After supper that evening, Brie reminded people to stay in groups of three. “Better safe than sorry,” she said.
Russ put an arm around Della’s thin shoulders. “If he comes after you, he’ll have to get through me.”
“If he comes after me, he’ll be on the patio in plain view,” Della said. “I don’t go far. Neither do you.”
More people stayed on the patio after supper, talking together in small groups. Ted, Price, and Frank Maples sat at an umbrella table and talked about fishing. Frank told them about the hatchery and the fish it provided for meals. Russ, Della, Mandy, and Avery played cards at a corner table. Teri, Trisha, and Leann sat with their feet up and supervised Brent and Ward as they tried to design a baby cradle for Thora.
“How big do you want it?” Brent asked her, as he copied a pattern onto thick slabs of maple. They’d found a woodworking book in the art studio with all sorts of projects in it.
“Baby size,” she told him. “Doesn’t the book say?”
“But aren’t some babies bigger than others when they’re born?” Brent asked. “Do you think yours will be puny or big?”
One of Brent’s crutches lay on the ground beside him, and when Ward moved to trace the other side of the pattern, Brent warned, “Don’t trip over my crutch. I’ve done that before.”
“Are you making the ends curved so they’re pretty?” Teri called to them. “Cradles should be pretty.”
“I’ll curve them,” Brent said, and he added an extra curlicue at the top of each end piece.
“It’s going to be a boy, isn’t it?” LeAnn protested. “You don’t want it too frilly.”
Brent erased the curlicues.
Currie sat with her sisters and smiled as she listened to the friendly chatter. “This is a neat group of people.”
“More fun than usual,” Saffron agreed. “Except one of them is berserk.”
Currie looked around. “Where’s Emeralda?”
“Off in the woods.” Brie stretched her legs out on the chaise lounge. Her thick, golden hair waved over her shoulders instead of being anchored in a knot at the back of her neck, as usual. And her eyes kept straying to Avery.
“Is that safe?”
“She’s a tree sprite. The trees will protect her.”
“When she crosses the meadow?”
Saffron shook her head. “Are you going to become the new worry wart of the family? She has her magpie with her. If anything happens, he’ll raise an alarm.”
They eased back to enjoy themselves and were drifting in their own thoughts when Brie glanced at the angle of the sun and sat up quickly. “It’s time to get ready for our evening classes. We need to keep to our routines as much as possible, even if we’ve had them disrupted.”
Saffron grimaced. “I thought maybe you’d be lulled into a lazy mood.”
“That’s what our two weeks off is for,” Brie said. “We have a job to do now. Come on. Let’s move it.”
The old Brie was back, and Currie and Saffron shook their heads. Even thoughts of romance didn’t dull her efficiency.
Ward and Brent were both in Currie’s woodworking class that evening.
“The baby’s going to be a boy, and Brent wants a design carved on the headboard,” Ward said.
“But no flowers or anything sissy,” Brent said. “Got any ideas?”
Currie gave them a book of patterns, and after much debate, they decided on letters of the alphabet.
“He might as well learn to read as soon as possible,” Brent said.
Ward rolled his eyes. “He’ll outgrow the cradle before he’s one. How smart do you think this kid is going to be?”
“Okay, he might not learn while he’s IN the cradle, but he’ll look at it, even once he’s in his baby bed, right? And THEN he’ll learn.”
“Kids surprise you,” Brent said. “I bought Claire’s boys these video games when they were really little, and Timmy was figuring out his score and how much he still needed to beat a level in just a few months.”
Ward raised a dark brow. “I suppose Timmy can do accounting by now.”
“For your information, he loves playing with my calculator. If he comes over to visit while I’m working late, I give him a copy of the stock exchange and a sheet of pretend investments I’ve made for him, and he tells me if he’s made money or lost money for that day.”
“And he likes doing that?”
Brent smirked. “Why wouldn’t he?”
His answer tickled Currie, but she stayed silent and let the two men talk.
“And his little brother?” Ward asked.
“Thad’s only three. I bought a kiddie computer to have at my place for him. We all sit at the kitchen table and work together.”
“How long have you known Claire and her kids?”
A dreamy look passed over Brent’s face. “I met Claire when Thad was one and Timmy was five. She’d just gotten her divorce. I liked her right away--I knew the instant I saw her that she was wonderful.”
“What’s she like?”
“The type of girl who hits life head-on and has a cocky grin. And her boys--they’re smart and funny and…”
“You’re nuts about them.”
“Yeah, guess I am. What about you?” Brent asked. “Do you like kids?”
“I’m not around them a lot, but I helped my buddy coach his son’s baseball team last summer.”
“Minor league, nine-and ten-year-olds.”
“That’s a fun age.”
“Yeah, they were pretty neat.”
Brent sighed. “I’ll probably never have kids of my own. I’ll borrow other peoples’.”
“Then you’re an idiot,” Ward said.
Brent blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You have a woman who loves you, two boys who like hanging out with you--what more do you want?”
“They deserve better.”
“Than you? Because you don’t have a leg? It doesn’t sound like that bothers the boys at all. There are plenty of people walking around on both legs who aren’t worth crap. You know that. We’ve all met them. You have plenty to offer Claire and her boys.”
“No, you look.” Ward stabbed his finger at Brent to drill in his points. “You need to quit feeling sorry for yourself and realize that you might have lost a leg because you were stupid, but it was a small price to pay to grow up and see all of the things life has to offer.”
“Look who’s talking.”
Brent looked at Ward. “And what about you, Mr. Strong and Silent? When are you going to quit beating yourself up for not being Superman?”
Ward leaned back, and his strong, chiseled face went stiff. “That’s different.”
“Why? Because you’re the only person on the planet who should be able to leap tall buildings in one bound and fix anything and everything?”
Currie tried to be inconspicuous, rearranging chisels and hammers, as she listened for Ward’s answer.
“The little girl died.”
“Bad things happen to good people,” Brent said. “Accidents happen. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. Okay, you might be right. I can blame myself for drinking when I tried to ski. But you know what? Even when you know it was your own fault and you were just a major, stupid screw-up, it doesn’t do much good to beat yourself up about it forever. You’re being pretty selfish and self-indulgent hanging onto your pain the way you are.”
Ward’s dark eyes flashed with anger. “Self-indulgent?”
“What’s your problem? Can’t let go of the savior complex?”
Ward pushed himself to his feet. “You’d better lay off.”
“Or what? You’re going to pop a cripple in the mouth?”
“What’s your problem?” Ward mimicked. “Can’t let go of the cripple complex?”
Brent looked up at him, flabbergasted, and then broke out laughing.
Ward looked surprised, struggled a moment, and then joined in.
“Friends?” Brent asked, offering a hand.
“Friends.” Ward sat down opposite him and picked up a chisel and the cradle’s headboard. He glanced at Currie. “Sorry about that. I bet you’ll be glad to get us out of here tonight.”
She shook her head. “I think you’re both brave and wonderful.”
Ward studied her closely. “Is that so?”
Brent grinned and reached for his crutches. “You’ll never get a better opening than that, my friend. I’m going to go to the library and make myself scarce. Go for it!”
After Brent left, Ward looked at Currie. “I’m still trying to figure it out. You and your sisters look like real women, only maybe better. You’re all flawless. You talk and act like real women, but there’s something more, isn’t there? Are you real?”
“Oh, we’re real, and believe me, we have our flaws.”
“So what’s the part that I’m missing?”
She couldn’t tell him. For one thing, he probably wouldn’t believe her. And what if he did? Her mother wouldn’t be too happy if she spilled the family secrets. But right now, he was looking at her with those dark brown eyes and he was waiting for an answer. Frustration rolled off him. She could feel the intensity across the room.
She swallowed hard. “Our feminine mystique?”
His expression closed. “You’re not ready to tell me. Okay. We’ll leave it at that.” He got up and stalked out of the room.
Currie hugged her arms across her chest to protect herself from the pain. Ward’s scorn hurt more than a physical blow. She made herself put things away and straighten the room. Then she walked to her father’s willow and sat, leaning against its trunk. She stared across the water until she felt a little better. Then she went to join her sisters for their end-of-the-day chat and tried not to think of mangled, defenseless animals and Ward’s scowling impatience.