If i could stay, p.7

If I Could Stay, page 7

 

If I Could Stay
 



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  He was still on top of the ladder, looking at me like he didn’t know whether to be amused or concerned. I crossed my arms and leaned against the door jamb, waiting for him to say something.

  His eyes did a quick perusal of my ragtag pajamas and I tried not to squirm. “Did I wake you?” he finally asked.

  “Yeah.”

  He looked at me like he thought I should expound on my answer. I didn’t. His brow furrowed. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”

  I dropped my eyes to the carpet and cleared the residual nervousness from my throat. “Don’t worry about it.”

  “You can go back to bed. I don’t want to be a nuisance.”

  I couldn’t help the doubtful look I gave him. “Yeah right. You’re banging around with a ladder. I’m surprised Adeline isn’t awake.”

  “With her CPAP machine, she doesn’t hear a thing.”

  Right. I knew that. “Do you usually just show up in Adeline’s house unannounced?”

  “I show up the first Saturday of every month to check light bulbs, take the recycling out, and do other things like that.”

  That…made sense…I guess. “Well, good luck with that.” I turned to go back into my room.

  “Angel.”

  I turned back with a sigh. “It’s Celeste.”

  “Sure it is,” he tossed back at me and I almost smiled. “I really am sorry for scaring you.”

  I just nodded—it was all I could manage—and slipped back into my room.

  I hid out in my room until he was gone. When I emerged, I put on my cheeriest face and did my best to be good company and a good worker for Adeline.

  We attempted to organize her craft room for most of the day. The half-finished and discarded projects told the story of a woman who wanted to get things done, who wanted to do fun things and be a fun grandma, but from what I had seen, it simply wasn’t realistic. Just getting from one room to another was hard, and she had to keep her feet elevated for a part of each day to keep the fluid from building up in her legs. Taking care of herself used up all of her energy, so all her ambitious plans for sewing and craft projects fell by the wayside.

  “You probably haven’t figured this out yet,” she said, “but no matter how old you get, you never feel older in your mind. It’s your body that comes up with different plans.”

  ***

  It snowed the next afternoon, and Adeline insisted we find a Hallmark movie to watch. She spent half of the movie talking about how unrealistic it was, and the other half sighing over the handsome male lead.

  The next morning, I got up early to shovel the driveway before the nurse or the cook could park on it and make it harder to shovel. It was light enough to see, but early enough that not many people were out. I kept track of anyone who walked by, but those were few and far between.

  It was really cold. My coat was decent, but the chill cut through my jeans with ease, and a scarf would have been a big help. Oh well. I was earning my keep. I would prevail.

  The small driveway was a third of the way done when my desire to prevail started to wane. I hadn’t thought I was this much of a wuss, but I seriously contemplated running inside and burrowing under my blankets.

  A garage door a few houses down opened and a guy came out, all bundled up and wielding a snow shovel. I watched as he started tossing snow at four times the rate that I had been able to and couldn’t help the glower that settled on my face.

  I was still staring when he glanced up and noticed me, which of course sent me back to shoveling. No need for the random neighbor to know that I was coveting his upper body strength.

  Two more pathetic shovels were all I managed before I noticed the neighbor coming down the sidewalk. Maybe this nice guy would offer to help. And if he did, I’d have a tough time saying no, because it was just really cold out here.

  I kept him in my peripheral vision and when he was just a house away I realized it was Officer Trent himself. Mr. Changer of Light Bulbs and Rescuer of Frozen Women.

  I stopped and leaned on the shovel so I could watch as he approached.

  He smiled and a little of the tension I’d been holding onto released. His smile was nothing but friendly. There was no flirtation or any other kind of manipulation in it. Just friendly. “Morning,” he said.

  “Morning.” I wiggled my knees back and forth, willing them to warm up.

  He smiled with one side of his mouth. “What are you doing out here?”

  “Isn’t it obvious?” I would have thought the snow shovel would give it away.

  “Do you enjoy shoveling snow?”

  “No. But someone has to do it.” I was being responsible, and he was heckling me.

  “You’re right. And that someone is usually Adeline’s son,” he said with an apologetic grimace. “He comes over before he goes to work any time there’s been snow overnight.”

  I pinched my lips together and took a deep breath so I wouldn’t cuss. Then I gave a stiff nod. “Good to know.” I turned away, dragging the shovel behind me as I climbed the driveway.

  “I have hot coffee at my house,” Jack called from behind me.

  My automatic response was that there was no way I was just going to walk into some strange guy’s house, no matter how hot and tempting his coffee was. Then I realized I had already been in said guy’s car many times, and he had given me every reason to trust him.

  Not that I could ever fully trust him because—cop. But I also couldn’t convince myself that letting him give me coffee was in any way dangerous.

  The handle of the shovel dropped from my hand and I turned around. “Okay.”

  I fell into step beside him and tried not to shiver.

  “I’m sorry no one mentioned that the snow would be taken care of.”

  “Don’t worry about it. I guess I’m just overzealous.” That was too nice a description. Really I was just an idiot for thinking Adeline’s family wouldn’t already have it handled.

  We turned up his walk and I got my first look at his house. Of course I had seen it before, but I hadn’t realized it was his. It was similar to most of the houses on the street. Small and probably built in the late seventies or early eighties. It was dark green with a screened porch. He held the screen door open for me and I trudged up the two steps, looking forward to getting into the actual house. He unlocked his front door and stood back to let me go through first. The floorboards squeaked as I went in, and Jack had to give the front door a firm push to make it close all the way.

  A staircase sat off to the left, and the hallway stretched in front of me, ending at a swinging door that probably led to the kitchen.

  Jack took off his hat and gloves then ran his fingers through his hair. I followed suit, pulling my gloves off, which ended up being tough since my fingers didn’t want to cooperate. I finally got one off and cringed at how red my hand was. I trapped my other hand under my arm and pulled the glove off that way.

  “How long were you out there?” Jack asked, and I flinched when he took my hands in his. I looked at his face, wondering what he was doing, but his eyes were fixed on my hands as he pressed them between his own.

  “Why are your hands warm?” I asked, annoyed that he didn’t seem fazed by the cold.

  He shrugged. “I have great gloves and I wasn’t out there that long.”

  The thought crossed my mind that I’d like to burrow into him like I had that first night when he’d found me frozen. That would feel really good. It would also be incredibly inappropriate, since I wasn’t on the verge of hypothermia. Still, it would have been nice.

  Cop, I reminded myself. He’s a cop.

  I cleared my throat to break the awkward tension that had slipped between us. “You mentioned coffee,” I reminded him.

  “Yeah.” He squeezed my hands one last time and turned toward the hallway that stretched out right in front of the door. “This way.”

  I followed him and we passed through the swinging door into the kitchen. The smell of coffee reassured me of its presence. I pe
rched on a barstool at the counter as Jack pulled two mugs from a cupboard. One said I AM Elvis and the other said Namastay in bed.

  I took the latter, and he filled both our mugs then offered me a bowl filled with individual creamers.

  I smirked at him. “Flavored creamers, huh?”

  “Yup, and if you say something about it being not manly, I’d be happy to go get my gun belt.”

  I snort-laughed. “Poor Officer Trent. Have people picked on you because of your creamer selection?”

  He mock-glared at me as he opened one and dumped it into his cup in open defiance. I just smiled and grabbed a hazelnut creamer. Okay, it was actually two. I liked coffee fine, so long as it didn’t taste too much like coffee.

  I took a couple sips and then concentrated on allowing the hot mug to warm up my hands. Maybe when my fingers were warm I would hold the mug to my ears as well. That wouldn’t look weird at all.

  “Can I ask you something?” he said after a couple minutes of comfortable silence.

  I tensed slightly, automatically put on edge, but forced myself to say, “Sure.”

  “When I was changing bulbs the other day, did you think someone had broken into the house?”

  I bit my lips together as I tried to come up with any downside to answering honestly. “Yes,” I said.

  His eyes softened and regret creased his brow. “I’m really sorry I scared you.”

  I waved it off while trying to hide the well of emotions that bubbled up with his apology. “Don’t worry about it.” I took another sip of coffee so that I could focus my attention there. “Do you know what Namaste means?” I was deflecting, hoping he wouldn’t go into full-on investigation mode.

  “Um,” he hedged as he adjusted to my abrupt change in subject. “I know that it’s a Hindu greeting.”

  I nodded. “It’s actually a really meaningful greeting. It means ‘I bow to the divine in you.’ Or ‘the god in me recognizes the god in you.’”

  His brow jumped. “Wow, that’s…heavy.”

  I smiled. “I think it’s awesome. The idea that we should recognize the good that we all have inside ourselves instead of automatically viewing ourselves as being at odds with each other.”

  He didn’t say anything, but his expression clearly said he was either skeptical, or that such ideas did not make sense coming from me.

  “I know. I know.” I put my hands up in surrender to his judgment of me. “I’m paranoid and at odds with people. I know.” My eyes dropped to my coffee once more. “I didn’t say I was good at it. I just said it’s a nice idea.” I took a big gulp from my mug. The sooner I finished, the sooner I could go.

  “It is a nice idea,” he assured me. “I’m just trying to figure out how that would work in conjunction with my job.”

  I chuckled. He had a point. “Yeah, I don’t have an answer for that.” In fact, I had very few answers, and I certainly didn’t need to be acting like I knew anything about anything. I knew how to run. I knew how to defend myself thanks to the Aikido classes I’d been taking. That was about it.

  Speaking of running. I drained the last of my hazelnut coffee from my mug and put it down. “I better get back to Adeline’s house.”

  “Are your hands warm enough yet?”

  “Yes, thank you. And thanks for the coffee. That was really nice of you.” Obligatory pleasantries, check.

  He walked to the front door with me and as I pulled on my gloves, he started pulling on his as well.

  “Oh. You don’t need to walk me home.”

  He grinned at me. “I know, but I do need to finish shoveling my drive.”

  “Right.” Not everything is about you, Leila. “Of course. Shovel on!” was my awkward reply, made even more awkward by the little fist raise I performed. I did a mental face palm and opened the door. Or, tried to. It was stuck.

  “Here,” Jack said, reaching past me and causing a whiff of his cologne to fog my brain. “Let me.” He gave the door a firm tug and it swung inward, allowing me to exit the awkward I had managed to conjure.

  We both descended the steps from his porch and I shuffled down his walkway while he veered toward the drive. “Have a good day, Angel.”

  “Thanks. You too. And it’s Celeste,” I said, more to remind myself than to correct him.

  “Whatever you say.”

  I just shook my head and kept walking.

  ***

  On Sunday, I asked for permission to use Adeline’s computer while Tracy and her family were visiting. I searched for any news of my father and his dealings. He was still wealthy, his auction house was still suspiciously profitable, and he was a person of interest in several investigations. Nothing out of the ordinary.

  Sunday evening, Adeline directed me to set up the family room for a movie night. The idea made me feel suddenly bright and happy. Movies had long ago become a refuge. Having lived by myself for the past four years, movies had been a nearly nightly ritual for me. They filled that portion of the night between the sun going down and me going to sleep. They distracted me with stories and let me live vicarious, free, joy-filled lives through characters.

  I was surprised that Adeline would suggest such a thing. She usually headed to bed around nine, but I wasn’t going to complain. She had me make popcorn and pull out a bag of M&Ms from the cupboard.

  Once everything was set up, I sat down and picked up the remote. “What did you have in mind?” I asked, scanning the movies that were available to stream.

  “Why don’t you pick,” she said as she wandered toward the front of the house.

  “Okay…where are you going?”

  “I’ll be right back,” she assured me as she shuffled along behind her walker. “There’s just one more thing I need to get.”

  A minute later I heard the distinct sound of the door opening, followed by the noise of Adeline talking to someone. Strange. I hadn’t heard a knock.

  A deep voice said, “Well, I appreciate the invite, Miss Adeline.”

  I did a good impression of a meerkat as I jerked upright. Adeline had invited Jack for movie night. Oh good.

  I stood up and awkwardly crossed my arms, the remote still in one hand, as I waited for them to make their way back.

  Jack appeared around the corner, walking behind Adeline. He looked up and smiled as if everything was right with the world. “Hi, Celeste. Adeline treating you okay?”

  “Of course,” I stumbled out, annoyed that I was nervous and he was clearly not. “She’s been taking great care of me.”

  “Oh please,” Adeline countered, turning to address Jack. “This girl has let me use and abuse her without even rolling her eyes at my silly requests. You did good, Jack.” She pushed her walker forward a couple more steps, turning it not toward the couches, but toward her bedroom.

  “Where are you going?” I asked, only slightly panicked.

  “To bed,” she said matter-of-factly. “You two enjoy the movie.”

  I looked to Jack for some explanation, but he just looked mildly amused and didn’t say a word, so I turned back to Adeline. “I thought you would be watching it with us.”

  “I’m too tired, and you two both could use some romance in your lives, so snuggle up and watch a show with my blessing.”

  I’m not sure I’d ever been so embarrassed that it qualified as mortified—until now. But I forced as much authority and warning into my voice as I could muster. “Adeline.”

  She turned to me and fixed me with a look. “People might think I’m too old to get my kicks,” she said as she glanced meaningfully at the ceiling on which she wished naked men had been painted, “but you are plenty young, and you need to spend time with someone other than me.” She threw her hand in the air as if that had been her final decree. “You two have fun. Good night.”

  Jack and I were both silent as we watched her slowly retreat back to her room. Then I hung my head, pressing a hand to my face in defeat, and groaned.

  “I promise I’m not that bad,” Jack said. Then I felt the re
mote being tugged out of my hand. I let it go. He could pick the show. Movie night was ruined.

  When I finally dragged my face out of my hand and turned to look at him, he was settled into the couch with a fistful of popcorn in one hand and the remote in the other. “Come on, Angel. Let’s do what Adeline says and snuggle while we watch a movie.”

  “That doesn’t sound very professional, Officer Trent.” I still wanted to think of him as Officer Trent. It was disconcerting to see him as a guy I could snuggle with.

  “I’m not on the clock.” His eyes stayed on the TV as he continued to scan.

  “I thought cops were pretty much always on the clock,” I said.

  He tipped his head back and forth, considering. “In a sense, yes, that’s true.” Finally he lifted his eyes to look at me, his gaze a little too serious. “But I’m still allowed to be a person.”

  I sighed, half annoyed and half relieved to have him here. I sank down on the couch sideways with one leg tucked under me. His attention turned to the TV yet again and I studied his profile. It was an odd feeling to be simultaneously attracted to a person and scared of them. “So, what person are you when you’re not a cop?”

  “I am…” he said, pressing a few more buttons, then turning suddenly to look at me. “A nerd.” He pushed a final button and we had a stare down until the familiar Star Wars intro sounded from the TV.

  I laughed and let myself snuggle into the couch. Star Wars I could handle. Snuggling with the couch I would handle. But that was it.

  We ended up talking through most of the movie. It’s not like either of us were on pins and needles waiting to see what would happen. He proved his nerdiness by pointing out differences in this version versus the original. Still, there were moments when a voice in my head would point out how strange it was. The law enforcement officer and the criminal’s daughter.

  When the credits rolled, I sat forward and ran my fingers through my hair. “Should we watch Star Trek next time?” The words left my mouth before I had given them sufficient consideration. Firstly, that was super presumptuous of me to think there would be a next time. Secondly, I shouldn’t want there to be a next time. Thirdly, was I really inviting a boy over to Adeline’s house to watch movies with me? So, so weird.

 

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