look at you. Jordan clearly rang your bell enough to get you in this shape,” she gestured to Ellie’s stomach, then returned her attention to Jessica. “If he offers, let him.”