Page 25

Shit.

Don’t do it, man. Just keep walking.

Instead he moved to the edge of Zoe’s property line and called out to her. “Hey, you okay?”

She just cried harder. The front door opened behind her and a woman stepped out into the pool of light created by the porch lantern hanging above them. “Kaylie,” she said with obvious relief. “There you are— Oh honey, I told you we couldn’t keep them when Socks came up pregnant. One cat, baby, that’s all we can handle right now.”

“But the babies, Mama,” Kaylie cried. “The babies are so cute.”

The woman looked up and saw Parker standing there. “Are you a friend of Zoe’s, or do I need to call the police because you’re stealing Oreo?”

Oreo stopped anointing every single bush lining the driveway and sat on Parker’s feet. Parker patted the dog’s big head. “Friend,” he said. “Parker James.”

The woman looked at Oreo.

Oreo leaned on Parker, nearly knocking him over, and the woman laughed. “Okay, so you are a friend. I’m Manda. Can I help you with something?”

“I heard crying,” Parker said. “Just wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“I’m not okay!” Kaylie sobbed. “I don’t want the kittens to go! They’re not ready, Mama!”

Manda sighed and crouched low by her daughter. “When you found Socks in the yard a few months ago, I let you keep her on one condition. Do you remember that condition?”

“No more strays,” Kaylie said. “But—”

“No buts,” Manda said gently but firmly. “You’ve had six weeks with the two kittens, baby. They’re old enough to be adopted at the humane society.”

Kaylie sniffled noisily, still clutching the kittens. “But how will we know if they go to good homes?”

Parker remembered the sign he’d seen at the animal center where Wyatt worked. “There’s a kitten adoption next Saturday at Belle Haven,” he said.

Manda shook her head. “I can’t keep them another week.”

“Mama!”

“I’m sorry, Kaylie, but when the gray kitten climbed into the venting system yesterday, I lost the whole day of work. They’re too rowdy.”

Parker looked into Kaylie’s wet eyes and felt his heart roll over in his chest and expose its tender underbelly. “I can keep them until adoption day,” he said.

Kaylie immediately stopped crying and smiled brightly. “And then I can come visit them!”

“You don’t have to do this,” Manda told Parker.

“Mama, he already said he would!”

“You don’t,” Manda repeated to Parker.

“It’s okay,” he said, and channeled his inner Zoe. “I’ve got this.”

Twenty minutes later he was the proud new temporary owner of a gray girl kitten and an orange tabby boy kitten, and a bag of supplies. The both of them could easily fit into the palm of one of his hands and maybe weighed half a pound soaking wet.

They immediately set to exploring their new world, both getting stuck behind the TV shelf in the living room in less than three minutes.

Parker rescued them and set them up in the bathroom to corral them. Oreo whined to get in but when Parker opened the door, Oreo took one look and took off. Parker snapped a few pics of the kittens and texted them to Amory, who immediately called him.

“I want one!” she yelled enthusiastically into the phone.

Balancing the kittens in his lap, he laughed at the sound of her voice, happy to have something take his mind off Zoe, who was still out on her damn date. “You know Mom and Dad would kill me.”

“I turned eighteen last month. I get to make my own decisions now.”

“I know,” he said. “And I’m happy for you.” He’d hoped she would take the opportunity to stretch her wings a little. Maybe get out more, travel—albeit very carefully—something, anything, to expand the four walls of her life.

“Henry wants a kitten, too,” she said.

Henry had been her best friend since the fifth grade. He had Down syndrome as well and worked at the Home Depot right next to the florist where Amory worked. They spent a lot of time together and for the past few years Amory had referred to Henry as her boyfriend. Lately she’d made noises about wanting to marry him.

Parker wasn’t sure she understood the meaning of being married, but regardless, there was no way he wanted to see her go from being under their parents’ thumb to being married. He wanted so much more for her, wanted her to get out and see the big world and all that was out there for her.

But he was alone in this. Their parents, Lowell and Tess James, had always been severely overprotective with their younger child, sheltering Amory from everything. Including him.

“These kittens are a long way from Arizona,” Parker told her. “How’s it going? What are you up to?” he asked, trying to get her off the subject of the kittens. The last thing he needed was to further alienate his parents by giving his sister a pet. “How’s school?”

She was in a year-round school. The current plan was to keep Amory enrolled until she could get her GED. After that, she hoped to graduate from cleanup girl at the florist shop to actually making floral arrangements.

“School is stupid,” Amory said. “But work’s good. They let me make an arrangement last week!”

“Yeah?” he asked, smiling at her excitement. In his world, he often operated from a place where he was knee deep in the garbage of the world. Amory had always been his happy spot. This past week he’d added Zoe and Oreo, and now a pack of two kittens to that happy spot. Look at him, expanding his world without getting on a plane to do it . . .

“I made it for Tiffany,” Amory said. “She works at the rec center. It was her birthday and I got to put it together all by myself!”

Parker could practically hear her beaming. “That’s great, Am. Did you go on that rec-center-sponsored camping trip last weekend?”

“No,” she said. “I had a cold. Mom thought I should stay home.”

Parker rubbed the tension between his eyes. “I’m sorry to hear that. I know how you wanted to sleep under the stars and stay up late, and go on that full moon hike.”

“It’s okay. I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t get to go. I know you paid for the trip, but me and Henry got to sit in the backyard. Mom made us hot chocolate.”

“How’s Henry?”

“Great! He got moved from the gardening department to inside! He gets to sweep the store every night before it closes! The whole store! He’s got the best job ever. So when will you bring me a kitty?”

Parker wanted her to get everything her heart desired. She deserved it, but he wasn’t going home again anytime soon, and when he did, he wouldn’t bring her a kitten unless it was parent-approved, which it wouldn’t be.

“Please, Parker?” she asked. “Please come to see me. It’s been like a year.”

“It’s been two weeks,” he said with a laugh. He’d slipped into town and visited her at work, and then vanished again like smoke just before coming to Idaho. Although, granted, it had been six months before that since his last visit.

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