I sneezed and pulled the comforter up to my chin. Everything hurt. My whole body was betraying me, begging to stay in bed. But I had promised Zeke a fun day off. He needed to get his mind off the snarky five-year-olds in his class, and I had the perfect day planned. A little cold wasn’t going to get in my way of putting a smile on Zeke’s face. Even thinking about him coming home in the afternoon with a frown on his face killed me.
I tickled his side, waking him up in a fit of giggles. “It’s a three day weekend.” I tried to yell it and sound excited, but it came out as more of a hoarse whisper.
He squirmed out of my tickle attack. As soon as he could breathe, he sat up in bed and looked down at my face. “You’re sick.”
“I’m not sick.” I was most certainly sick. I sneezed again, crushing any doubt in either of our minds. My plunge in the lake had done me in.
He put his tiny little hand on my forehead. “I must have given you what I had. I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“We both know you weren’t sick last night.”
“I was. I feel better today though.” He climbed off the bed. “I’ll make you pancakes.”
I tried to hide my smile. For a moment I thought he’d go to school after all and abandon me in my dire state. He had just admitted that he felt fine. But he was going to stay and take care of me. It wasn’t the fun day I had planned, but it sounded pretty perfect to me. Minus the pancakes. My little dude could not cook. Last time he made me buttermilk pancakes he didn’t dilute the powdered buttermilk. They tasted like chalk mixed with acid, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that. I had eaten three of them. Three. I could have died. That’s how much I loved him.
“How about cereal instead?” I asked.
“But you love pancakes and whenever I don’t feel good you make me my favorite foods.”
“I do love your pancakes, but…”
“I’ll be back.” His bare feet padded along his bedroom floor and into the hallway.
Crap. I could add a tummy ache to my ailments in a few minutes if I didn’t figure out a way to distract him. But my body wouldn’t move. If I could just get up, I’d at least be able to help him cook. I could sneak in the right ingredients when he wasn’t looking.
The slam of a cabinet door downstairs hinted that I was running out of time.
Ignoring my achy body, I pushed myself out of bed. It was freezing. I folded my arms across my pajama top and ran my hands up and down my arms to try to warm myself. I had turned the heat up last night. It shouldn’t have been this cold. Please don’t let there be something wrong with the heater.
A lot of the work around the house I could handle on my own. But I wasn’t great with anything electrical. I remembered when I was young, my mother could make a call and a repairman would come out right away. For me? I’m pretty sure they just pawned my job off to employees lower down the totem pole until some newbie who didn’t know the difference between copper and aluminum wiring finally got stuck with it. It was no wonder that my heater had crapped out. The last person to fix it was clearly only an apprentice. He shouldn’t have been out here alone. Plus he kept glancing over his shoulder the whole time like I was going to murder him when he wasn’t looking. The rumors about me were probably growing if he thought that.
I grabbed a pair of socks for Zeke before leaving his bedroom. There was no point in us both being sick. “Put these on before you catch a cold too, little dude,” I said and shoved them into his flour covered hands. “Want some help with the pancakes?”
“No, I got it.” He hopped from one foot to the next, pulling on his socks.
I scanned the counter while he jumped around the kitchen. What the hell was tomato paste doing out? He had to know that wasn’t the right ingredient. Maybe I shouldn’t have let him stay home from school. He still had a lot to learn. “You know…all the best chefs have sous chefs.”
“A lady named Sue helps all chefs? There must be a lot of Sues in the world.”
“No, sous as in s-o-u-s. They’re basically cooking assistants. I’ll be your sous this morning. So…what should I do with the tomato paste?” Besides throw it out.
“We’re out of eggs and I think it’s about the same consistency. We’re just going to mix it in.”
So he knew the word consistency yet didn’t have any taste buds? I needed to work on refining his pallet. But it was hard when he basically refused to eat anything that wasn’t dinosaur shaped. Or filled with sugar. I’m a terrible mother. But something with sugar was certainly better than tomato paste in pancakes. “You know, we might have some apple sauce or something a little sweeter that…”
“You’re the assistant.” He handed me the can opener and hopped back onto the chair by the island. It was adorable to watch him stand on the chair while he...bare-handed some flour. Without measuring. These pancakes were going to be worse than I thought, if that was even possible.
“Aye, aye, Captain,” I said. But instead of following his instructions, I picked up the can and can opener and looked for a good hiding spot. “Oh, no…the can opener isn’t working,” I said as I tossed it behind some pots and pans. “It must be broken, so anything canned is out. But if it’s okay with you, I can still find that applesauce,” I said as I closed the cabinet door.
He didn’t respond.
“Is that okay, Zeke?”
He was just staring out the window, his hand paused on the spoon he had been stirring with. His momentary distraction had been great timing because it had given me time to save our breakfast. But now he was alarming me.
“Zeke?” I abandoned my sous chef post and walked over to him.
He tilted his head to the side. “There’s a stranger out there.” He pointed out the window toward our driveway.
It felt like my heart was beating out of my chest. Sure enough, there was a man snooping around my truck. Strange, yes. A stranger? Not exactly. Detective Reed had made it pretty clear that he was going to be a pain in my ass last night. I had just foolishly thought that I had gotten rid of him.
“Mommy, who is that?” Zeke looked up at me.
“No one important. Stay here, okay?” I quickly walked out of the kitchen, grabbed a light jacket from the closet, wishing that I hadn’t left my winter one at the bottom of the lake, and shoved my feet into some boots.
“Stay in here, Zeke.” I closed the front door behind me as I ran down the porch steps. “Hey!” My weak sick voice was gone. I was livid. He had no right to be here and I had made that perfectly clear last night.
Detective Reed looked up at me and had the audacity to smile. Smile! While he was trespassing!
“What are you doing on…” I sneezed. “On my property?”
His dark eyebrows pulled together in the most sympathetic way. And for some reason it made me even angrier. I didn’t need his sympathy. He shouldn’t be here judging me. He wasn’t allowed to be here at all.
I sneezed again.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“Do you have a search warrant?” I asked, ignoring him.
He shook his head. “No, but I brought coffee. And doughnuts.” He lifted up the Dunkin bag like a peace offering.
I stared at the bag of doughnuts. It was my only way out of the poison pancakes my son was about to make. Zeke loved doughnuts. He’d abandoned any thoughts of making me a home cooked meal if I could snag those. But I had a feeling the price was going to be pretty high. “Well, thank you for bringing breakfast.” I put my hands out, hoping that somehow there wouldn’t be a catch.
“If you agree to talk to me about what really happened last night.”
No such luck. I dropped my hands to my side. “I told you everything I knew.”
“Did you though?”
I sneezed again.
“You should be wearing a warmer jacket. It’s freezing out. Here…” He unzipped his own coat and started to shrug his shoulders out of it while balancing two coffee cups and the bag of doughnuts.
“I’m not taking your jacket. And I don’t have anything else to say to you. I made myself perfectly clear last night and…” I stopped talking when he draped his jacket over my shoulders. I immediately felt some of the achiness in my bones diminish. I couldn’t even remember the last time a man had offered me his coat. Joel. It was Joel. I glared at Detective Reed. “Get off my property before I call the cops.”
“I am law enforcement. And I came in peace.” He lifted up the to-go bag again, like he could dangle cheap food over my head.
Suddenly I had a craving for disgusting pancakes. At least those were made with love and didn’t come with any strings attached. “We both know that you’re not supposed to be sneaking around here without the right documentation. So…get.” I shooed him away.
I was pretty sure my knees felt weak because I was sick. Not because his laugh was disarmingly deep and sexy.
“Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot last night,” he said.
You think? “I disagree. I think we both are on the exact right foot.” I turned away from him and started walking back toward my front porch. The right foot? Who says things like that? The fever had reached my brain and was making my mind all mushy. I was in desperate need of a good WebMD search, but knew I wouldn’t risk going down that inescapable rabbit hole of brain tumors.
“I’m just trying to talk to you, Violet.”
I stopped. He knew my name? I waited for him to catch up to me and then looked up at him. Someone had either told him who I was or he had looked me up. Neither would have been great. And the way he was looking at me made sense now. He wasn’t staring at me with pity. He was staring at me like he was trying to figure out if the rumors were true. I wasn’t deaf. I heard the whispers. I was used to the stares. The crazy lady on the hill. That’s what my neighbors called me. My petty, stupid, horrid neighbors.
But I wasn’t a kid getting teased on the playground. And words didn’t hurt me anymore. I stood up a little straighter and swallowed down a sneeze. The act made my eyes water and I hoped he didn’t think I was about to burst into tears. “You have exactly one question. One. And then you have to leave.” Maybe I imagined it, but I swore his gaze drifted to my lips for just a second before snapping back up to my eyes.
“Why did you lie to me last night?”
He had found me out. But I had lied a bunch of times to him last night and I wasn’t sure which thing he was referring to. It was better if I kept with my story and kept him far away from me. “I didn’t lie about anything. Now get off my property.” I grabbed one of the cups of coffee and the bag of doughnuts and ran up the creaky steps.
As soon as I slammed my door with a kick of my boot, Zeke was upon me.
“Who was that?”
“A…friend. He brought us doughnuts!”
“Doughnuts!” He grabbed the bag from me and ran back into the kitchen, hopefully abandoning any more questions and any more ideas about cooking me breakfast.
I lifted off my coat and silently cursed. It wasn’t my coat. I was still wearing Detective Reed’s pity jacket. Now not only had I lied to a detective, but I had stolen his jacket too. God, I’m going to end up in prison. Especially if he finds out my secrets.
END OF CHAPTER 5
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