“Hi. I’m Nikki.” She offered me her hand.

“McKenna. It’s nice to meet you. Your daughter’s beautiful.”

She took the little girl back from Knox. “Thanks.”

I could tell there was something she didn’t like about seeing me here with Knox. She probably wasn’t used to seeing women here in his home, especially in the morning hours, and I briefly wondered if they’d ever had a fling.

“Tucker’s upstairs in bed,” Knox said. “I’d just stay down here if I were you. Keep both of you away from the germs.”

Nikki nodded. “I will.”

She crossed the room, sat Bailee down on the rug in the living room, and dumped a nearby basket of toys out in front of her, then planted herself on the couch with the TV remote. The twinge of jealously brewing inside me was unexpected. I knew Knox’s past and worked hard to not let it get to me, but something about seeing this girl in his home, somewhere she was obviously quite comfortable, set me off. I pushed it from my mind as Knox led the way out to his Jeep.

---

The flu progressed from Tucker to Luke to Jaxon and I feared Knox was next, despite his insistence that he felt fine. He’d been taking care of everyone all week; surely he’d exposed himself to the sickness. I knew I was supposed to hang out with Brian that weekend, but Knox hadn’t sounded well on the phone, so I’d put my date with Brian off, promising to make it up to him, and decided to go over and check on the guys once more.

The house was quiet. Too quiet. I suspected the boys were home, but they were either napping or doing quiet activities in their rooms. I climbed the stairs to the third floor and lightly tapped on Knox’s bedroom door. Not waiting for an answer, I pushed the door open and stepped inside. The blinds were drawn, and the room was quiet, cool and dim. Knox was stretched out across his bed, his big frame limp against the mattress. I didn’t even have to ask him if he was sick. It was obvious.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said, sitting up in bed once he saw me. He looked miserable, and I’d guess it was a combination of a few things – lack of sleep being the main contributor. He lifted to his elbow to watch me cross the room. The sheets were strewn haphazardly around him and he was in a pair of loose-fitting gray knit pants and a white T-shirt. His feet were bare and his hair stuck up in several directions. “We’re going to get you sick.”

“Hush.” I sat down beside him and brushed his hair back off his forehead. He felt warm and his cheeks were flushed. I might be in a house filled with germs, but that wasn’t even hitting my radar. “I’m here and I’m staying. You can’t do all this on your own, despite thinking you’re Superman.”

He chuckled, dryly, his throat obviously raw. “I don’t think that.”

I met his eyes. “You act like it sometimes. Working hard, raising your brothers, trying to right your wrongs. You’re pretty amazing, you know that?” Something about seeing him this sick and miserable made me all sentimental.

“You think that, but it’s not true,” he said. I didn’t argue, didn’t want him to waste his energy debating his point. I knew he was amazing, despite what he thought. I just continued softly brushing back his hair, gazing down at him with reverence. “You’ve always thought that, haven’t you?” he continued. “You always believed in me. Even before I believed in myself.”

Of course I did. I was a counselor; I believed people could change, right down to my very being. I had to believe it. It needed to be true if I was ever going to be good enough to outdo the wrong that caused me to lose my parents. Or maybe I just wanted to believe that Knox could change because I’d felt such a pull to him right from the beginning. I’d wanted a little piece of this troubled man, even though it scared me. I needed him to be okay. So did his brothers. “Just rest. I’m going to go clean up a bit and run to the grocery store.”

He smiled weakly up at me. “Thank you. There’s some money in my top drawer.” He looked over at his dresser in the corner.

He worked hard for his money, but I knew he wasn’t any better off than me. If I could help out a little, I would. And there was enough in my bank account this week. I could afford bread and milk and basics for the boys. “Anything in particular sound good?”

He made a grimace, like food sounded awful. “Maybe just some soda.”

“You got it.” And perhaps some chicken noodle soup for once they all started feeling better. It was just what my mom would have made if I were sick. I’d get a big pot bubbling on the stove just in case. Fill the house with that yummy aroma in the hopes that would lift their spirits.

I headed downstairs and found Luke and Jaxon on the couch playing the least spirited game of Xbox I’d ever seen. They still looked glassy-eyed and pale, but they were out of bed and apparently well enough to sit and play, but not enough to engage in their usual banter and trash talking. “You guys feeling better?” I asked, slipping on my coat and shoes.

“Well enough to not be hugging the toilet anymore.” Jaxon smirked.

“That’s a good thing.” I winked. “I’m headed to the store and I’m gonna make some chicken noodle soup later, it’ll be ready whenever you feel up for eating.”

“Thanks, Kenna,” they both chimed in.

I would tackle the dishes and bathrooms when I returned. This house was in need of some serious TLC. After a week of four sick boys with no one cleaning up – it looked and smelled the part.

***

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