Excerpt for Watch Over Me by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Watch over me
Jenny Dawson

Published by Profic 2017

Written by Jenny Dawson

copyright©2016, by Jenny Dawson

Cover designed by Jenny Dawson



Watch over me

Chapter One

“Mom, I’m hungry,” Camilla whined, her small roundish fingers pushing the empty plate down the table. “When can we eat?”

Across the table from her daughter, Brenda frowned at her cell. There were no voice messages, no texts—nothing. She glared. Her ex had moved out of their little hometown several years ago, and just recently, he had been keeping in touch with Brenda. But what was the point of keeping in touch if he never actually took the time to see his daughter? Brenda had given him another chance to be a decent father, and he just—

She slammed the cell against the table.

Camilla yelped, jumping and making her chair squeak.

Brenda winced and retracted her hand from the phone. She reached over to her seven-year-old. “Oh sweetheart, I’m sorry. I’m just…disappointed that your father is absent for our family dinner. But I’m sure he has a very good reason for it, and he must feel terrible.”

Camilla’s light eyes, far apart, filled with relief before confusion fogged them. “Dad was coming over?”

Brenda smiled—nearly grimaced. “Yes, sweetie. Remember? He called a few nights ago, and…” Reminding the girl of Leon’s broken promise was unwise. Brenda shook her head and stood up, her hand grabbing Camilla’s plate. “Here, I’ll fix up your dinner now.”

Camilla beamed, the expression as sweet and innocent as it had always been. Though Dr. Hansen had said that was a common trait for patients with Down Syndrome, there was something pure about Camilla that just naturally shone through. Or perhaps Brenda was too bias to see things clearly.

She shoved that wretched thought aside as she placed the spaghetti—and then some salad—on her daughter’s plate.

Camilla scrunched her nose at the vegetables. “Do I have to eat that?”

“Yes. It’s good for your body.” Brenda placed the food before the girl and then went to fill up her own plate. “Besides, I took the time to prepare this meal; it would be rude of you to not at least try to finish it.”

“But I don’t like lettuce.”

“Camilla, don’t argue with me.”

The girl murmured something under her breath and shifted in her chair, squeaking.

Brenda returned to her seat, her plate full and placed beside her glass of water. The stresses of the day—her students arguing, whining, struggling—colleagues venting and tutting—it all remained bunched up in her shoulders, making her sit ramrod straight. Try as she might, she could not get herself to relax.

She took a bite of food. And then another one, the sauce melting over her tongue. Her eyelids drooped. She savored the simple flavors and blinked slowly. A moment of wary content.

Camilla crossed her arms and glared at the salad.

Brenda’s content fractured. “Sweetheart, please try to eat.” She pointed at the pasta with her fork. “Try the spaghetti first. I put a little ketchup in it, just the way you like it.” Absently, she glanced at her cell, silent and still as ever.

Camilla’s gaze flitted over her food for a few seconds before she gently picked up her fork. “I don’t like lettuce,” she breathed, shoulders hunched. But she took a bite of her spaghetti, so Brenda dismissed the feeble backtalk.

Glancing at her phone, she asked Camilla about school.

“I don’t like it,” the girl said through a bite of pasta.

“Chew and swallow your food first, then answer questions.”

Camilla did as instructed—making a dramatic show of swallowing down her bite—before she continued. “I don’t like school. I want to stay with Grandpa all day.”

“I’m sure Grandpa and Grandma would like that too, but your schooling is very important.”

“But I don’t like it.”

Brenda took a deep breath. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. It’s just a part of life.”

“It’s a bad part.”

She chortled. “I’m afraid so, yes.”

The clatter of their forks against plates filled the silence between them for a while. Camilla was slow with each bite she took, her occasional sneer at the salad making her intentions clear. Another argument would ensue, no doubt, and it could easily lead to tears and a punishment.

Brenda pressed two fingers against her temple, the ache growing stronger with each pulse. She closed her eyes and swore she could fall asleep sitting up like this. A part of her—riddled with guilt—was relieved Leon hadn’t shown up. Despite his best intentions, he had a way of making everything worse.


“Yes, sweetheart?”

The quietness that followed jittered with unease.

Brenda opened her eyes.

Camilla’s facial muscles slackened, her precious eyes blank. It was a look she rarely wore, yet it was familiar enough that Brenda knew exactly what it meant.

Stomach dropping, Brenda burst out of her chair and caught her daughter as she fell—violent tremors wracking through her body and making her limbs flop. She lain the girl on the tiles as quickly and gently as she could, Brenda’s shoulder shoving into the table’s leg to push it away. She pushed it so hard that it entered the adjacent living room—corner bumping into the edge of the couch.

Brenda’s heart hammered so hard that she swore it was smashing against her chest. It had been years since Camilla had had a seizure. They had been so careful with the medication and—

Camilla’s forearm slapped against the chair.

Brenda all but threw the chair out of the way, it clattering over the floor and against the corner of the kitchen. She kept her gaze on Cam—kept her arms out in preparation for throwing other obstacles out of the way.

Nausea shot up Brenda’s throat, panic churning and chilling her gut. What if this was worse than a typical seizure? Her mind raced—froze—and then raced again for answers.

She had to turn Camilla on her side in case fluid came out of her mouth. Yes, yes, that was right—she had read that in several articles years ago. But first, something needed to be placed below her daughter’s head.

Brenda all but tore her sweater off herself before snaking it beneath the girl’s skull. Then, though Brenda trembled as well, she gently turned the girl until she was on her side. Her cheek bounced against her mother’s sweater, eyelids fluttering.

Brenda’s hand snapped to her pocket. Her phone. She needed to call—

Camilla’s teeth gnashed together, eyelids lowering farther as her body continued to thrash.

Her teeth. What if the girl bit her tongue? Brenda mentally recoiled and tried to figure out what safe thing to put in her daughter’s mouth. A wallet? A checkbook? A—

A vivid and significant memory overtook Brenda, and she nearly screamed at herself.

One was NEVER supposed to put something into a person’s mouth during a seizure. The book she had read that from had repeated this fact through its chapters. How could she have forgotten such an important detail? It sickened Brenda to the point where she nearly gagged.

Camilla groaned.

Brenda jumped, hands hovering over the girl’s shoulders. Where was her phone? She had just had it.

Panic morphed into terror, seizing all her senses and choking her.

Brenda clenched her teeth against the sensation, her throbbing mind forcing away mocking self-doubt. Keeping her eyes locked on her daughter, Brenda forced herself to take a deep breath. She focused—used her panic as fuel, as energy. She took another deep breath, and her racing heart was a distant sound in her ears.

Her cell phone was on the table. Yes, she had left it on the table.

Camilla shifted over the floor, toward a table leg.

Brenda rose and pushed the table even farther into the adjacent room, her eyes darting over the table’s surface. A jolt shot through her when she didn’t spot her phone. It must have fallen to the ground. She crouched back down and searched the floor.

Camilla’s teeth gnashed.

Her phone. Her phone, her phone, her—

Brenda’s flesh iced over, throat and lungs constricting. She couldn’t see it. The device must be on the floor somewhere—fallen from the table—but she could not see it.

She swore. Frozen in place, she prayed that the apartment walls were as thin as she thought they were. “SAMMY! Help! It’s Camilla! I need you to call Dr. Hansen! Sam!” Brenda flinched the second she remembered that Sammy, her neighbor, was on a date that night with a fireman or something. Brenda shook her head jaggedly at herself. “ANYONE! Help me! My daughter needs help!”

She shouted the same panicked phrases over and over again, the words cutting her throat.

Camilla’s seizure continued. It felt so long, but every time Brenda glanced at the oven’s clock, it reassured her that only a couple minutes had gone by. If her seizure ended now, then it might not be as bad as she feared. The hope calmed her enough to allow self-loathing to slink through her psyche.

Stupid, Brenda spat at herself. She had read so many books on Down Syndrome—on cases such as these—when she was pregnant with Camilla. Why had she stopped? Why had she become so lazy and selfish and forgetful—

A broad, muscular man burst through her front door.

Brenda screamed, the sound wispy from the recent abuse of her vocal chords.

The man’s eyes—wide and alert—snapped to her. As he rushed to her side, he said, “My name is Officer Allan Lawson. I heard you.” He glanced at Camilla. “Don’t touch her, don’t—”

“Just find a phone and call Dr. Hansen!”

The cop took out a cell from his pocket and dialed. And for a split second, Brenda was stupidly shocked that he just happened to know Dr. Hansen’s number.

Then she realized he had dialed 911.

Brenda, her attention flicking back and forth from her daughter to the officer, opened her mouth to protest his action. Dr. Hansen had talked her through Camilla’s last seizure, and the bill for an ambulance—

Lawson spouted out the address, and then he explained the situation to the dispatcher.

Brenda pressed her lips together. Even if paramedics provided too much help—if there was ever such a thing—it would certainly be preferable than not having enough of it. Brenda breathed a little easier as she stared down at her child.

“It’ll be alright, sweetie,” she said.

“They don’t typically hear—”

She snapped her gaze to Lawson.

Lawson flinched, phone still pressed against his ear while his eyes remained trained on her. He cleared his throat, then he lowered the phone. “The paramedics will be here in seven minutes.”

She nodded, her insides quivering with impatience. Seven minutes was too long. She swallowed thickly and stared at her daughter—gave her a tight smile, even though Camilla wasn’t registering it.

A soft touch on Brenda’s shoulder made her bristle, smile instantly falling.

“What’s her name?” Lawson asked, crouched beside them now. His fingers remained on her shoulder, however light their pressure was.

Brenda glanced at him. He was close enough that his warmth seeped into her, and she couldn’t decide if it was a comfort or not. Ultimately, she remained where she was, focused on— “Camilla. Her name is Camilla.”

“How old.”


“Is this her first…?”

“No.” Shame reddened Brenda’s face. She should have been prepared for this. Her hands, shaking, hovered over Camilla’s shoulders—brushing against her mother’s fingertips. It made Brenda eyes sting.

“She’ll be fine,” Lawson said. He removed his fingers from her shoulder. “You’re doing a good job keeping everything clear.”

Brenda shivered, a cold sense of abandonment crushing her chest. She itched to rub her shoulder, but she immediately dismissed the sensation. Once again, she whispered encouraging words to her daughter. Perhaps it truly did nothing, but speaking them gave Brenda strength over her fear.

“It is alright, Camilla,” Brenda said, voice stronger than it should have been. She exhaled a shaky breath. “Mom’s here. I’m here.”

Camilla’s tremors lessened more and more by the second until the girl was limp, her eyelids drooping low as tears crawled down the side of her face. She groaned.

Relief floored Brenda. Restraining her own tears, she shakily—yet gently—placed her hand on Camilla’s shoulder. “It’s okay, honey. You’re okay. An ambulance is going to be here soon, and everything will be okay.”

Camilla’s mouth hung open, her head lolling to the side. She blinked and breathed, but shy of that, she didn’t move.

The last seizure she had had—it had taken her over thirteen minutes to regain her full sense of awareness.

Brenda patted the girl’s head. Clearing her throat—making sure she sounded certain—she said, “Paramedics are going to come and help. And there is a police officer here too.”

Camilla whined, her face remaining blank.

Brenda’s heart ached. She ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair. “They’re going to help you. You’ll feel better soon.”

The girl whined again.

“Camilla,” Lawson said, shuffling a little closer. He smiled, his eyes soft. “I’m Allan. I’m yours and your mother’s new neighbor.”

Brenda’s eyebrows shot up.

Lawson continued. “You are being so brave and strong right now. I’m impressed. I’ve never met anyone as tough as you, and I’m a police officer.”

“You’re our neighbor?” Brenda blurted. “I didn’t know—who moved out?”

Lawson shrugged. “I just finished moving in a few days ago. Room Seven? I don’t know who the previous tenant was.”

Ah, Warren’s and Lori’s apartment. They had just had their second child—had been speaking about moving into the suburbs. But that had been a month ago. They were already gone?

A hint of distaste brushed against Brenda’s psyche, but she couldn’t bring herself to care about it one way or another. She pressed her palm against Camilla’s head, the touch grounding.

Camilla garbled out a noise before a long exhale blew passed her parted lips. She blinked hard, her gaze never flickering from the ceiling.

“I’m from Saint Louis,” Lawson said conversationally. He shifted on his haunches a little, his head tilting as he smiled at Camilla. “It’s a nice city. Has a lot of pretty buildings, the arch—all kinds of stuff. It has a lot more people than Woodland Creek does, but that can get a little burdensome sometimes. It’s nice being in a smaller town. More nature, fewer people. It’s relaxing.”

Camilla sighed.

Brenda’s shoulders lowered. Her voice was distant—broken—as she said, “Camilla and I were both born here. Born and raised.” Her hand slid to her daughter’s upper arm, warm and motionless. “We’re used to small town life.”

Sirens pierced the air, the sound growing louder and louder as the seconds whizzed by.

Brenda smiled, her lips quivering. “We’re used to the simple life.”

Lawson patted her back, his touch as light as it had been before yet somehow more reassuring this time. Her eyelids fluttered closed for a brief soothing moment.

Chapter Two

As quick as the paramedics had been to get there, Brenda’s impatience swelled within her as they checked on her daughter—her pupil dilation, her pulse, her lungs. They moved too casually, though a part of Brenda wanted to take comfort in that; perhaps things weren’t as bad as she initially feared.

“How long did her seizure last?” a dark-haired paramedic asked.

Brenda answered quickly.

“Was there shaking of the limbs? Did she cry out? Did any discoloring occur?”

The questions went on and on, and Brenda snapped out each answer. Light tremors wracked her body, needing to move—to spring—to act. Waiting around and answering questions seemed pointless.

Lawson remained by her side, the few answers he gave short and blunt. At times, Brenda was tempted to hold his hand, to steady herself. His posture was so stiff and his eyes so alert. There was nothing casual about his appearance, other than his T-shirt and jeans.

“Mom,” Camilla said, weak voice filled with distress. She squirmed on the ground and blinked hard, though her eyes barely moved. “Mom.”

“I’m here,” Brenda said, barreling forward to crouch beside her daughter. She grabbed Cam’s shoulder with one hand while stroking her face with the other. “I’m here. It’s all okay, sweetheart.”

Camilla smacked her lips together. Confusion, then fear, blossomed in her expression, twisting. “Mom?”

“It’s okay, sweetie. All these people are helping us, that’s all. ”The paramedics went on to ask about Camilla’s medication, her doctor, the bill—

“I’ll take care of it,” Lawson interrupted, staring at Brenda. “Whenever the bill comes, just give it to me. I’m the one who made the call.”

Brenda scoffed. “I’m not handing you one of my bills. It’s fine.”

His posture loosened a little, face falling. “Please. I insist.” His gaze was so weighted—guilt swirling in those blue orbs. “I made the call, so it’s my responsibility.”

She eyed him. Was this really worth arguing about? Her pride, heavy in her chest, certainly made her think so. But she hesitated anyway—took a few seconds to think it over.

“I appreciate you letting me help in any way I can,” he said, expression softening and lips widening into a gentle smile. “It’s my job, you know.”

Sighing, she nodded. It was his job, in a way. And it wasn’t as if Leon was paying child support. She nodded again, more assure this time, and then she returned her full focus to her daughter.

Eventually, Camilla had regained enough of her mobility to move over and sit on the couch. The paramedics had wrapped a bright orange blanket around her shoulders, and the girl hugged herself tightly beneath the fabric. As Brenda handed her daughter a bowl of orange slices, the paramedics took their equipment and left.

Brenda kneeled in front of her daughter and patted the girl’s knee. “How are you feeling? Do you some water?”

Camilla, chewing on a piece of orange, shook her head as she stared at Lawson.

Brenda looked over her shoulder at him. “That’s Officer Lawson.”

“Allan,” Lawson said with a sheepish smile. He shifted on his feet, his gaze sweeping over the place. Then he scratched the back of his neck. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Camilla.”

Camilla gulped. “You’re police?”

“Yes, I am.”

The girl pressed her lips together again, her brow rising. “You get bad guys?”

Allan grinned. “Yes, I do.”

“Good.” Camilla grabbed another orange slice and bit it in half. As she chewed, the tension in her body loosened. She blinked slowly and sagged. “Mom, dinner?”

Brenda jumped. “You want to finish your spaghetti?”

Camilla nodded. “Hungry.” She grimaced at the half-orange slice in her hand before plopping it into her mouth.

“Okay, okay, I’ll go heat it up.” Brenda stood and turned, stumbling a bit at the sight of Lawson still standing there—still watching. She blushed, but God knew why. Sure, Lawson was attractive with his chiseled jaw, bright eyes, big arms…

His cheeks reddened when she continued to stare at him. He cleared his throat and glanced at the door. “Um, right, sorry. I should go now. If you guys need anything, I’m in Room Seven.” He turned to leave.

“Wait,” Brenda blurted, stepping toward him. “Have dinner with us, please. It’s the least we can do.”

He smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Rubbing the back of his head, he said, “That is very kind of you, but I don’t kn—”

“Please?” Camilla asked, holding another orange slice in her hand. “Please? Please?” She raised her head a little, the blanket slipping a bit down the back of her neck. “Please, Mr. Police?”

Brenda couldn’t fight against the smile even if she tried. Camilla never took to strangers this quickly. Heart melting, Brenda cocked an eyebrow at the officer.

Lawson opened his mouth—clearly to argue—before closing it, and then opening it again to release a long sigh. His lips quirked upward and shrugged. “Sure. I would love to.”

Camilla beamed and leaned back against the couch. “Good.”

Getting out the TV trays—she didn’t have the heart to make Camilla move from the couch—Brenda set each person’s plate and glass of water on their respective tray before settling in the center spot of the couch.

Camilla grabbed her fork and poked her food with it. Her face was slack, her eyelids so low that they were practically pressed together.

Brenda frowned and rubbed her daughter’s back. “Do you want to go to bed, sweetheart?”

“No.” The girl stabbed a meatball and then put it in her mouth.

Brenda’s brow furrowed, worry nagging at her. She needed to be more prepared for Camilla—needed to help her always, needed to be more responsible, less like Leon and more like—

“This is a lovely meal,” Allan said.

A laugh burst out of Brenda’s throat as she turned to him. “Thank you, but it’s just spaghetti.”

He shrugged. “Still.” He placed a bite of pasta and sauce in his mouth, a trace of sauce lingering on his lower lip.

Realizing she was still staring at his mouth, she snapped her attention on her own plate and took a bite of food. She chewed a little too quickly as her mind raced. What to say, what to say…

The awkwardness felt tensed in the air, as if it was physically squeezing her too hard. She had no problem being straight forward with people in regard to her intentions, but it had been so long since she had dated—not that this was date. Of course not. She fought against a cringe.

Was she really that lonely? She hadn’t been with anyone since Leon left all those years ago, but she had been fine with that. Or, at least, she thought she had been fine with that.

“So,” Allan said, the word loud and abrupt enough to make Brenda jolt, “you said you and Camilla have lived here your entire lives?”

“Um, yes. That’s right. My parents still live here too. We’re just charming small town folk, I guess. In our blood.” Small town folk? What were they, cowboys on the prairie?

“I can see the appeal,” Allan said after swallowing another bite of food. “It’s gorgeous here. And quiet. You can just be yourself without the world constantly at your back.” His gaze became distant for a second before he shook his head and frowned. “I’m sorry, I…I’m being weird, aren’t I? Yes, I am. Sorry. I just…” He groaned, placing his palm over his eyes. “I’m really not good at this kind of thing anymore.”

“What kind of thing?” Brenda asked. She found herself sitting up a little straighter.

“Social gatherings,” he said, hand flopping to his lap. He smirked tiredly. “Ever since my wife died, I’ve had a hard time saying the right things in the right way. I tend to be awkward and clumsy nowadays.”

“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped. “I’m so sorry.”

“Me too. I miss the days where I was charming, witty, and not a complete idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot.”

He huffed out a quick laugh, sheepishness contorting his features. “Thanks, but you don’t have to say that.”

“I mean it though. You acted quickly and efficiently when I screamed for help. Idiots don’t do that.” The recent memory—far too recent—creeped in the back of her mind.

“Trained idiots can.”

She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Oh, hush now. You’re too modest, which does make you charming, by the way.”

“So…should I be more modest or less modest? You’re giving me mixed messages here.”

She snorted, her hand snapping up to cover her mouth and nose a second later. Something fluttered in the pit of her stomach, making her giddy. She had no idea what to say—tried to think of something clever—and instead just snorted again as a giggle erupted from her.

To her relief, Lawson laughed with her.

It made her realize how quiet Camilla was being.

Brenda turned to her daughter.

Camilla rested her head against the arm of the couch, peace in her expression as she snored quietly. She clutched two corners of the blanket against her clavicle.

Brenda’s worry ebbed. She ran her fingers up and down Camille’s arm. “My darling girl. She has had such a trying day today.”

“I wasn’t lying before,” Allan said softly. “She’s tough, especially for someone so young.”

Brenda’s smile widened. “I know.”

Chapter Three

Brenda let her daughter sleep in the following morning. She had walked in her daughter’s bedroom with the intention of waking her up, but the sight of Camilla drooling on her fuzzy pillow… Brenda couldn’t bring herself to disturb her—not after what had happened the day before. Instead, Brenda pressed a kiss on her daughter’s forehead.

It wouldn’t be the worst thing if Camilla missed one day of school.

“I understand, Ms. Carson,” the Special Ed teacher had responded over the phone. “Tell her we all wish her well.”

After Brenda had ended that conversation, she went back and forth between getting ready for work and reading one of the many books she had about Down Syndrome. She needed to be keeping up with this information every day. She would never slack off on this reading again.

Over an hour later, Brenda smoothed out her jacket and hurried out of the bathroom—her short heels silent against the carpet. She went back into Camilla’s room and woke the girl up.

“Is it pajama day again?” Camilla asked sleepily, holding Brenda’s hand as she guided her daughter to the kitchen. Cam yawned and rubbed her right eye with her free hand.

“You’re going to stay with grandpa today. All day.”

That perked Camilla right up. “Really?”

“Yes. But don’t get used to this, okay? This is a rare occasion, and you’re schooling is still very important. In fact, your teacher and your classmates told me that they want you to feel better so that they can see again.”

Camilla bounced on her heels. “Okay, okay,” she said quickly, clearly not listening to much of what Brenda was actually saying.

Brenda grabbed a bagel from the cupboard and stuffed it in her mouth, grabbed her purse that she had left on the island, and then she stumbled toward the front door with Camilla still clinging to her—slowing her.

She squeezed her daughter’s hand.

Her parents lived—had always lived—in Clear May Suburbs, an area filled with quaint homes and overgrown foliage. It conveyed a humble kind of beauty; the kind of place where most of the neighbors were good friends with one another.

Brenda, her bagel half-eaten and on the dashboard, pulled into her parents’ driveway and parked. The faded yellow house in front of her hadn’t changed in years, not really. Though the window frames and door had aged—splintered a little—there were still the same row of tulips growing beneath the windows, there were still the gnomes dotting the corners of the front lawn, and the overall color scheme of the residence was the same.

Brenda got out of the car and walked to the backseat to help Camilla out of her car seat. Despite her age, Cam was small enough to need more than a seatbelt to keep her safe in a vehicle. But if this bothered her, she never complained about it. Once Camilla was standing in the driveway, Brenda slammed the car door shut before leading Camilla up to the front door they both knew all too well. Brenda knocked on the old wooden surface, Camilla doing the same.

The door opened.

“Grandpa!” Camilla said, ripping herself from Brenda’s hand to hug the old man. “I get to stay the entire day with you!”

Her dad’s bushy eyebrows shot up, his gaze slowly rising to meet Brenda’s. “Is that right?”

Brenda hunched. “I should have called.”

“Oh, I like a good surprise as much as the next guy.” The old man shakily crouched down, bones creaking as he did so. He flashed his toothy-salesman smile at Cam—the kind of smile he used to where all the time when he was a real estate agent. “Why don’t you go sit at the kitchen table, and I’ll make my famous Cowboy Pancakes.”

Camilla’s eyes lit up before she rushed into the house and into the kitchen, left from the front room.

Her father grabbed the doorframe and pulled himself up to his feet. Grunting, he tilted his head to the side and eyed Brenda. “So, what’s the special occasion? You seem stressed out.”

Impatience jittered through her, but she could not bring herself to rush this conversation, no matter how late it made her for work. Sighing—mentally trying to calm herself—she told him about Camilla’s seizure.

Her dad’s eyes glimmered with worry, though his lips formed a gentle smile. “She seems fine now.”

“She is doing a lot better today. But could—”

“I’ll keep a close eye on her, Brenda.” His salesman-smile returned in full, his arms spreading outward. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

Brenda’s shoulder lowered, her hand swinging out and brushing against the man’s forearm. “Thanks, dad.” She turned to leave when she flinched. She didn’t want to ask but…a good daughter should always ask— “Oh, and how’s mom doing today?”

“She’s managing.”

Brenda nodded automatically. That was his answer every time. “Does she have any plans today? Is she going to get out of the house?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe.”

She nodded again, walking back to her car. Tight tension developed along her spine.

It didn’t matter how many prescription pills her mother took, her depression never let her be. Her tone was always feeble, eyes weighted with fatigue and facial muscles slack. When Brenda was a kid, she would always take care of her mother—always try to make her mother happy. But it was as if existence itself was too exhausting for her to bear.

Some mornings, Brenda would stare into the mirror and see the empty shell of her mother…of someone in constant pain. A pain that would never truly go away.

The thought chilled Brenda.

Chapter Four

Larky Middle School was the only middle school in Woodland creek, which often made the establishment overcrowded with preteens and specialized youngsters. But this year, with the former eighth graders now in their respective high schools and with the new sixth grade class being rather small, the school seemed more spacious.

Stepping out of her car and locking it, Brenda strode through the parking lot and to the school. She kept to the row of parked cars and checked over her shoulder repeatedly for the parents driving by to drop of their children.

Unfortunately, the building was surrounded by asphalt and cement; there wasn’t a whole lot of greenery on the property. And despite her constant insistence on raising money to green up the school, she was always declined by the school board.

School was about educating students, not “prettying up parking lots.” That was what the super intendant had told her. A charming man.

Looking both ways, she hurried between two motionless cars—kids halfway out of them—and then up the stairs to the front doors.

That was when her cell rang, playing Leon’s ringtone.

She sucked in a breath and glared. He knew she would start work soon. But, frustrating as this timing was, she couldn’t afford to ignore him—not with his relationship with Camilla on the line.

She swung the front door open and charged into the building before searching through her purse for her cell. Once it was discovered—ringtone scraping against her eardrums by that point—she answered it quickly.

“Hey, Brenda,” Leon said slowly, “I understand that you must be angry with me, but—”

“I’m furious, Leon. A child needs their father.”

“I know, I know, and I am sorry that I missed the family dinner last night. I…I had another anxiety attack, and the mere thought of calling to cancel…it was hard to breathe.”

She weaved around students and turned down a left hall—heading for her classroom. Pity sprouted in her heart, but it was outweighed by an itchy, unnerving sensation in the pit of her chest. “Leon, you are a grown man. And, as I have reminded you multiple times, you are a father. I know we couldn’t make things work out between us, but when you divorced me, you didn’t divorce Camilla too.” Right? She nearly asked—nearly pushed—but she bit her tongue instead.

“I know, babe. I’m really sorry. I screwed up, but I am getting better. I just got my two year-chip last week.”

He had already told her that the last time she spoke with him. She side-stepped a sixth grader rushing down the hall, his backpack smacking against his narrow spine. “That’s wonderful, it really is, but Camilla—”

“I know. I’ll make it up to her. Does she like the park? Can she…can she go to the park?”

The chatter all around her was so loud that she barely heard his whisper. She withheld an exasperated sigh and reminded herself that Camilla’s condition was still difficult for Leon.

After last night, it was clearly still difficult for Brenda too.

She took a deep breath and rubbed the ache at the base of her throat. “Yes, Leon, she can go to the park. In fact, you said you would take her there over a month ag—”

“Right, right, right, I forgot. I’m sorry. I’ll take her this Saturday. I mean, it’s not like family dinners are all that memorable anyway, right? She probably didn’t even care that I wasn’t there. But the park will be fun. We can do actual activities there. How...” He sucked in a breath. “How…active can she be?”

Brenda pinched the bridge of her nose. His ignorance—his avoidance of his own daughter for these past years—it unnerved her. “You know, Leon, I have these books that I could—”

“Never mind. Don’t worry about it. We can just hang out there until she says she is tired, and then I’ll bring her right back to you. Sound good? Better than dinner plans, even?”

The dismissive tone—clearly meant to squash whatever guilt he felt—made her frown, her eyes narrowing at the lockers she sped past. “You know, Camilla did have a memorable time with Officer Lawson at dinner last night, and she appreciated his company. I think you’re underestimating how valuable a family dinner can be to a child.”

“Officer who? What are you even talking about?”

“Officer Lawson, our new neighbor. He came over last night and had a family meal with us. Camilla really enjoyed the extra company.” She knew she would have to tell Leon about the seizure, but in that moment, she didn’t want to scare the man off; she wanted him to want to be a father—to see the joy of it.

“You let some strange man spend time with our daughter?” Leon said, tone filled with disgust. “Are you that vindictive?”

“What?” Brenda stiffened, coming to an abrupt halt in the center of the hall. Kids and teachers hurried around her like they were the river and she was a protruding rock. “He’s our new neighbor, Leon. I invited him over for dinner. You could have met him too—could have seen that he was a perfectly nice guy—”

“All psychos seem like ‘perfectly nice guys’ until they butcher your wife and kid.”

Brenda shook her head, exasperation drowning out any sincere anger. Did Leon think that she was dating Lawson? Just because she had invited a new neighbor over for dinner? She strode onward again with a tensed posture; her classroom was down the next adjacent hall. Some kids crowded around the locked door, the first bell due to ring any second now.

“Brenda? You still there?”

“Yeah, Leon, but I have to go to work now.”

“Don’t let that man anywhere near my daughter again, okay?”

“You’re being paranoid.”

“Brenda, please.”

“Goodbye, Leon.”


She hung up and shoved the phone into her purse, expression tight and sour. Not paying too close attention to the curious looks her students gave her, she silently motioned them to move out of the way.

They parted, and she walked up to the door while grabbing its key out of her purse. Her frustration made her wrists stiff, her fingers twitchy.

Until they butcher your wife and kid.

The nerve.

And for him to accuse Officer Lawson of such things…the policeman had been so kind and sweet, his swift actions for Camilla’s sake heroic. What had Leon done for the girl lately? Other than flake out on her so much that she barely remembered that he was her dad at all.

Brenda grabbed her key in a tight grip before jamming the metal object into the door’s lock. She all but growled as she unlocked the door and burst inside.

A loud buzz rang out over the intercoms.

And then her cell phone rang again. Leon’s ringtone. Again.

Her desk being right in front of the classroom, in the far corner, Brenda didn’t have to move far before she slammed the purse on her desk. Of course, the phone continued to ring, the sound pricking her brain more and more.

The lack of footsteps behind her made her hesitate, brow furrowing. She turned to face the door.

Her students peered through the doorway, their eyes bulging as they watched her.

Brenda sighed.

Leon knew she was an English teacher. He even knew her work hours. So, she had hoped—no, assumed—that he would respect the fact that there were specific hours during the day where she couldn’t be available. Unless there was an emergency, of course.

The classroom was dark, save for the light coming out of the overhead projector, conveying her notes over the white board behind her. Brenda sat on a stool beside the projector and wrote out the definition for “independent clause” on the clear sheet on top of the device. As she did so, she said, “You can think of it as being a complete sentence, basically. It contains a subject, a—”

Her phone rang for the fourth time that morning. Leon’s ringtone. If wasn’t worried about her father calling for some reason, she would’ve put the darn thing on silent.

The students giggled, some of them whispering to one another.

“If we can’t have our cell phones on,” one boy said—Zeke, “then, why can you? That’s not fair.”

Students murmured in agreement.

“Can we turn our phones back on then?” a girl asked.

“My mom just likes to check up on me with texts,” another kid said.

Even if this argument was worth having again, Brenda’s soul felt too withered to deal with it. Rubbing her temples with her free hand, she placed the marker on the overhead before rising to her feet and walking over to her desk, where the noisy purse rested.

Perhaps there really was an emergency. Leon wasn’t perfect, but he wouldn’t call her multiple times during work just to complain about Officer Lawson.

Brenda grabbed the phone—on the top of her purse—and answered it in a whisper.

“Thank God,” Leon said, groaning. “I thought you were going to ignore me all day.”

“Leon, what is it?”

“What do you think? I’m serious about not letting Camilla near that man again. Or you near him for that matter. You don’t know what he is really like—what he has in his apartment, or how he is. You have me really worried here.”

Stunned—enraged—she cracked her jaw while blinking at the white board in front of her. Her eye twitched, her body unable to handle the repetition of stressful emotions.

“Brenda? Brenda, I’m serious. I need you to—”

She hung up.

Chapter Five

She didn’t tell Camilla about Leon’s plan for the park. Based from experience, it was best just to accept that the trip was never going to happen.

Camilla snuggled in her car seat as Brenda buckled her in. The cloudy sky was tinged with darkness, the chill light but noticeable in the air. The occasionally wind had goosebumps tickling Brenda’s skin.

“I want to stay at grandpa’s tomorrow too,” Camilla said. “Please?”

“Sorry, sweetheart.” She tugged at the seatbelt—secure—before backing out of the car. “You have to go back to school.”

Camilla groaned. “But mom—”

“Don’t argue with me.” Brenda closed the door, harder than she meant to. She would have winced if she had the energy. Instead, she let her face droop and got into the driver’s seat. She all but melted against the leather, her aches dulling.

“I don’t like school,” Camilla said quietly.

Brenda’s phone buzzed. She had put it on vibrate hours ago, and now that Camilla was in her sights, she didn’t bother to check the Caller ID.

“I know,” Brenda breathed. She enjoyed the comfort of her seat for a few seconds longer before she started the car. “But they help you learn important things, like math, how to spell—”

“Why can’t you teach me?”

She backed out of the driveway, and then drove onward. “I’m too busy. I have to work so we have money for food and stuff.”

“Why can’t we live with grandpa and grandma?”

“Camilla, stop arguing with me.”

“But I want to know why.”

She tightened her grip on the steering wheel, pain flaring inside her brain. “Because I am your mom and I said so. Stop. Arguing.”

Camilla fell silent.

Brenda’s phone stopped buzzing. Thank the Lord.

The woman blew out a long, whistle-esque breath, head lolling forward a bit. She turned on the AC—made it so that icy air blasted out of the vents and stung her skin.

The quietness soothed her for the following few minutes. She licked her lips and glanced at Camilla through the rearview mirror.

Her gaze was downcast, her shoulders slumped.

“Why don’t you like school?”

Camilla squirmed and crossed her arms. “It’s hard.”

“Yeah? I’m sorry. Which part of it is the hardest for you?”

Cam squirmed again. “Talking,” she whispered.

“Talking to the other kids?”

“…to anyone.”

“You’re talking now.”

“I can talk to you. And I can talk to grandpa.”

Brenda signaled before slowing the car and turning into the apartment building’s south parking lot. It cost extra to have a designated parking space, but she always found it worth the expense—especially now as she quickly parked in front of the building. Once the vehicle was off, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face her daughter.

Camilla continued to frown at her feet, her cheeks a darker shade of pink.

Brenda smiled through her own hurt. “Sweetheart, a part of growing up—a part of school—is learning how to talk to other people. I know it’s hard, but you need to go through these experiences.”


“Because they will make you stronger. It will make talking to others much easier later on.”

Camilla light kicked out her foot and shifted her gaze, her forehead wrinkling as doubt clouded her eyes.

Nothing more to say on the matter, Brenda bowed her head and got out of the car.

Camilla didn’t argue anymore, though her sullen silence wasn’t much of an improvement to Brenda’s aching brain. She held her daughter’s hand tightly as they walked down the hall and toward their apartment the constricting grip was the only support she could think to give, much to Brenda’s own sense of helplessness.

“Brenda, Camilla,” Lawson greeted from behind, his footsteps trailing them.

Brenda jumped and turned.

Officer Lawson, in uniform, had two bouquets of fake flowers in each hand—one of roses, the other one of colorful daisies. He swooped down on one knee to hand the colorful flowers to Camilla, who gasped with delight. “I wasn’t sure if you—either of you—had any allergies, so I thought the plastic ones were best.” His smile wobbled a little, nervousness flashing in his gaze.

Camilla gathered the bouquet in both arms, her mouth hung open. “They’re so pretty.”

Brenda’s eyebrows shot up. Cam had no problem talking to Officer Lawson.

“Thank you,” Camilla continued, her full attention on the colorful daisies.

Lawson’s smile strengthened, his posture loosening. “You are very welcome, Camilla.” He rose on his feet and handed the fake roses to Brenda. “I thought you would like a bouquet, too.”

Her stomach flipped, giddiness tickling her heart. She took the bouquet and thanked him, her own cheeks turning a slight red. “This was very sweet of you.”

“Yeah, well, I wanted to check up on Camilla. See how she was feeling.” He turned back to Camilla. “You all better, kiddo?”

She nodded, hugging the daisies to her torso.

Lawson huffed out a blunt chuckle. “I’m glad.” He looked back at Brenda like he wanted to say something, but his mouth remained close. He shifted on his feet and glanced behind him, as if he wanted to leave.

“So,” she blurted, gaze darting between her flowers and the wall, “how was work?”

“Uneventful,” he said. “I’m used to having to deal with at least one drun—” He stiffened and glanced at Camilla. “Uh, well, I’m used to having to deal with more bad guys. But here? There’s just a few demeanors once and while. I’m afraid I’m going to get a little too bored here.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?” she asked. “Boring usually means safety.”

His eyes darkened, flitting to the side. “It does, and that’s why I…” He shook his head, a thin smile spreading his lips. “Never mind. It was nice talking to you both.” He nodded at her, then at Camille, and then he turned around and walked to his apartment.

She bit her lower lip to keep herself from smiling too wide. It was like high school—your crush giving you flowers…. It had been a long time since she had gotten flowers.

Except this wasn’t high school, and she was a grown woman. She shook her head at herself, though her eyes lingered on Lawson’s departing form.

Camilla bounced on her heels. “These are perfect!”

Brenda’s heart swelled, and she gently placed her palm on her daughter’s head. “They really are.” Gently, she guided her daughter onward, toward the same direction Lawson had gone to—toward their own apartment.

Cam twirled the flowers in her hands. “I like Officer Lawson.”

“Allan. Please, call me Allan.”

Brenda jumped and snapped her gaze up.

Lawson walked back to them, his expression tensed and his smile feeble. Still, there was something bright in his eyes—something hopeful. “Sorry, I just…there was something else I wanted to say, but it’s been a while since I’ve…” He released a taut huff.

She smiled back at him, warmth blooming within her. “Allan. What is it?”

“I was going to…ask you out. If that’s alright?” He coughed into his fist before rubbing it against his pant leg.

Her eyebrows shot up, heart leaping into her throat. It had been ages since anyone has asked her out on a date. Since high school, in fact. Since Leon. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his eyes. “But if I’m being too forward, then I apologize, and I’ll leave you alone. I just…I’d just like to get to know you more.”

“Me too,” she said softly, distantly. Her eyes roamed his body before landing on his face, still hidden behind his large hand. “And yes.”

His hand fell and revealed his widened eyes. “Yes?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

He blinked owlishly, stunned. “Great. Good. ”He took a deep breath, his eyes softening as he stared at her. “I’ll call you.”

“Don’t you need my number?”

“That makes sense. That is what sensible people do.” He took out his phone and scrolled through it.

Cam giggled, craning her neck to stare at his screen.

Brenda’s smile faltered. What was she doing? Cam was right there—witnessing her mother’s romantic life. What if it didn’t work out with Allan? What if Cam came to adore him? Brenda’s breath clogged her throat. She needed to stop this—needed to take back what she said. She—

“Brenda?” Allan asked, brow creased. “Your number?” He pointedly lifted his phone. “Unless you’re having second thoughts.”

“No,” she blurted stupidly. His eyes, his kindness—Lord, she was lonely. So, despite her fears, selfishness took a hold of her as she told him her number.

As he left for the second time, Brenda swore to herself that she wouldn’t get Cam involved in this again until she knew Allan wouldn’t leave them. She wouldn’t get hurt, even if Brenda did.

Chapter Six

They lived in the same building, so it was pragmatic for them to carpool for their date that Friday night. However, Brenda hadn’t expected Allan to accompany her to drop off Camilla at her parents’ house first.

He had shrugged when she questioned him about this. “It’ll save you a trip. Wouldn’t want to waste gas money.” He had smirked.

And Camilla had rejoiced in embarking on this quick journey with a new person—with Allan, specifically. After that, it wasn’t as if Brenda could him tell to wait for her at the apartment. The vow she had made to herself was already fracturing.

A part of her demanded that she broke this off with him before anything really began. She had Camilla to think about—even Leon during the times he returned to Woodland Creek to be a father. Plus…

She had been a teenager the last time she had been on a date. A real date, not one of those date nights she and Leon had partaken in during her marriage.

But that reasoning had made it more compelling to her to give Allan a chance. She couldn’t have one ex defining her views on romance—on love—for her entire life. Cam wouldn’t be a child forever, and Brenda…she needed someone to help her, like she tried to help everyone else. Could that be so wrong?

“There are no bad guys here?” Camilla asked, pointing out the window.

Allan, playing along, leaned forward and peered out his own window. “Nope. No bad guys there.”

“Oh good.”

“Very good.”

Warmth bloomed beneath Brenda’s breastbone. She glanced at Allan beside her, the sight of him as soothing as it was nerve-wracking. He was so…muscular. And handsome.

She cringed as she noticed the stop sign out of the corner of her eye.

Allan turned to her and crossed his arms, amusement glinting in his eyes. “You’re lucky I’m off duty, or I would have to give you a ticket.”

Camilla gasped. “Mom’s a bad guy?”

Allan pouted out his lips and nodded, turning back and forth from Camilla to Brenda. “That she is.”


Brenda batted her eyelashes. “I’ll be good from now on, I promise.”

Allan asked. “I certainly hope so.”

“Arrest her!” Camilla giggled.

Allan snickered.

Brenda shook her head and glanced at her daughter through the rearview mirror. “Thanks, sweetheart. I appreciate the support.”

Brenda pulled into her parents’ driveway before putting the car in park. Opening her door, she glanced back at Allan and said, “This won’t take long.” Then she hurried to the back seat to help Camilla get out.

The girl had just jumped out the car when a familiar voice shrieked in greeting.

“If it isn’t my favorite sister and niece!” Bella cried out, rushing off the front porch. Her red curls bounced with each step, especially when she jarred to an abrupt halt right in front of Brenda’s car. Bella’s dark eyes bulged. “And who is this beauty?”

Allan smiled and waved.

Bella placed her hands on the hood and leaned toward the windshield. “Brenda, you lucky son of a gun. He is magnificent!”

“Okay,” Brenda said quickly, hurrying over to her little sister and smothering her in a tight hug while guiding her back toward the porch. The two of them stumbled—Bella’s face buried in Brenda’s shoulder—but that didn’t stop affection from worming its way around Brenda’s chest. “When did you get back? I thought you weren’t coming home for another couple of weeks.” Bella dug her heels into the ground and pushed Brenda back. Gasping, the red head said, “I finished work early. Took pictures of all the old buildings my client wanted. And, you know, when you see one old building, you’ve seen them all.”

Brenda cocked an eyebrow. “Weren’t you in Greece?”

“Yeah. What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Brenda shook her head and huffed. But then she hugged her sister again—gentler this time. Various spices wafted up Brenda’s nose, and she grinned. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I missed you, too. I wish you guys would come with me on one of these trips. It would be a lot more fun.”

“Fun and safe, right?” Brenda pulled back and narrowed her eyes.

“Yes,” her sister groaned, rolling her eyes. “I stay safe, Brenda.”

“You never leave the hotel alone? You remember those defense mov—”

“Camilla!” Bella cried out gleefully, hurrying passed Brenda to hug the girl, who had been waiting by the car’s headlight. Bella, hovering over Camilla in their awkward hug, kissed her niece’s head. “You have gotten so big! How old are you now?”

Camilla’s fingers clung to her aunt’s back. “Seven.”

“Seven! You are growing up so fast.” Bella crouched down, releasing Camilla before motioning toward the car. “So, tell me, is the hunk over there your new daddy?”

Brenda reddened. “Bella! Come on. I’m just here to drop Camilla off.”

Her sister gasped melodramatically, rising and turning to gawk at Brenda. “You aren’t even going to introduce me? Your own flesh and blood?”

“Bella, don’t be—”

The redhead took one large step to the car and opened Allan’s door. Then she stuck her hand out toward Allan’s heart. “Hi, I’m Bella. The little sister. So how long have you been dating my sister?”

Allan beamed. “I’m Allan. And this is our first date. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Bella.”

Bella leaned back and smiled at Brenda. “He is such a gentleman. You should introduce him to mom and dad. He’s definitely an improvement over Leon.”

Brenda glared. “I think you’ve embarrassed me enough, thank you.”

Allan shrugged, eyes alighting with amusement. “I don’t mind meeting your parents.

Brenda nearly groaned while Bella waved her hand toward the man, her head rising a little. “See? A gentleman. You should let him meet mom and dad. They’ll be so happy that you are getting back out there.”

Allan unbuckled his seat belt and got out of the car. “I really don’t mind.”

Brenda paled, tongue feeling too heavy in her mouth. Uncertain of how to escape this humiliating series of events, she found herself shrugging and smiling thinly at her sister. “Sure. Why not?”

Bella hurried back into the house. “I’ll go get them!” She swung the door open, the screen door banging after her.

“Bella!” Remembering Allan, Brenda winced and turned back to him. A choked laugh clawed up her throat. “Um, sorry about all of this. She’s not usually in the country.”

His eyes softened. “It’s really okay.”

He was just being polite, she could tell. Brenda pressed a hand over her eyes and bit her lip.

“I missed Bella,” Camilla said, sounding as if she wasn’t changing the topic. And technically, Brenda supposed she wasn’t. “She goes on all these adventures, and—and mom says I can’t go with her.”

“Adventures can be dangerous,” Allan said, his tone light but his lips twitching downward. “I’m sure she’s just trying to protect you.”

Camilla released a dissatisfied hum that sounded suspiciously like a growl.

The front door squeaked opened. “See?” Bella said. “What did I tell you?”

Sighing, Brenda lowered her hand and faced the porch, where her entire family stood. She forced herself to smile, the sensation tickling against her burning cheeks. “Hi, mom. Dad. It would have been nice if you warned me Bella was here.”

Her dad huffed. “It would have been nice if SHE told us she was coming over.”

Bella pouted.

Her mother, wearing loose-clothing and looking paler than she had last time, scrubbed her oily face with the palm of her hand as she glanced over Allan. “Is that him?” she croaked. “He is very handsome, Brenda.”

Brenda’s smile twitched. “You guys, he’s right here. Please stop referring him in the third person.”

Bella rolled her eyes and smirked. “Ever the English teacher.”

Her dad walked toward Allan and extended his hand. “Michael Levi. Nice to meet you, son.”

Allan met her dad halfway and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you too, sir.”

“Call me Michael. No one ever calls me ‘sir,’ not even my clients when I was a real estate agent.” Her father turned to Brenda before Allan could even respond to that. “Brenda, you didn’t tell us you were going on the date. We thought you were just going to grade papers tonight.”

Dumbfounded, Brenda’s shoulders slumped and her mouth fell open. “You think I would ask you guys to babysit so that I could grade papers?”

The old man shrugged, pursing his lips. “Why not?”

In theory, it wasn’t a terrible idea, now that Brenda thought about it more. Being alone, not worrying about cell phones ringing, not worrying about seizures—

“Okay, well, sure, we have to go now.” Too aware of everything, her skin zinged as she grabbed Allan’s hand and led him back to the car. “I’ll be back around nine.”

“Only nine?” Bella asked, sounding disappointed. “Brenda, you deserve more time than that!”

“Goodbye!” Brenda called back loudly, motioning for Allan to get back into his seat.

He did so with a soft smile, his eyes lingering on her staring family.

“Bye, mom,” Camilla said, rushing over to her.

Brenda swooped down and hugged her baby girl. “Be good, okay?” she whispered into Camilla’s hair. She eyed her family and whispered, “Don’t let your Aunt Bella convince you to get into trouble.”

“Okay, mom.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Squeezing Camilla once more, Brenda reluctantly let go so that her daughter could run back to her grandfather.

Chapter Seven

Though Woodland Creek was small town set amidst a forest—street lamps few and in between—the bulk of the town had bright, colorful lights like a more populated city would have. Bright reds and blues danced over the windshield as she drove. Slashes of white from the street lamps rushed over herself and Allan; it was a soothing pattern, rhythmic.

“So,” Allan said after a pause, his fingers tapping his thighs, “Maria Castella’s? I’ve seen the place, I think. Is it that little building with the weird cone-shaped roof?”

She nodded. “Yup. That’s the one. The roof wasn’t supposed to be shaped like that, but Maria got into this feud with the contractor and—” Brenda huffed, shaking her head even as a strange kind of fondness warm her.

“Why doesn’t she sue?”

“She says it’s between her and the contractor. Who just happens to be her brother.”


“Yeah. Family drama can do that.” She laughed, despite the seriousness of the statement. “It’s my favorite restaurant in town. The food is great, of course—who doesn’t love a good Italian dish?”

“I don’t know.”

“Exactly! But I like it because of the atmosphere. It’s small, cozy, never too crowded. You walk in there, and you feel like you’re at home. Plus, Maria can be quite entertaining sometimes.”

He regarded her then, his head tilted and his expression tensed. Slowly, a smirk came over him. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

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