Page 25

By lunchtime, I’ve completed two client jobs and posted for more work; one pays by the time I’ve made the spaghetti and meatballs and salad, and Sam Cade comes down to eat with me over the small dinner table; the other client pays by the end of the day, which is a welcome change. I have to chase a lot of payments. The sound of Cade up on the roof is weirdly comforting once I get used to it.

I’m a little surprised when I hear the alarm sound its sharp repeated warning beeps, and the punching of the code to stop it. “We’re home!” yells Lanny from down the hall. “Don’t shoot!”

“That was mean,” Connor tells her, and then I hear an oof, as if she’s thrown a sharp elbow at him. “It was!”

“Shut up, Squirtle. Don’t you have nerd things to do?”

I leave the office and head down to greet them; Connor pushes by me without saying a word, face dark, and slams the door of his room firmly. Lanny shrugs when I meet halfway to her room. “Sensitive,” she says. “What? It’s my fault?”

“Squirtle?”

“It’s a Pokémon. They’re kind of adorable.”

“I know it’s a Pokémon,” I tell her. “Why are you calling him that?”

“Because he reminds me of one, with his hard shell and soft underbelly.” It’s a nonanswer, and she shrugs, all loose shoulders and rolling eyes. “He’s just pissed because he blew his test—”

“I got a B!” Connor shouts through the door. Lanny raises one eyebrow in a sharp arc. I wonder if she’s practiced that in front of a mirror.

“See? He got a B. Clearly he’s losing his edge.”

“Enough,” I say sharply, and as if to punctuate it, there are three percussive raps on the wood overhead. Lanny yelps, and I realize that Cade is now working at the back of the house, and she and Connor wouldn’t have seen him from the front as they came in.

“It’s all right,” I tell them, as Connor throws open his door, eyes gone wide and blank with panic. “That’s just Mr. Cade. He’s on the roof replacing shingles.”

Lanny draws in a deep breath and shakes her head. She pushes past me to go into her room.

Connor, on the other hand, blinks and shifts to something quite different: interest. “Cool. Can I go help him?”

I consider that. I consider the risk of my son tumbling off the edge of a roof, falling off a ladder . . . and then I weigh that against the hunger I see in him. The need to be around an adult male, one who can show him things I can’t. Who can represent something other than the pain, fear, and horror his father does now. Is it smart? Probably not. But it’s right.

I swallow all my worry and force a smile as I say, “Sure.”

I won’t lie, I spend the next few hours outside, clearing up all the mess that Cade and Connor are cheerfully throwing down and watching for any sign that my son might get overconfident, overbalance, and get himself hurt—or worse.

But he’s fine. Nimble, well balanced, having the time of his life as Cade shows him the science of how to create a solid, overlapping roof pattern. It heals me a little inside to see the fierce, real smiles that Connor flashes, and the genuine pleasure he’s taking in doing the work. This, I think. This is a day he will remember: a good day. It’s one of those memories that will pave the way to better things for him.

I hate it, just a little, that I’m not the one to share in it directly. My son doesn’t look at me with the same hero worship, and I think he never will. What we have is real love, but real love is messy and complicated. How can it not be, with our history?

It’s easy for him to be with Sam Cade, and for that, I’m grateful. I shut up, clean up, and while the heat’s a bit much for me, the work’s good and healthy.

We eat dinner together around the table, though Cade insists he’s not fit for company as is; Lanny has taken over the kitchen and sternly commands him to go home, get cleaned up, and come back, and I can tell he’s amused by having this fierce goth child ordering him around while wearing a flowered apron. He leaves and returns, freshly showered. His hair’s still damp and clinging to his neck, but he’s in a clean shirt and jeans. Deck shoes, this time.

Lanny has made lasagna, and we dig in with real hunger, the four of us; it’s delicious, layered with explosions of flavors, all fresh except for the pasta, which she’s conceded to buy from the store. Connor is incredibly voluble about all that he’s learned today . . . not at school, but how to hammer in a nail straight with one sharp blow, how to line up shingles, how to keep your balance on an incline. Lanny, of course, rolls her eyes, but I can see she’s happy to see him in this mood.

“So Connor did okay,” I say when my son takes a breath, and Sam, his mouth full of lasagna, nods, chews, and swallows.

“Connor’s a natural,” he says. “Great work today, pal.” He offers a hand, and Connor high-fives it. “Next time, we tackle the other side. Barring wind or rain, we should be done in a few more days.”

Connor’s face falls a little at that. “But—what about the wood? Mom? The wood on the side of the house where it’s rotted?”

“He’s right,” I say. “We’ve got some rot. Probably need to replace trim that’s gone bad, too.”

“Okay. Three days.” Sam forks up another healthy mouthful of lasagna, dangling strings of cheese. “Might be a whole week if you want to spring for that deck on the back.”

“Yes! Mom, please? Can we do the deck?” Connor’s look is so earnest that it hits me like a tide, and washes away any last, lingering disquiet I have. I’ll still trade Javi for the van, but if I was looking for a reason to stay, it’s here. Here in my son’s eyes. I’ve been worrying about his introspection, his solitary nature, his silent anger. For the first time I’m seeing him open up, and it would be cruel and wrong to cut that off purely for a what if.

“A deck would be nice,” I say, and Connor raises both arms in a victory pose. “Sam? Would you mind doing the work late, after Connor gets off school?”

Sam shrugs. “I don’t mind, but it’ll go slower. Might take a month if we only put in half days.”

“That’s okay,” Connor rushes to say. “I only have another week of school. Then we can work all day!”

Sam Cade lifts his eyebrows and sends me an amused look, and I raise my own and take a bite of my food. “Sure,” Sam says. “If your mom says it’s okay. But only when she’s here.”

Sam’s not a stupid man. He knows how touchy I am, how guarded. And he knows a single dude barging into a family is likely to be suspect of many unpleasant things. I can read it in his face that he’s well aware, and has no trouble playing by whatever rules I set up.

I have to admit: it’s to his credit.

Dinner’s a complete success, and while the kids are happily clearing up the mess, Sam and I take our beers out to the porch. The heat of the day is finally giving way to a cooling breeze coming off the lake, but the humidity’s something I might never quite get used to. The beer delivers a crisp, autumnal note, even though we’re not even to deep summer yet. A few boats are skimming the lake as the orange sunset fades out—a four-person sculling craft, a fancy cabin cruiser, and two rowboats. Everyone’s heading for shore.

Sam says, “You do a background check on me?”

It’s a surprise, and I pause, beer bottle halfway to my lips, and shoot him a look. “Why would you say that?”

“Because you seem like a woman who does background checks.”

I laugh, because it’s true. “Yes.”

“How’s my credit rating?”

“Pretty solid.”

“That’s good. I really ought to check that more often.”

“You’re not angry?”

He takes a pull on his drink. He isn’t looking at me at all. His attention seems completely on the boats out in the water. “No,” he finally says. “A little disappointed, maybe. I mean, I think of myself as a really trustworthy sort of guy.”

“Let’s just say I’ve trusted the wrong people before.” I can’t help but think of the difference between how Sam Cade just reacted, and how I imagine Melvin would have reacted if he’d been sitting here, having just met me. Mel would be angry. Offended. He’d blame me for not automatically trusting him. Oh, he’d have covered it up, but I’d have felt the stiffness in his manner.

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