Gray clouds hovered so close to the ground, they reminded Lucas of a shroud. He looked out his windows and reached for a hot cup of coffee. Hercules had heard him in the kitchen and bounced downstairs to greet him. By the time the dog went to the door to go outside, a slow cold drizzle had begun to fall. Hercules took one look at the weather and turned around.
“It’s the pits, isn’t it?” Lucas filled the chihuahua’s food dish and put it next to his water bowl.
He finished his coffee before he called to wake up the kids. They plodded to the kitchen island and waited for him to scoot bowls of cereal and Pop Tarts to them. They were getting used to their Monday morning routine.
By the time they pulled out of the garage for the drive to Mae’s, the kids were alert and ready to start their day. He pulled to Mae’s curb and tried to talk them into using an umbrella so they wouldn’t get wet, but they opted for running to her front door. Kids. A little rain didn’t bother them. Come to think of it, he wouldn’t use the umbrella either, but make a dash for a door. It was Dylan’s turn to pick them up after school, and Lucas wouldn’t see them again until Friday night. The house would feel quiet without them.
He was starting work on a different job today—a newer ranch-style on the north side of Willow Creek. He took I 69 to avoid city traffic, but the highway had its fair share of traffic, too. Willow Creek had grown a lot since he was a kid. It was the second largest city in Indiana now.
He took the Coldwater exit and drove ten more minutes before he found the house. The addition was set amid big, old trees, and every home was a long, sprawling ranch. The address he pulled into was brick with a roofed porch protecting the front door. It was nice, but bare of landscaping. When he rang the doorbell, a mother holding a baby with a toddler gripping her leg motioned him inside.
“Hi, I’m Lucas Cainer, the electrician you called.”
She led him to a utility room where the circuit box was located. “We keep blowing fuses while I’m cooking. If I turn on the microwave and coffee pot at the same time, the power goes out.”
Not good. It sounded as if the electricity needed an upgrade. “I’ll take a look at it, but I’m guessing you need to upgrade your system to 220.”
She gave him a blank look. “Is that expensive?”
He quoted her a price and she blanched. “Our money’s tight right now. I quit my job to stay home with the kids.”
A single income household for a middle-class family was tight. He knew that. “I’ll take a look at it and see what I can do.”
She left him to it, but he was pretty sure this family couldn’t afford what they needed. And once he turned one circuit after another on and switched another off, he was sure of it. The utility room and the kitchen shared the same wall. He went to find the mother.
“You need to have your system upgraded,” he told her. “But for right now, as a quick fix, I can wire your microwave and one plug to a separate circuit.” He quoted her a lower price than usual, and she nodded.
It took him half a day, and he left feeling sorry for her. Her family was pinching right now so that she could stay home with her kids. In his mind, it was worth it.
He had another short job on this side of town, so went there after he grabbed a quick lunch. The short job wasn’t short, though, so he ended up leaving that house later than he’d expected. He was hungry. His quick lunch hadn’t tided him over. Wrigley Field Sports Bar was on this end of town, so he headed there for supper. They had a great salad and soup bar, but he loved their pork tenderloins. He decided to go for broke and get it all, along with a couple of beers. No kids tonight. He could splurge.
When he walked in, people sat at most of the tables. He headed toward an empty stool at the bar when he saw Randie sitting at a four-seater with a woman who had long, blonde hair. Her friend was tall and willowy like Mariah. Randie noticed him and smiled, but didn’t invite him to join them. The blonde glanced his way and did a double take. She smiled and leaned in to ask Randie about him, then motioned him over.
Randie smiled, too, but he could tell she’d rather he didn’t come. He walked over to join them, glad to watch her squirm. Miss Doore was no push-over. She wasn’t looking for a man to connect with. A man would have to beat down the protective wall she’d built around herself to even stand a chance. If she went on a dating site, what would she say? Message me at your own risk? Date me if you dare?
The blonde welcomed him. “Hi, I’m Kelli. I’ve heard about you. You’re Jordy’s uncle.”
So, Randie had mentioned him? He gave Miss Doore one of his best smiles. “Guilty as charged. I’m pretty partial to my niece and nephew.”
His smile usually earned him a little wiggle room. Most women liked it. He could tell he was still on probation with Miss Doore. She studied him. “A different brother picked up Jordy tonight.”
He nodded. This woman would be a challenge. Looks and flirting rolled off her with little effect. “Dylan takes the kids on Mondays and Tuesdays. Toby on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I get Fridays, part of Saturday, and Sundays.”
“Who takes them on Saturday?”
He grimaced. “My mom’s supposed to. She isn’t a kid person.”
“And your dad?” Miss Doore didn’t beat about the bush.
“He was never a kid person.”
She blinked at him. “You’re a good uncle.”
“Thank you.” That was as good as he was going to get from her right now. What would it take to melt Miss Doore? And why was he concentrating on her when there was a gorgeous blonde sitting beside him? He turned to Kelli. “Are you into kids like Miss Doore?”
“Jeez! Don’t call her that. At least not outside the classroom. She’s Randie. And yeah, I like kids, just older ones. I teach middle school math.”
“A Brainiac.” Anyone who was a whiz at math had to be smart. And damn, this girl was a looker! Blonde hair, green eyes—she could be a model. He wanted to like her.
Kelli gave a tight smile. “Randie’s spending time with me because I’m a miserable human being right now, in the middle of a not very nice divorce.”
He winced. “Break-ups suck.” He remembered how betrayed he’d felt when Mariah left him, how deep he sank for a few months until friends pushed him forward.
Kelli studied his expression. “Did you go through a divorce?”
“No, just a miserable break-up. Mariah and I lived together for a while before she got a great job offer and left.”
“How did you move on?” Kelli licked her lips, nervous.
“Friends. Family. And time. It takes a while. Give yourself a minute to adjust, like the stages of grief. You won’t wake up feeling better. You’ll just work through it.”
“How long did it take you?”
“Almost a year. It’s not easy. I still think about her sometimes.” Maybe he shouldn’t have said that. Not with Miss Doore sitting there, frowning at him.
“Do you ever wish you could hire a hit man and eliminate her?”
Lucas blinked. “That bad, huh?”
“He’s a miserable bastard who I wish suffered eternally.”
He laughed. “At least you don’t blame yourself. That’s a good sign.”
She laughed, too. “I don’t have much of a martyr complex.”
“That’s healthy.” He looked at Miss Doore. “And you? Any war stories to tell?”
The waitress came then to deliver their drinks and take their orders. When she left, Randie shook her head. “No men for me. I don’t want the drama or misery.”
That told him a lot. She played it safe. “Did your parents have a horrible marriage?”
She stared. “No, they’re great. They were great parents.”
He shrugged. “Sometimes people shy away from commitment when their parents were miserable together. My parents argued all the time, and I vowed I’d never hook up with someone and fight every minute of every day.”
Kelli nodded. “My parents divorced, and I swore when I married, I’d have a happy ever after.”
Lucas took a long sip of his beer. “Your plans didn’t work any better than mine. Mariah and I didn’t argue, we just didn’t have the same goals.”
“Too many pitfalls.” Miss Doore took a long sip of her beer, too. She tossed him a stormy glance. She wasn’t as rational as she pegged herself to be. She’d considered hooking up with someone or their conversation wouldn’t annoy her as much as it did.
He enjoyed pushing her boundaries. He was curious what made her tick. “No risk, no gain. I don’t regret the time I spent with Mariah. I only regret it didn’t work out.”
She rolled her eyes. “You mean the sex was great.”
He coughed on his swallow of beer. She was more outspoken than he’d thought, but he grinned. “There was that, too.”
Kelli threw back her head and laughed. “Can’t say that about Curtis. It wss only so-so.”
The waitress came with their food. The girls had both ordered the soup and salad bar, so he went with them to fill his plate. They’d be finished with their meal before his sandwich arrived, and he’d probably finish eating alone. But he was wrong. He had his soup and salad gone before they’d finished their cup of chili, and he annihilated his pork tenderloin before they finished picking at their salads.
All three of them went back to the salad bar for pudding to end their meals.
They hadn’t talked much while they ate, so he looked at Randie and asked, “You like to cook. Is it hard to cook a turkey? I’m hoping my sister will be home by Thanksgiving, but I can’t guarantee it.”
Her whole face lit up. The girl loved talking food. “Turkeys are easy. Just think of them as a big chicken.”
“I only toss chicken tenders or nuggets in the oven. I’ve never roasted a chicken either.”
She waved a hand. “It’s no big deal. I stuff the cavity of mine with quartered lemons and onions. That helps flavor it and keep it moist. Then I drizzle it with olive oil or melted butter and lots of salt and pepper.” She was going to say more, but decided against it. Probably too complicated for him. “The turkey will come with cooking directions, how long to cook it, at what temperature. You’ll do fine.”
He’d better or his brothers would never let him forget it. “I was thinking of buying one of those premade meals from the grocery store.”
She looked horrified. “Doesn’t anyone else bring anything? Most families do. Not ours. Gram and I make the entire meal, but a lot of families carry-in food.”
“You haven’t met Dylan and Toby, have you? We’d be eating bags of chips and store-bought pies.”
That made her smile. “What if I write out some of my favorite recipes, step by step, for you to follow? And there’s nothing wrong with pies from a bakery.”
“Step by step? I might be able to handle that. One of my buddies told me to buy a few boxes of Stove Top stuffing, too.”
She nodded. “You’re getting there. You’ll have a decent meal.”
He was feeling more confident. If Dulcey couldn’t make it home, they’d still survive Thanksgiving.
Randie looked at her friend, Kelli. “What are you doing for the holiday?”
“I’m driving home to Bloomington. My brothers and I are swarming my parents’ house.”
“Nice.” Randie finished her chocolate pudding and pushed her dish away. “My brother’s bringing the girl he’s interested in to Gram’s house this year. It must be serious.”
“Good for him!” Kelli turned to Lucas. “Do your brothers bring their wives to Thanksgiving?”
“We’re all single. Only Dulcey got married.” He grinned at Randie. “Jordy’s trying to fix you up with one of them. He thinks the world of you.”
She blushed. “That’s sweet, but no men for me.” She arched her brow. “He said that you’d sworn off women, too.”
“I have enough on my plate right now.” But when things settled down, he was going to lift his ban on the female gender.
He couldn’t read the expression that passed over her face. The woman would be good at poker. She didn’t give much away. The waitress came to settle their bills, and soon, they were all standing and going their ways.
On the drive home, he was surprised at himself. Randie’s friend, Kelli, was exactly the type of woman who attracted him. So why couldn’t he stop thinking about Jordy’s Miss Doore? She was prickly and outspoken. She didn’t show any interest in him at all. Why did that make him want to chase after her all the more?