At four on Sunday, Lucas drove to Dulcey’s rented house on the north side of town. He lived on the south side of Willow Creek, so it took twenty minutes to reach her place when traffic was light. It would take longer to get her kids to Dulcey’s friend’s house on Monday mornings. He’d have to get up early to have them there in time for school.
“Don’t come until the last second,” Dulcey had warned him. “I’m going to be a wreck. I don’t want to cry in front of the kids.”
He parked in her driveway at the exact time she’d given him and went inside to help her carry out more luggage than he’d expected.
“I’m going to be there a while,” she told him. “And I packed a suitcase for you, Dylan, and Toby to pass around for the kids. There’s enough school clothes and pajamas for two weeks. You’ll have to do laundry.”
“We know how to manage that.” They’d been bachelors long enough to be expert housekeepers.
“You have a key to my house, right?”
“It’s on my key ring.”
She swept a last gaze over her house, squared her shoulders, then called the kids. “Jordy! Beth! Time to go.”
“How have you kept them busy? They usually attack me when I walk through the door.” Lucas looked forward to that.
“I bought them a new race car set and they’re busy playing with it.”
Lucas smiled. “Now I know how I rate—behind new toys.”
Dulcey laughed and patted his arm. “Everyone’s more exciting than a parent. They ditch me the minute your pickup parks in our drive.”
He remembered their mom complaining about that, how little they appreciated her love and devotion, how hard she worked to buy them their wants and needs. She’d complained so often, he got a job to earn money as soon as he could, doing odd jobs for neighbors, and he asked her for as little as possible.
Dulcey gave him a knowing look. “Mom’s always been a diva. If we didn’t polish her podium, she felt unloved. My kids are normal, and I’m fine with that.”
She glanced at the clock. “We’ve gotta go. Kids! I’m walking out the door. If you’re not here in two minutes, I’m calling a babysitter to stay with you.”
Lucas heard the sound of feet racing to the door. “They must have had a babysitter from Hell somewhere along the line.”
He picked up three suitcases to put in the pickup, and Dulcey chuckled, carrying the last two. “When Garrett was finishing basic training, we had one of his friends watch them one night—a Marine sergeant. They’ll never forget it.”
Lucas would have to ask them about that experience. Once the kids and luggage were stowed safely, he drove back across town to the airport. It was on the south side of Willow Creek, too.
The kids kept up a steady flow of chatter, telling him about their new toy, until they reached the archway that led to the terminal. Dulcey turned in her seat, her voice husky. “Don’t come in with me,” she warned. “I’ll end up crying. Just drop me off at the curb, help me load my luggage on a baggage dolly, and drive away.”
He did as she told him, loading her luggage and watching her enter the terminal. He thought the kids would cry or fuss when their mom stepped inside the airport, but he was wrong.
Jordy bounced on his seat. “Mom told us you were taking us to Coney Island for supper and we could order anything we want. Then she said you’d let us rent any movie we wanted to see before bedtime.”
“She did, did she?” Lucas raised his eyebrow at his little nephew. It would have been nice if Dulcey had told him about that, but if it made the kids happy, he was all for it. Maybe that’s what they’d do every Sunday until she came back.
Beth’s face fell. “Please, Uncle Lucas,” she begged.
How could he say no to a four-year old with a heart-shaped face and light brown hair, who reminded him of her mother? She was so freaking adorable, he was going to have to work hard not to cave whenever she pushed his buttons. Oh, hell, he had a soft spot for Jordy, too. He was going to have to be careful.
Lucas winked at Jordy. “How many hot dogs can you eat?”
His nephew grinned. “Two, and Mom said we could order pie for dessert if we wanted to.”
Lucas laughed. “Did she now? I’m not supposed to buy you each a convertible to drive, too, am I?”
Beth snorted. “We’re too little to drive.”
“Lucky me.” Lucas drove toward the center of town.
Jordy looked absolutely naughty. “She said we’d better enjoy it while we could, that you’d make us eat healthier later.”
“Shows what she knows,” Lucas told them. “I’m an uncle, not a mom. We can negotiate what’s healthy and what’s not.”
Beth clapped her hands. “We like lots and lots of chicken tenders.”
Didn’t every kid? “It’s white meat, right? Sounds good to me.”
The kids grinned as they headed to Main Street. They ate, sitting on stools at the long bar, before they crossed the street and looked at Halloween costumes in Stoner’s windows. A reaper with a scythe made Beth squirm. The bloody drips on the mask looked a little too real. Jordy pointed to a pirate costume that took his fancy. Thankfully, the shop was closed. Then they piled in Lucas’s pickup to drive home.
Lucas carried the suitcase that held their pajamas and school clothes upstairs while the kids bent to pet Hercules. The chihuahua’s tail wagged double time when Jordy and Beth hurried after him to choose which bedrooms they wanted. They ended up deciding on the room with two twin beds, so that they wouldn’t be alone. That’s what they’d done the few other times they’d stayed here.
“What now?” Lucas asked. “What if you take your baths and get in pajamas before we decide on a movie? We should have popcorn, too, don’t you think?”
Jordy and Beth liked the idea, so Lucas ran bath water in both upstairs bathrooms so they could each clean up. He and Hercules turned down their beds and laid out their clothes for tonight and tomorrow morning until it was time to dry them off and herd them downstairs.
They each took a spot on the big, sectional couch in the family room. Lucas nuked popcorn for each of them, then went to the recliner.
“So, what are we going to watch?”
“Hocus Pocus,” they said together. “For Halloween.”
He decided he was getting off lucky. He liked Hocus Pocus. He remembered when Dulcey was that age and had been on a Teletubbies kick. She’d fussed every time he didn’t want to watch it. Things could be worse.
In a few minutes, he’d rented the movie and they settled in to watch it. He glanced at the kids, sprawled on the sofa. Jordy wore Spiderman pajamas and Beth had on a Wonder Woman nightie. They’d scooted far enough down each section, dragging pillows to support their heads, so that their feet touched. Hercules snuggled next to one of them and then moved to the other, moving back and forth between them.
A lump tightened in Lucas’s throat. He was thirty-two. When he’d been twenty-three and bought this house, he’d moved into it with Mariah. He’d pictured getting married and starting a family here. Ironic. He’d wanted kids. She didn’t. And that’s one of the reasons she’d left. Now, he doubted he’d ever have a family of his own anyway. After Mariah left, he’d just sort of drifted. Maybe he should rethink that.
The blonde witch in the movie ate a spider and both kids clapped their hands over their mouths, groaning. He laughed at them. “Maybe we should put spiders on the menu for Halloween.”
“Ugh!” Beth put her fingers in her ears to block him out.
Halloween was two weeks away. He usually didn’t give it much thought, but it was on a Friday night this year—his night with the kids. He’d better buy them costumes and take them trick-or-treating. Did kids do that anymore? He didn’t remember anyone knocking on his door, asking for candy, since he’d moved here.
Come to think of it, hadn’t a neighbor told him that everyone around here took their kids to the elementary school across the street from the addition for a Halloween Fest Night? Is that what kids did now?
He paused the movie. “What do you two usually do for Halloween?”
Jordy turned to face him, sitting on his knees, excited. “Mom walks us around our neighborhood to trick-or-treat. We get tons of candy!”
“People turn their porch lights on,” Beth said. “And we have to hurry. We run from house to house.”
Jordy rolled his eyes. “Beth doesn’t run very fast, or we’d get more candy.”
Beth gave him a dirty look, but went on. “Jordan’s school’s giving a party, too. There will be all kinds of games.”
Jordy gave a knowing nod. “Miss Doore said the only reason the school could let us trick-or-treat for an hour first is because Halloween’s on a Friday night. She’s in charge of the ring toss game. You’ll get to see her. She’s pretty.”
Lucas remembered his first-grade teacher. She had steel gray hair pulled back in a bun and was lethal with a ruler.
“Did your mom buy you costumes?”
Beth’s head dipped. “She said we could still wear the ones we had last year.”
She sounded so devastated, Lucas said, “But Halloween’s on a Friday this year. It has to be extra special.”
Beth got so excited, she hugged her brother. “I want to be a princess!”
He rolled his eyes. “B-o-r-i-n-g.”
Lucas raised a hand. “We can worry about costumes when I pick you up on Friday. For now, it’s getting late. Let’s finish our movie.”
An hour and a half later, the kids looked pretty sleepy. Lucas turned off the TV and said, “Upstairs with you. Let’s brush your teeth and get you in bed.”
“Mom always reads us a story,” Beth said.
He knew the drill. When they’d stayed with him when Dulcey and Garrett went out for their anniversary, Dulcey had made him a list. She’d packed a few books with their pajamas. “Let’s see what your mom sent.”
He ended up reading all three of them. The kids were too wound up to fall asleep right away. By the end of Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp, their eyelids were finally beginning to droop. He tucked them both in, turned on the nightlight and turned off the bedside lamp.
“Happy dreams,” he told them. His grandmother had always said that when she tucked him into bed. It made him happy to remember her. She’d had all the warm fuzzies his mother had lacked.
Once downstairs, he went to the master bedroom. He usually only slept in a pair of boxers, but he changed into pajama bottoms tonight. No use taking chances. The last time Jordy and Beth had stayed here, she’d woken up in the middle of the night and run to jump into bed with him. He’d never been so uncomfortable.
He had a hard time falling asleep. He wondered how bad Earl was when Dulcey got to his house. He wondered how long it would take before the kids started to really miss their mom, and how would he handle that?
He fell asleep somewhere because the alarm woke him an hour earlier than usual on Monday morning. He plopped his arm over his eyes. Dulcey would only be gone a few months. She got up with them every morning, fixed them breakfast, got them off to school. He started to admire his sister more, then pushed himself out of bed. He walked to the bottom of the stairs and called, “Rise and shine! Your mom told me to buy Pop Tarts and make you scrambled eggs. I’m starting them now.”
Jordy and Beth slowly made their way to the kitchen and plopped on the stools at the island. He pushed their breakfast plates across to them.
They were sluggish the entire morning. When he drove them across town, they almost fell asleep. He thought they might lie down for a nap on the sidewalk before they knocked on Jaden’s mother’s door.
Once they were safely deposited, he started for the job he was working on. He didn’t have much more energy than the kids did, though. Early Mondays were going to be a pain to adjust to. From now on, they’d have to have earlier Sunday nights.
The good news, though? Dylan was responsible for them tonight and tomorrow night. It was Toby’s turn after that, and Lucas wouldn’t have them again until next Friday night. A normal Friday. Halloween was the week after that. Once he got used to the schedule, it would be a piece of cake. Right?
P.S. My 6th Mill Pond romance goes live on 11/7!