It had just been a matter of time. Randie knew that. She hated to have to call a substitute to take her place on Friday. It always put her behind on her lesson schedule. But so many kids were out right now, it probably didn’t matter.
Her stomach roiled. How could she keep throwing up when the darned thing had to be empty? When all that came out was bile, she flushed it down and turned to wash her face and brush her teeth. She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. Could she look any worse? Her hair lay matted to her head. Old mascara smeared the dark circles under her eyes. Her creamy complexion looked like gray paste. She should shower and fix herself up. No energy.
She sank onto the sofa and her thoughts turned to Lucas. How could a man look so good when he was sick? She pictured his bare chest, his six-pack abs. He looked even sexier with tousled hair and stubble. She’d never thought carnal lust could weaken her, but she’d wanted to crawl on top of him and touch everything in sight. Maybe everything that wssn’t, too. She fell into troubled sleep. In her dream, it was close to the last day of school, and she hadn’t taught any lessons for the last four months. All she’d done was cook for Lucas.
Her cell phone woke her. She reached for it. “Hello?”
Her mother’s voice alerted her to bad news. “Hey, hon, I called the school and the secretary told me you were sick today.”
“The flu,” Randie told her. The extra sleep had helped, though. She was finally feeling better. Her mother never called her at school. She steeled herself. “What’s up?”
“I really hate to tell you this when you don’t feel good, but your gram’s house burned to the ground two hours ago.”
“What?” Randie swung her legs to the floor and sat up. Her head swam. She couldn’t take in the news. It wasn’t possible.
“I’m sorry, kid, but it’s completely gone.”
“Was at a Red Hats meeting when it happened. She’s fine. She’s going to stay with us until she finds a retirement apartment she likes.”
A gaping hole threatened to swallow her. Randie pressed her hand to her head. How could this happen? “How’s Gram taking it?”
“She’s mostly worried about you. She said she’s enjoyed so many good memories in that house, she can’t complain. But she knows how much you love it.” Mom hesitated. “This way, after she puts the insurance money in the pot, you’ll get to share it with us. You can find another house you love.”
There was no other house like Grandma’s! They didn’t build them like that anymore. Tears coursed down her cheeks. “How? Wiring?”
Her mom’s sigh was audible. “Kids were hanging around in her front yard, smoking, and when someone spotted them, they didn’t want to get caught, so tossed their cigarettes in Gram’s mail slot. The mailman had already dropped envelopes and ads through it. They were lying on the floor, and the kids’ cigarettes set them on fire. The fire went from there.”
Something that small, that simple. And everything she loved was gone. The house. The beautiful china, the silverware. Gram’s antique furniture.
Randie knew kids. They hadn’t meant any harm. They just didn’t want an adult to see them smoking. They tried to hide the evidence. Grams had cushions on every wicker chair and settee on the porch. There was a magazine rack, too. The arched front door had to be really old wood. But the house looked so strong, so solid. She’d never dreamt it could burn to rubble and ashes.
“Randie?” Her mother sounded concerned. “Are you all right?”
“No.” Her voice barely squeaked out. She hurt too much to process it. Her mind didn’t want to function. More tears fell. “But at least Gram is safe. That’s what’s important.”
“Do you want me to come over to sit with you for a while? Would you rather not be alone?”
“Don’t come. You’ll catch this. I’ll be fine.” She’d rather suffer privately, cry herself out. She took bad news head-on, but this was big. Too much. And the flu made her weak, more helpless than usual. She’d give herself permission to be a mess tonight.
“Call if you need me,” Mom said.
“Thanks.” And her mom’s sympathy made her cry more. When she hung up, she put her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. She let loose. Great sobs. Her house, her inheritance, up in smoke. She was sitting there, feeling sorry for herself, when someone knocked on her door.
Her mom must have decided to come and check on her. She went to unlock it and tug it open, and there stood Lucas with Jordy and Beth. She blinked. Oh, god. How horrible did she look? Was there snot on her nose? Her eyes had to be red and puffy. Crying made her ugly.
Lucas stared at her. He had two carry-out bags in his hand. “When I picked up Jordy, he said you were sick. Thought I’d bring you some take-out vegetable soup and some pudding cups. Are you okay?”
She meant to smile and say, “Fine.” The smile collapsed and more tears threatened to fall. “My grandma’s house just burned to the ground.”
“And your grandma?”
He had his priorities right. She liked that about him. “She wasn’t home. She’s going to live with my parents until she finds a retirement community she likes.”
He handed the bags to the kids and said, “Put them in the kitchen.” Then he turned to her. “That’s the house you were expecting to inherit, right?”
She blinked. He remembered. “I loved that house.”
Her voice cracked, and he reached forward and pulled her to him, pressing her against his strong chest. It wouldn’t bring back the house, but damn, it felt safe and good there. His voice rumbled in his chest when he talked. “I’m sorry you’ve had such a rotten day.”
She sniffled. “We always have our holiday meals there. No one else has enough room for everybody. We’ll probably have to eat in a restaurant this year.” The idea appalled her. She fought back the sobs, but they came anyway.
He reached for a Kleenex from the box on her coffee table. He lifted her chin and mopped up her face.
She tried to pull away from him. “I’m ugly when I cry. You shouldn’t see me like this.”
He looked even closer. “Nothing in the world could make you ugly. You’re beautiful, even now. I’ve always had a thing for ratty robes and fuzzy slippers.”
Was he nuts? He was trying to cheer her, but she couldn’t appreciate humor quite yet. She straightened her shoulders. “I got bad news, and I was sick, so it hit me harder. But I’ll be fine. Really. And thank you for bringing me soup.”
He raised a dark eyebrow. “You push a lot of people away, don’t you? But you don’t have to go this one alone. I can help you a little. We’re having Thanksgiving at my sister’s house, so the kids can be in their own home with their own toys. You can invite your family to my house and cook there.”
It was her turn to stare. Was he serious? “You’re offering me your house?”
He shrugged. “Why not? We’re not going to be there. And maybe this way, I can talk you into helping me prep food on Wednesday night.”
She’d seen his kitchen and dining room. It was perfect for entertaining. The décor was on the bare, masculine side, but she could bring a few things to decorate the table. Then she shook her head. “Grandma’s dishes are gone, too, along with everything else.” The beautiful white plates with rose sprigs on the border. Her crystal wine glasses. Randie swallowed down bitter devastation.
He frowned. “Nothing I have is fancy. I use strong, plastic, throw-away plates. Dulcey has enough of everything else. It won’t be the same, but you might have to do what I’m doing this year. Buy disposable. You can get good ones now. I have plenty of silverware for when I throw poker parties, probably nothing you’d approve of, but they don’t bend when you stab something heavy.”
Disposable. Plastic. She shivered. How desperate was she? She’d do a lot to avoid a restaurant for the holiday. “I can’t believe you’d let me use your house.”
“Happy to. Does that mean you’ll help me cook Wednesday night?”
The kids had returned, and Jordy begged, “Please say yes. We have to eat what he makes.”
She rubbed her forehead. Could you get mental whiplash from too many things happening too fast? “I’ll be there. You can be my sous chef and see how it’s done.”
“Deal.” He held out his hand for her to shake.
Jordy grinned as they sealed the deal.
Lucas rounded up the kids. “We’d better get moving. You have a long way to go before you’re up to par. Get better soon, because Thursday’s Thanksgiving. I’ll see you Wednesday night.”
When Beth ran toward the door, she hit her toe on the couch leg and went down in a heap. Elbows and knees hit the floor hard. Wails followed.
Lucas scooped her up in a second and sat her on his lap, cuddling her. “You okay?”
He let her cry until she calmed down, then patted her head. “That’s the girl. All better now.”
Once Beth calmed down, he looked at Randie. “Take the weekend to mend. See you on Wednesday.” And they left.
Randie sagged back down onto the sofa. Her head felt like soggy mush. Gram’s house—gone. Lucas had comforted her just like he had Beth. She wondered what it would feel like to be tugged onto his lap. She couldn’t come up with any down side. It had sure felt good to be pressed to his chest.
Could she trust herself to cook with him on Wednesday night and not drool? She had no skills at flirting. She might even get tongue-tied, but she was going to enjoy being with him while she could.
She tried to think of something that might impress him. He loved food. She could make a pumpkin roll. Those always looked harder to make than they were. And she might wear a top that showed a bit of cleavage. Okay, lots of cleavage. And tight jeans. It was time to pull out the big guns.