He was a man pummeled by life’s cruel twists trying to find his bearing in a world filled with the inexplicable, Jo Lawson thought as she watched him trudge across his front yard.
She’d begun to worry about him. He should’ve been back hours ago. Jo uncurled her body from the armchair in the darkened room and met him in the hallway. Kurt closed the front door behind him and leaned his bulk against it. His head hung low, chin to chest, shoulders slumped in defeat.
Jo breathed away the sudden burn in her nose.
“Are you okay?” She inwardly cursed herself. What an asinine thing to say. It was blatantly clear the man wasn’t okay. And she couldn’t blame him. His world had been turned upside down, inside out.
“That was a dumb thing to say.” She walked the few steps closer and removed the leather jacket from his limp fingers. A deep russet brown, it was a perfect match for the deep copper threads in his dark hair and didn’t deserve to be dragged on the ground. Jo shook it out, opened the hall closet, and hung it up.
Kurt lifted his head, too quickly, and it thudded against the wood of the door. He met her concerned gaze as she studied his face. His eyes, the irises a blend of green and amber, were swollen, rimmed with red. A stray lock of hair fell across his forehead, ending where it met the slash of eyebrow.
“What I meant to say … I was starting to worry,” Jo murmured.
His nose — it could’ve been considered aquiline, the artist in her thought, if not for the bump just beneath the bridge — flared at her words. He dragged a hand through the too-long hair, tousling it further. “I didn’t mean to stay out so late. I just …” He exhaled and pushed away from the door, moving his hand to rub over his mouth and stubbled jaw.
“It’s okay. I understand.”
He gave a short, derisive laugh. “I’m glad you understand, ’cause I sure as hell don’t.” His lips compressed in a tight line, he pulled the already loosened tie from his neck and draped it over the handy newel post. “Kids sleeping?”
Jo nodded. “The boys have been out for a while; Kara went down about thirty minutes ago. Your mother dropped by earlier and left a casserole. I put it in the fridge as I’d already fried up some chicken for dinner. She offered to stay and wait for you, but I said I needed the money and didn’t mind the extra hours. I hope that’s okay?”
“More than okay. I don’t know if I could’ve handled my mother tonight.”
Jo suppressed a smile, but he must’ve caught the pull of her lips.
“She was fit to be tied?” he asked.
Jo thought of the tirade the livid woman had let loose. “Plotting all sorts of painful deaths for …” She trailed off. Blast it all, he didn’t need to be reminded of his circumstances.
“Kate. You can say her name. Kate. Deceitful Kate.” Kurt shuddered, closed his eyes, and exhaled deeply. “I’m sorry, honey, I don’t mean to take my frustrations out on you.”
“Why don’t you check up on your kids — Blake was unusually quiet tonight — and I’ll fix you a plate. Fried chicken or sausage casserole?”
“Chicken sounds good.” He climbed a few steps, turned back. “Jo?”
“Thanks for being here for my kids. ’Preciate it, honey.”
“You’re welcome, Kurt.”
Heartsore, Kurt Wheeler plodded up the stairs to look in on his children. His precious babies. They were just as confused as he was. Two months ago, life had been good. Well, okay, his marriage hadn’t been perfect, Kurt could admit. His wife had been restless, moodier than ever. But he’d figured all couples had troubles now and then.
He’d never suspected infidelity.
That old adage about hindsight? Hell, what a truth that one turned out to be.
Kurt looked down at his girl, sinking to his knees beside her bed. His little princess. At almost eleven, Kara was on the brink of womanhood.
But she would enter her teenage years with an absent mother. A woman who’d put her own selfish needs above those of her husband — ex-husband now as of 3:10 this afternoon, Kurt reminded himself — and her three children. A mother who, without a fight, gave him full custody and dusted the red Bulwark dirt from her heels.
He leaned over his daughter and trailed a finger across her soft cheek. He’d counted the freckles once, much to her chagrin, and came to a grand sum of twenty-three. Kara shifted, her arm moving out from the sheet covering her, settling beside her on the pillow. Her lips puckered, and a soft snore filled the quiet. He dropped his head on the mattress. God. The silent supplication echoed about his mind.
With unsteady legs, he rose and walked across the hall to Ethan. His youngest boy. His baby. The toddler had kicked all covers off and lay sprawled on his back, arms and legs spread wide. He was a happy kid, very busy, knowing only one speed — full-steam ahead.
I should’ve listened to her complain.
Kate had complained a lot during the last months, feeling confined by the unplanned arrival of their third child.
Two’s enough, she’d muttered after Blake had been born.
Maybe if I’d had the vasectomy like she’d asked.
But he’d known, deep down, after Blake, he wanted more kids. Being an only child, he always dreamed of a house full of children. When she’d told him she was pregnant with their third, he’d been overjoyed. Kate had yelled accusations at him, calling him selfish, even threatening to abort the baby. He’d pleaded with her, and she’d given in, but only once he’d agreed to her being sterilized after the birth.
Looking down at the sweet features of his boy, he couldn’t imagine his life without the youngster in it.
Yet Kate had left before Ethan was even fully out of diapers.
Kurt pulled the soft cover over the little body and tucked it in. It wouldn’t stay on for long, but it made him feel better.
He crossed the silent hall again and entered Blake’s room. His eldest son was awake. Kurt sat down, and it took not a moment before Blake was on his lap. He closed his arms around his trembling boy and cursed the woman who betrayed them all. Thin arms snuck around his neck, and Kurt buried his face against Blake’s shoulder. He smelled the fresh apple scent and realized Jo must’ve washed his hair tonight. He’d been neglecting that task, because the last time he washed Blake’s hair, he’d gotten soap is his boy’s eyes, and he’d felt so helpless, adrift in performing tasks he’d taken for granted.
“You should be sleeping, son,” he murmured.
The arms tightened around his neck even as his boy whimpered.
“I wanted her to come back with you.”
The whispered words tore at his heart. God.
“I’m sorry, Blake.”
“Did we do somethin’ wrong, Daddy?”
“No, never.” Kurt lifted his head and cupped his hand around the lean face. Blake was the spitting image of his mother with dark hair and eyes, features courtesy of her Comanche ancestry, whereas his other two kids took after him in coloring.
“You’ve done nothin’ wrong, Blake. Neither have Kara and Ethan. Hear?” How did one explain to a seven-year-old kid the complexities of adult life?
“Then why did she move away? Sean’s mom and dad are divorced, but they both live here, and they share him equal because they love him. Why won’t she even come back to see us?” Blake’s thin voice rose in anxiety. “She doesn’t love us anymore. I know it.”
Hell was too good a place for his traitorous wife. Ex-wife. Kurt had no ready reply to give his son, and he didn’t want to lie, but the kid deserved a reply.
“Blake, your mom … she needed to experience other things. She’d lived here all her life, and she wanted to explore the world, see other places.” Be with another person because we aren’t enough for her. “She loves you, but she just needs other … stuff right now.”
“But we need her, too. Ethan’s still a baby. He needs his mommy.”
“I’m sorry, son, so sorry you have to hurt like this. But what is important, really important, is that we stick together. You, Kara, Ethan, and me. We need to stick together, like sticky weed, and promise to always be there for each other. Hear?” Kurt gently swiped the tears from beneath his son’s eyes.
Blake’s swallow was audible. “Yes, Daddy. I hear.”
Kurt pressed his lips to Blake’s forehead. “Now, do you want me to read to you a bit?”
His son nodded. Kurt reached over to switch on the bedside lamp to spend some quality time with his son.
Jo pressed the start button when she heard the heavy tread down the stairs. The pantry was partially beneath Blake’s room, the two rooms obviously sharing an air vent, and when she’d fetched a six-pack of soda, she overheard a bit of the conversation between father and son. Her heart ached for the grief this family was going through.
She just could not understand women who took good men for granted. Her brother’s wife was the same. Okay, maybe not quite the same. But still, her sister-in-law was a nasty piece of work. Jo considered the hurt the Wheeler kids were experiencing … maybe, just a little bit of maybe, she could understand Aidan putting up with Misty.
Without saying a word, Kurt took his place at the head of the table. The microwave dinged, and Jo set the plate heaped with chicken strips, fluffy mashed potatoes, and green beans before him. He placed his arms on either side of the plate and stared at the food.
Jo sat to his left and briefly rested a hand over his white-knuckled fist. “Eat up before it gets cold,” she urged.
Kurt tilted his head to look at her. “How do I explain to them when I don’t really understand it myself?”
She had no answer and kept quiet.
“You’re a woman. Tell me, what makes a woman, one married for thirteen years to a man, suddenly turn to her husband and basically say, ‘Guess what? I prefer pussy to cock’.”
Jo cringed at the crudeness of his words.
“Aw, hell, Jo. I’m sorry. I’m in a mood. Not that it is an excuse for using foul language.” He looked down and picked up his fork and dug into his food.
She shrugged. “It’s nothing but the truth.” The woman had switched teams, after all.
About five mouthfuls in, he glanced up briefly. “This is awesome, honey.” He gave her a lopsided half-smile. “Once again, I’m sorry for not letting you know I’d be late and for you having to cook for my kids. Honest, I was just driving after leaving court, and when I noticed again, I was way up on the I-27 and had to turn around.”
After that, he concentrated on his meal, and before long he was mopping up the last of the gravy with his final piece of chicken. “Great meal, Jo. Thank you. I didn’t realize you were such a good cook.”
She shrugged off the compliment. “I can cook a few things.”
Jo reached for the plate, but he stilled her movement. “I’ll put it away. Now, are you sure you want to continue looking after my kids this summer? You’re nineteen. You should be going out, having fun with your friends.”
“Immature idiots,” Jo muttered to herself as she skipped up the steps to the road circling the lake.
It was a scorching late July day, and she’d joined a group of old school friends at the lake, but one fact had become clear today — she had outgrown them. And they were immature. Especially when they started with their crude comments about Kate Wheeler.
They certainly didn’t need to discuss his sex life. Or rather, what was wrong with it. Kurt was a good man. A loving daddy to his kids. It wasn’t his fault that his wife suddenly decided to come out and admit she was a lesbian, leaving him and the kids.
Jo made her way to her car, unsure what to do as she didn’t feel like going home. It was almost the end of July, and she’d be heading back to DC soon. She should go to the ranch and spend the time with her family, but she was restless.
Caring full-time for the Wheeler kids when Kurt was on duty was a hectic and emotional job. She’d been their nanny for seven weeks now. They were good children, overall well-behaved and respectful, but they were hurting, and at times moody and willful, testing boundaries.
Boisterous laughter drifted up from the water, and she glanced down at the group boating around the lake.
Maybe she should go back. The water was refreshing …Jo shook her head. No, she did not want their company. She had her pad and pencils with her, and she’d rather spend time on her own and draw.
Decision made, and with a purpose in her step, she resumed the climb up the hill. There’d been no shaded parking available in the lot by the lake, so she’d parked her ancient Volkswagen a couple of roads up, close to the Wheeler’s under a grouping of trees. It seemed like a good idea at the time and walking down earlier had been easy.
“Now,” she huffed, “not so much.” Reaching her car, out of breath and dripping sweat from the relentless July sun she stared, hands on hips, dismayed to find the sun had shifted, leaving Ladybug to bake in it.
No way was she climbing in that oven.
Jo glanced at the house above and one over from her. She peered closely at the multi-level structure built against the sloping hill and saw no signs of activity. The kids were spending the weekend with their grandparents. Kate’s parents. The couple were as shocked as everyone else by their daughter’s revelation, followed by her walking out on her kids and husband. They openly sided with Kurt.
No, Jo. You are not going there again.
Her focus moved to the top floor. The master suite was located there, and the view from the windows was stunning. You could see for miles around, a full three-sixty degrees. The lake, the town, the ranches, the distant escarpment.
There was incredible depth to be found in the arid landscape, and while Jo spent a lot of time sketching and painting it up close, she didn’t have many panoramic scenes. Especially ones including the lake.
From up there, however …
She made her way up the driveway and peered through the glass panels halfway up the garage door. Only the old Bronco was parked inside. No county vehicle.
Kurt was out.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she removed the keys she’d been given weeks ago from her bag and let herself into the quiet home.
Kurt wouldn’t mind her being there when nobody else was — I hope — and she shivered as the cool air conditioning hit her damp skin. She detoured long enough to get a bottle of water from the fridge, slugging half by the time she reached the foot of the stairs.
She would kill for a shower right now. Maybe … nah, I couldn’t. That was really overstepping boundaries. She padded up the stairs, bypassing the level with the kids’ bedrooms, on the way to her destination — the top floor with its solarium.
Jo settled the satchel on the floor in the middle of the empty glassed-in space. Movers had arrived a couple weeks ago to pick up various pieces of furniture Kate wanted, and the wicker set in this room had been removed. In a rare fit of anger — mostly he still walked around in a half-daze — Kurt sent along the matching bedroom suite, including the bed. She glanced back across the landing that separated the glass-walled sunny room from the bedroom. At least he’d bought himself a new bed — he’d slept on a camp mattress for a few nights — and borrowed a dresser to use as a nightstand.
She shivered and rubbed the goosebumps forming on her clammy arm. Darn air conditioning.
There was a huge walk-in shower across the landing. Hmm …
Nobody would know if she quickly used the shower. I practically live here. Besides, she had used the family bathroom one floor down. Just last week. But that shower was over the bath. So ordinary.Before she could change her mind, she crossed the landing and strode into the bathroom.
A minute later, Jo sighed with relief as the warm water hit her skin, relishing the almost sensual feel of it running over her body, washing away the sweat and sticky suntan lotion.
She was not going to think that it was Kurt’s shower, and she was naked in it.
Naked. In Kurt’s shower.
Kurt stalked into the laundry room and sighed with relief as the cool air hit his sweaty and dusty body, satisfied with his morning’s work. He’d been in the storage room behind the garage, sorting through old boxes from when they’d moved from their first home in town to the lake four years ago. A heap of junk was piled onto the back of the Bronco to take to the recycling plant later. Once it had cooled down somewhat. Maybe even tomorrow. He had the whole weekend as the kids were away. And he’d have the house — and time — to himself to vent out his frustration.
He was angry. Hurt. Confused.
And he needed to accept that his wife — hell, Kurt, get it right, she’s your ex-wife now — was gone and had no intention of coming back. Not that he’d take her back. Adultery was a firm no-no for him. Some men, like his friend Aidan, seemed to have it within themselves to forgive such a betrayal.
But not him.
No, siree. Not him. Kurt Wheeler was done with the woman.
More importantly, he had to face reality. You’re a single dad now, and you need a plan. Summer’s almost over, and Jo was …
She was a godsend. The way she calmly took over, sorted his kids, ran his house. Sorted him and kept him from imploding. Her laughter filled the house like a fresh spring breeze. He’d realized, sitting down in the musty basement, how gloomy his home had been this past year. Even before Kate’s exit, there’d been a dismal mood hanging around. She — Kate — had been unhappy for the longest while, snappy at the kids, and him, and he’d been too obtuse to worry over it. Kate had always been a moody person. They’d even had sex right up until the day before she walked out, but thinking on it now, Kurt couldn’t remember when last he’d made love to his wife. Ex-wife.
Definitely not since Ethan’s birth.
And that was on him. Maybe.
What the hell did he know? he thought, slamming the dryer door closed. Kurt reached for a towel, snapped it open, folded it, starting a pile he needed to take up to his bathroom. All he knew was his wife left him. Not for another man — that betrayal would’ve been bad enough — but for a woman.
A pharmaceutical rep she’d perchance met in Walgreens shortly after Ethan’s birth. Her affair had been going on for two years. The two women had been seen about town, but no one cottoned on to the reality right under their noses.
Did it make him less of a man? What did that say about him? That he wasn’t man enough to satisfy his wife, so she found it with a woman?
He heard the people talk. Questioning his manhood. Why would Deputy Wheeler’s wife go after a woman? Couldn’t he get it up anymore? As if. He managed to get it up. All he had to do was think—
No, no. No, Kurt.
He set the pile of fresh towels aside, reached into the washer, and transferred the wet clothes to the dryer, setting the timer. He dumped the last pile — for today, that is, as he was discovering three kids made a lot of laundry — from the basket into the washer. He added detergent and softener, slammed the lid shut, started the machine.
He needed to look at getting someone to help with the housework. He’d noticed Kara taking on additional chores around the house, but there was a limit to what she should be doing. He didn’t want his girl trying to fill the gap left by her mother.
Maybe he had taken Kate for granted. But it had been her choice to be a stay-at-home mom, despite her hard-earned nursing degree. And then she just upped and left, and now he was doing laundry, vacuuming, mopping floors.
And soon he’d have to cook as well. Jo’s time here was coming to an end. Damn, he’d miss that girl.
Woman, Kurt, woman. Admit it. At least be honest with yourself.
As young as Jo was, she was a woman. And over the weeks, he’d become very aware of that fact. Hated himself for it; had been downright alarmed by it.
But the bottom line was — Kurt noticed Josephine Lawson.
Not as a family friend. Not a friend’s baby sister.
As a woman. A very desirable woman.
Aidan would scalp him. And that would be after Jonathan Lawson took Kurt’s knees out with a shotgun. She wasn’t even legal to drink, and here he was, mid-thirties, noticing her.
Hankering after her. Imagining things —sexual things — with her.
Topping at five-four, she was all woman. Breasts large enough to fill his hands, shapely hips, and tanned legs that would feel rather spectacular wrapped around him. And her dusky-pink lips. Full and wide, ready to smile … her mouth had a featuring role in his daydreams, and Kurt’s much-ignored body part stirred to life. Again.
No, Kurt. Shotgun, remember. Scalping.
About to reach for the clean towels, he looked at his sweaty, dirt-streaked T-shirt and shorts. Might as well put them in the wash. No need to start another pile of laundry before his kids got home tomorrow. He stripped and added the discarded clothing to the pile.
He glanced at his errant dick that did not understand the reality of his hankering. “Nineteen, Kurt, barely an adult. Get a hold of yourself.” He muttered the refrain all the way up to the top level.