To the sounds of her nephew banging notes on a xylophone, Maria emptied the last box of kitchenware she’d found at the thrift shop less than a block from the apartment complex. She paused and laughed. She knew that song, the theme from Jeopardy, her mother’s favorite program.
She drew a deep breath. So much to do to make this one bedroom apartment into a home for her four year old nephew. Beds to make, clothes to unpack. She needed to buy curtains to cover the blinds and add color to the ecru walls. She’d been fortunate that the woman from the Human Resources Department at Fern Lake General had found this place.
Last night, she and Jamie had slept on the green carpet in the living room pretending to be camping. This morning the furniture and other purchases from the thrift shop had been delivered.
Jamie finished his rendition with a sweep of the hammer over the keys. She leaned against the counter and loaded their bowls from lunch into the dishwasher.
Maria drew a deep breath. Inside, she quivered with tension she refused to allow to show. She must succeed.
Enough dawdling. There was a man she needed to see. Her gut clenched.
“Jamie, put your toys away. We’re going to see your father.” And pray the man agrees to pay for Jamie’s pre-school while she worked. Two weeks from today, she started at the local hospital as an occupational therapist.
“Will he like me?” Jamie asked.
She hated the worry in the boy’s voice and in his brilliant green eyes. She ruffled his dark curls.
“What’s not to like?”
“He never came to see me.”
Maria sucked in a breath. She could have tried to locate the man years ago, but her mother had been adamantly opposed. “He didn’t know about you. Nana didn’t know his last name.” Maria brushed hair from her face. They could have learned. She couldn’t tell Jamie about his grandmother’s anger. Guilt curled in her thoughts.
Jamie looked up. “How did you know?”
“When we were packing to sell Nana’s house, I found some papers in a suitcase your mama left. I saw his name and looked for him.”
Jamie nodded. “Uncle Carlo said my mama runned away ‘cause my dad was mean.” His eyes widened.
She put her fingers on his lips. “What does Uncle Carlo know?”
“Just TV and beer.”
Maria popped toys in her huge bag and walked to the door. They rode the elevator to the semi-enclosed parking area and her battered ten year old blue sedan. She fastened Jamie into his booster seat.
Twenty minutes later with only one wrong turn, she pulled into the U-shaped driveway leading to a huge house at the top of the rise. She rehearsed what she planned to say when she saw Jamie’s father. She swallowed against a lump in her throat. How would he react when she handed him the folder with her reasons for being in
? Fern Lake
“Is that the house?” Jamie pointed up the hill. “Looks like a castle.”
She agreed. The gray stone building rose three stories above the ground. Shrubbery lined both sides of the driveway. She turned in her seat and winked at her nephew. “Maybe we’ll meet a prince.” Or an ogre, she added silently.
“Don’t want to stay here. Want to live with you.”
His voice was shrill with fear that she needed to change. She touched his hand. “You will. I’m your guardian.” Except for the widened emerald green eyes, he looked like his mother without her selfish nature. “We need your dad’s help to pay for your pre-school while I work.”
Maria hoped for more than financial aid but she couldn’t tell Jamie she wanted his father in his life. Jamie needed a man, someone more honorable than her brother. She wanted Jay Lockley to spend time with his son. She’d always thought not looking for him had been unfair but she’d been unable to fight her mother and start a search in the days after the accident. Then, college had absorbed her time. Would the man understand?
Maria sighed. If Jay Lockley spent time with Jamie, she could focus on her new career. Was she selfish to want time for herself? Since her sister’s death, Jamie had been her responsibility. And her joy. Though her mother had watched her grandson while Maria attended college and worked, most of her spare time had been spent with the child.
Drawing a deep breath filled with hope and determination, she put the sedan in gear and followed the driveway to the circle at the top where she parked. Would the man living here spend time with Jamie? Sometimes, the burden felt as heavy as holding the world on her shoulders.
Anger at herself bubbled like mud in a hot spring. Don’t think that way. Jamie was her delight. Bright, curious and in need of more than she could provide.
Thoughts of her brother’s greed and habit of taking more than his share arose. Her hands curled into fists. Carlo had claimed two thirds of the money from the sale of the house.
“She owed me. Borrowed money a dozen times to provide for you and the brat.”
Without proof, she’d been unable to show his assertions were false.
Her share of the money had kept her and Jamie solvent while she finished her degree. There’d been enough money left to last until her first paycheck from the hospital arrived. While calculating she’d forgotten the need for child care. Thus this visit.
Move, she ordered. Her gut churned. What if Jay Lockley refused to acknowledge his son? What if he was the selfish driven man Delores had cursed? Six months in hell, her sister had said. Six months when her career had floundered. Sure her husband had written the music for a hit Broadway show but little had come her way.
Lies or truth? Maria’s hands tightened. If he wouldn’t help her, she would find a way to make the venture work. She always had. She’d spent hours in the library searching for Jay Lockley. After learning he lived in
, she’d decided to
find a job nearby. The staffing agency found the opening in her specialty with
a chance the position would become permanent. Fern
Maria opened the car door and freed Jamie. He wrapped his arms around her neck. “I’m scared.”
So was she but she couldn’t let him know. She lowered him to the ground. “You’re too heavy to carry.” She pulled her bag and the folder from the passenger’s seat.
Jamie yanked on her hand. “This is a big house.”
Up close the gray stone building made her feel small. The place was so different from the three bedroom house where she’d grown up.
Jamie darted away. “Look. There’s a garden with flowers and a kitty.” He paused at the gate.
Maria chased him. A trellis just beyond the gate would soon be filled with blooming roses. She caught his hand. “Maybe we can look at the garden later.”
“Listen.” Wonder filled his eyes.
Music flowed from the open French Doors across the garden. The melody, though unfamiliar, had a rich and sensuous line making her sigh. Without a warning the song ended in a series of crashing notes. Maria’s grasp on Jamie’s hand tightened. What did the stormy cacophony mean? Anger? Frustration?
When she tugged him from the gate, Jamie looked up. “Could we wait to see if there’s more music? I like the sounds.”
“I know you do. When we return to the apartment I’ll put your keyboard together.”
He frowned. “Don’t have enough keys to make music like that.” His grin warmed her. Music had always fascinated him. Even as an infant his hands or feet had beat in time to the music he heard. What had given him the talent? Not from Delores. He’d never been interested in singing only in making musical sounds.
Ten years ago, Delores had left home and headed to
New York City.
She’d believed she would make a splash in the music world, especially on
Broadway. She’d written about her nightclub act. Then, an angry and pregnant
woman had returned. Her nasty remarks about the man she’d married had made the
Russo family angry. Even Maria had believed her sister until the discovery in
Maria walked up the steps and faced a massive wooden door. She rang the bell. Jamie danced from foot to foot. When no one answered she rang a second time. Her foot beat an impatient rhythm against the stone landing. Why was there no answer? Did Jamie’s father live alone in this imposing place? Where was the butler…or a maid? Her shoulders tensed. Other than the nasty things her sister had said and the information she’d read on the internet, what did she know about him?
As she reached to ring the bell a third time, the door opened. Maria stared at the man framed in the doorway. He was more handsome than the pictures she’d seen. Broad shoulders. Glowering. His shaggy blond hair added to his dangerous look. The rumpled shirt and slacks added to her impression. Brilliant green eyes held anger.
“What do you want?” he snapped.
Jamie squeezed her hand. “Don’t like him. He’s sour.”
She nearly laughed. Her mother had said that when Jamie had a tantrum. Though Maria’s body hummed with a desire to smooth the scowling mouth, she couldn’t. Touching him would be the wrong approach. She’d come for his help, nothing more.
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