by Becky Harmon
Retired police chief Cassie Thomas isn’t looking for romance. She had it once and fate took it away. Now her quiet life is filled with her vacation resort and a few animals. Her biggest risk is taking in two foster kids each summer. She doesn’t expect this summer to be any different.
Kathleen Masters cares deeply for the kids she helps at Fosters Inc., a privately owned Florida orphanage. Her biggest challenge this summer is to find a safe accepting environment to place four unconventional and maybe a little radical teenage girls. She has her sights set on Cassie and Lake View Resort.
Unfortunately for Kathleen, convincing Cassie to go along with her plan might be the easiest part of the summer.
“I really don’t understand why I’m here.” Cassie Thomas swallowed hard as she stared at the woman sitting across from her. The intense blue eyes looking back were making it hard for Cassie to concentrate, but they didn’t stop irritation from surfacing in her words. “Is there a problem with using my farm in the summer youth program?”
“No, there’s no problem, and I’m really sorry we scheduled your appointment on such a busy day. I’m sure you noticed all the people downstairs.”
“And the lack of parking.”
“Yeah, that too.” Kathleen gave her an apologetic smile. “This is our final spring registration week for potential adoption families. We hold one the last week in March, April and May. Each group home in the Fosters’ system will have an open house next weekend, and anyone interested can visit as many homes as they like. They have to appear in person and be fingerprinted during one of the registration weeks though.”
After many years in law enforcement, Cassie was good at reading people. Kathleen Masters did not strike her as the rambling type, and yet she was struggling to stop speaking. Kathleen was professional in her appearance and mannerisms, but she was obviously nervous about the reason that had prompted her to summon Cassie to her office.
“That makes sense.” Cassie forced a smile, trying to ease the edge in her voice. Kathleen had been nothing but pleasant, though slightly evasive. The entire interaction was leaving her with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. What was she missing?
Cassie appraised Kathleen across the small oak desk. Her light brown hair hung barely past her shoulders and was pulled back from her face, revealing strikingly attractive features. Her white button-down shirt was open at the collar, hinting at what lay beneath. Cassie found it very professional and at the same time unusually seductive. Normally not so easily distracted, Cassie was ashamed to admit it had taken her several minutes after she entered Kathleen’s office to remember where she was. Even now her thoughts were jumbled. She needed to move this conversation to whatever the issue was, and clearly Kathleen needed some prompting. “So…I’m here because…?”
“I know you’re a returning client,” Kathleen hesitated, “but we wanted to touch base with you in person before assigning your kids for this year.”
Cassie frowned. Last year, she had participated in the “city to country” program sponsored by Fosters Incorporated, a privately owned Florida foster care system. The program allowed children in and around Pensacola who were already in the foster care system to spend their summer in the country.
Cassie pulled the binder she had brought from her lap and opened it. “I brought additional information about the farm and the resort.”
“No, no,” Kathleen said immediately. “Your application was fine. There’s something else we wanted to talk with you about.”
Cassie opened the water bottle she had been offered when she arrived and took a drink. She could see Kathleen was gathering her courage so she let the silence stretch between them. Kathleen pushed her laptop to the side of the desk and leaned forward. Her open appraisal caused goosebumps on Cassie’s arms and she resisted the urge to shiver. She leaned forward herself, meeting Kathleen’s gaze, and raised one eyebrow.
A smile spread across Kathleen’s face, and Cassie felt her irritation begin to dissolve.
“What possessed you to volunteer to take on two teenagers again?” Kathleen asked.
Cassie laughed, shaking her head. This was not the question she had expected, but it was easy to answer. “It sounded like fun?”
Kathleen laughed with her and Cassie felt the tension between them begin to fade. She no longer cared why she had been called here. She was enjoying this meeting more than she would admit.
“I enjoyed having Greg and Mandi with me last summer. I would have taken them again.” Cassie smiled as she remembered the teenagers. “Greg was sixteen when they arrived and Mandi was fourteen. My only request when I signed up was that the kids be the same gender. The whole raging hormones issue wasn’t something I wanted to deal with all summer. When they arrived, I was a little disappointed, but then Mandi emerged from the van and informed everyone that she was a lesbian.”
Cassie felt her face begin to flush as if she was disclosing her own orientation. She looked away for a second before meeting Kathleen’s eyes again. Seeing nothing but the open, welcoming look Kathleen had displayed from the moment they met, she continued. “Greg took to Mandi immediately, and they became inseparable. Greg turns eighteen in the fall so he’s working now and trying to save enough money to get out of the foster system as soon as possible.” Cassie’s smile widened. “Mandi has a new home, and there’s a good chance they’ll adopt her.”
* * *
Cassie’s earlier frown had completely disappeared from her face, and Kathleen was pleased to hear the happiness in her voice. She had a pleasant smile. Kathleen hoped what she had to say wouldn’t make it disappear again. It was obvious Cassie had truly cared about Greg and Mandi.
Kathleen knew now she had made the right decision. She had spent hours reviewing applications before coming up with this idea, and she was confident Cassie’s resort would be a perfect location. Now she needed to convince Cassie of that. Taking a deep breath, she blurted the question she had been avoiding. “Would you consider taking four kids instead of two?”
Cassie tilted her head, but her smile remained in place. “Jumping in with both feet now?”
Kathleen’s shoulders gave a slight shrug, but she remained silent, giving Cassie a chance to process the question. On paper the jump from two kids to four didn’t seem like much, but she knew how much attention each child would require. Housing the kids was not enough for Kathleen. She needed to know that Cassie cared, and the only way to do that had been to see her face to face before making the request.
She had reviewed Cassie’s background and was impressed with her career. As an army brat, Cassie had been homeschooled and graduated from high school two years early. She had earned her law enforcement degree and joined the West Virginia State Police immediately upon graduation. Moving quickly up through the ranks and halfway to retirement, she had been recruited and then elected to the chief’s position in a small West Virginia town where she stayed until taking early retirement several years ago. Kathleen had no doubt that Cassie could handle the four girls she needed to place. The girls weren’t trouble as long as rules were clear and enforced.
“Seriously,” Cassie finally spoke, shaking her head. “I don’t think I could manage the resort and the farm and give the kids enough supervision if I had four.”
“Space is not an issue then?” Kathleen tried to keep the excitement from her voice. Cassie had not said no.
“Including my own, there are four bedrooms upstairs and another one downstairs that I use as an office, so no, space is not the issue. Beds might be.”
“I think you sound perfect.” Kathleen sat back in her chair as she realized what she had said. She felt her face burn with embarrassment. “I mean, your place sounds perfect. How do I convince you this would work?”
Cassie shook her head. “I really am sorry, but I don’t think I can.”
Kathleen could hear the hesitation in her voice so she pushed forward. “Can we talk about your concerns before we rule it out completely?”
“I guess so.” Cassie sat back in her chair, taking a deep breath. Her eyes focused on the wall behind Kathleen.
The concentration displayed on her face was intriguing, and Kathleen was surprised at the swirl of attraction she felt. Quickly pushing the feelings aside, she studied the woman across from her. Cassie’s short dark hair still swayed from her movement, barely brushing the tops of her shoulders. It wasn’t a masculine or feminine cut but clearly one of efficiency. Cassie owned and operated a four-cabin resort as well as a small farm, and her tanned arms showed the hours she spent outside. The top two buttons of her beige blouse were unfastened, revealing more brown skin. Kathleen wondered where the tan lines stopped, or if they did. She quickly moved her eyes back to Cassie’s face and met the soft brown eyes studying her.
“I worry the most about being able to provide proper supervision. With four teenagers, the farm and the resort, I can’t be everywhere.” Her eyes narrowed. “This isn’t the real issue is it? What are you still not telling me?”
“I understand your concern.” Kathleen continued, ignoring Cassie’s question. She needed to get Cassie to agree before she told the rest of the story. “What if Fosters was willing to provide additional supervision?”
Cassie raised an eyebrow. A look Kathleen was quickly beginning to find irresistible. “Okay,” Cassie said slowly, dragging out each syllable.
Cassie might not be convinced, but Kathleen had heard the agreement. She quickly delved into a possible solution for Cassie’s concerns.
“During the summer months, we have an influx of college students looking for full-time work. Normally they drive around and check on the kids that have been placed but what if we could place one of those students full time at your farm? Their priority would be monitoring and supervising the kids. Would that take away your concern and help this work for you?”
“You make a good case.” Cassie leaned forward again, and Kathleen knew she was seeing the stare that had probably made many criminals confess. She knew she had stalled as long as she could.
“I have to ask again. Why are you pushing this with me?”
Kathleen sighed. “I have four girls that really need a place for the summer. They’ve had a rough year, and I would like to keep them together. Not many of our applicants could handle four teenagers.” She took a deep breath. “And they are all lesbians.”
Cassie’s face was blank, and Kathleen tried to read her expression. Sexual orientation was not something that was asked about on the Fosters’ application, but with a quick Internet search she had been able to locate the website for Cassie’s Farm, Lake View Resort. It provided the basic information needed to pique someone’s interest if they were already looking for a getaway, but she didn’t feel it had the draw to convince those who weren’t. Kathleen was disappointed that it didn’t give as much information as she would have preferred, but it did clearly state the resort was gay- and lesbian-friendly. It didn’t matter to Kathleen if Cassie was a lesbian. Well, it didn’t matter as far as the kids were concerned, but Kathleen found herself hoping there might be some truth there.
Cassie frowned. “That brings the raging teenage hormones question back into the picture.”
“Currently the girls all room together at one of our homes without any issues. Our biggest problem is their presentation. I have one with a shaved head, one with body piercings and one who can only find clothes two sizes too big.”
“I’m afraid to ask about the fourth one.”
“That would be Dani, and she is a twelve-year-old sweetheart.”
“Twelve? And a lesbian?”
Cassie laughed. “Is there any other?”
Kathleen grinned. This was going better than she had hoped. “So what do you think?”
“I think if you can provide me with another…” Cassie paused and used her fingers as quotation marks. “‘Adult,’ then I would say yes.”
Kathleen jumped up and strode to the door. “Tiffany, call Joyce. It’s a go!”
Cassie stood as Kathleen turned back toward her. Kathleen couldn’t stop her fingers from grazing Cassie’s arm as she approached. “I’m sorry if we seem crazy. We’ve had a hard time finding a good location for the brat pack and, well, when I read about your farm, it really seemed perfect.”
Cassie returned her smile, but Kathleen could read something else in her eyes. Confusion? She realized she was still touching Cassie’s arm and quickly dropped her hand, trying to appear casual. “I hope you don’t feel like we pressured you.”
Cassie shook her head and the clearness returned to her eyes. “Brat pack? Really? Should I be worried?”
“Absolutely not,” Kathleen said. “Don’t get me wrong. They’re still teenagers and I can’t say you won’t have a few more gray hairs by the end of the summer, but they’re hard workers and enjoyable to be around.”
“A ‘few more,’” Cassie said with a groan.
Kathleen grimaced as her words echoed. Cassie’s round youthful face didn’t reflect her forty-two years even with the speckling of gray in the dark strands. She didn’t want to appear flirtatious with her new client, but the gray only made her look more attractive. “If you had any to speak of then, I would say they only made you look more distinguished.”
“Oh, man,” Cassie groaned again. “Are you trying to make it better? ‘Distinguished’ is the same as ‘old.’”
“I agree with Kathleen.” Tiffany, the young receptionist, stepped into the doorway and brazenly entered their conversation. “Distinguished…and fine.”
“Better than fine.” Kathleen mumbled without thinking as she turned back to her desk. Seriously, what is wrong with me today?
Safely behind her desk, Kathleen met Cassie’s eyes. She knew Cassie had heard her comment, and she resisted the urge to act like she hadn’t just told a client she looked fine. The faint flutter in her stomach told her she didn’t want to ignore the spark she had felt between them. She wanted to fan the flame. She openly appraised Cassie, allowing her eyes to penetrate deeper into her as she dared her to disagree with the assessment she had made.
Looking from Kathleen to Tiffany, Cassie almost looked a little panicked. “Do you need anything else from me?” she asked, moving toward the door.
“We’re all set from here,” Kathleen said. “The girls and a supervisor will arrive June twelfth. It will probably be late afternoon before we can get out to your place. One of us will give you a quick call when we leave the city.”
“A call would be great.” Cassie looked straight at Kathleen.
The heat flooded her entire body as Kathleen fought to break their contact. Her eyes rested on the resort brochure in Cassie’s hands. “Can I keep that?” she asked.
“Sure. I have plenty. Maybe you could pass it around. I could use the business.”
As everyone laughed, Cassie made her way quickly to the door. Kathleen watched her, longing for something more. She knew there was nothing she could say that wouldn’t come across as unprofessional. She could only hope she would have an opportunity to talk with Cassie again. Cassie hesitated in the doorway, but then she started walking again without looking back. Kathleen sighed and leaned against her desk as Tiffany followed Cassie out.
She knew her desire to see this woman in person went beyond testing the waters for the brat pack. Cassie was intriguing, and Kathleen had wanted to see if she could still hold her interest after they met in person. Now she knew the answer to that question…but she wasn’t sure what it meant.
Pulling a photograph from her top drawer, she leaned back in her chair. It had been several months since she had taken the brat pack to animal rescue but it had been their first outing as a group. Kathleen smiled as she studied her own face centered between the girls. The picture captured the joy they each had felt at the end of a very long day. Their arms wrapped tightly around each other displayed the bond that had been formed between them.
Dani, the youngest, had cried for the newly arrived homeless and abused dogs, but the other girls had helped her put action to that pain. Together, they coaxed and cuddled four dogs through baths and checkups with the technicians. When everyone, including the two-legged creatures, was covered in enough water to fill the bathtub, they took their charges outside for playtime.
It was a day Kathleen would never forget. She had learned the secret to reaching the forgotten kids she wanted to help. Sharing more than just her time, but a part of herself. These girls and most of the kids she dealt with only needed to feel valued. Exactly what she had desired as a foster kid and was finally able to find as an adult.
She had applied to be event coordinator at Fosters because of Joyce Clark’s diligence. Joyce owned and operated Fosters and had a reputation for taking in the kids the state couldn’t place in homes—the kids that were passed from group home to foster family and back again. Joyce took the time to find the right fit for each child before placing them and then made sure they were nurtured to grow. Kathleen longed to be a part of something so emotionally profitable.
The brat pack had touched her in ways she could never have imagined. She saw a little of herself in each of them. Although Morgan and Shauna, the two oldest girls, had been passed through the most homes, Dani had been in foster care for the longest. With the death of her parents and no family members to take her in, Dani had been fed straight into the system. Kathleen could find no reasons for two-year-old Dani to never have found a permanent home. She was a happy kid with a positive attitude but thankfully a power larger than Kathleen had brought the four girls together.
Dani’s outlook on life had changed the others’ perspective so much that in the last three months there had been no runaway attempts or acts of violence. The group home they were in now, though crowded, offered them support to explore their own individuality. The four girls had become a family within the system and were learning to trust again.
“Way to go!” Tiffany exclaimed, interrupting Kathleen’s thoughts as she stepped back into the doorway. “Ms. Thomas is safely out of the building.”
Clearly she wasn’t the only one infatuated with Cassie. Showing people out went above and beyond Tiffany’s usual duties.
“The brat pack is going to be so excited.”
“It didn’t take much persuading. She was open to the idea.” Kathleen knew that was only a small lie. She was pleased her initial judgment of Cassie hadn’t been wrong.
She seldom dated outside her comfort zone, and Cassie was way outside of that. Kathleen liked being in control; she gravitated toward women who never stood up to her. They weren’t challenging or potential mates, but then Kathleen wasn’t interested in having anyone share anything in her life.
“I thought she was cool as soon as she walked in,” Tiffany said, pulling Kathleen back into the conversation.
“Yes, I thought so too.” Kathleen couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across her face.
“Uh…what’s that smile for?” Tiffany raised her eyebrows.
Kathleen stepped past her, ignoring Tiffany’s question. She knew Tiffany wouldn’t let it go without an adequate amount of harassment, but right now she only wanted to find Joyce so they could celebrate. The brat pack would get to leave the city for the summer and be somewhere safe and accepting. She couldn’t help feeling a little jealous that they would be spending the summer with Cassie.
Cassie finished off the bottled water before pulling into traffic. She felt jittery and unsettled at the feelings Kathleen had stirred in her. It had been an agonizing five years since Nett had passed away, and she was finally content with her life. She had the farm she had always dreamed of with a small income from the resort and two fur-covered partners to share her house. Unfortunately logical thoughts weren’t pushing the feelings inside her away. She hadn’t felt anything like this since she met Nett twenty-five years ago, but she could still remember the thrill of wanting something she couldn’t have. Kathleen made her feel things she didn’t want to feel.
Thoughts of Kathleen blurred into panic about what she had agreed to do for the summer. When she had been sitting with Kathleen, it had seemed like an acceptable plan but what was she going to do with four kids? And a supervisor, who was not much more than a kid too? She should call Fosters and tell them she had changed her mind. Kathleen’s smiling face appeared in her mind and she couldn’t stop the rush of heat that quickly spread throughout her body. No, she couldn’t disappoint Kathleen. Tomorrow she would order more beds and break the news to Dillon. Helping her take care of the farm would no longer be his only responsibility for the summer. Giving the girls a place to stay was really the only option. She found herself looking forward to the challenge.
The entire situation was Nett’s fault anyway. Buying the farm and resort might have been Cassie’s dream but taking in the kids from the city was all Nett. It had been a constant discussion between them on when to have children. Never if, only when. Nett was ready when they moved in together, but Cassie’s goal was to retire early and then begin their life. Nett’s cancer had ruined those plans. After her death, Cassie had finished out the remaining two years on her term as chief of police and then she had fled.
The sadness she had felt when she moved to the farm almost consumed her but then she heard about the “city to country” program. It wouldn’t bring Nett back but it felt like a way to redeem herself. Her first year as chief, she had spent ninety percent of her time behind a desk and was miserable. In her search to find a way to change that situation, she had started a D.A.R.E. program. She studied the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program and learned how to teach kids ways to avoid drugs, membership in gangs and violence. Her interaction with kids became preventative instead of reactionary.
She knew how to develop a rapport with kids in a short amount of time and how to make them feel comfortable about speaking out. Though neither Greg nor Mandi came from violent backgrounds, they had helped Cassie realize quickly that her skills reached into other areas too. She wondered what she would face with Kathleen’s brat pack. She had no doubt that Kathleen would provide details about each girl if she asked, but she was a firm believer in a clean slate. She wouldn’t let past mistakes or actions form her opinions.
Turning her thoughts again on home, Cassie was surprised to see she was already entering Riverview and only a couple of miles from the farm. It was close to six p.m. and Dillon would have everything closed down for the night. At twenty-five, Dillon was more than an employee. Having grown up on a nearby farm, he had taught her about the animals and even remodeled two of the cabins. Now she was able to rent all four and pay Dillon a salary.
Cassie’s gaze drifted across the rolling hills and focused on the giant black iron arch crossing above her driveway and the words “Lake View,” written in block letters that welcomed guests. She felt a sense of peace as she drove under it. Her two-story wooden cabin with the old-fashioned wraparound porch always made her smile. From the first time she had pulled into the driveway, she felt like she was coming home.
The big red barn and house blocked her view of the office that adjoined it and of the first cabin beyond. She could see Cabin Two ahead and to the left across the lake were Cabins Three and Four. The farm was enclosed on three sides by fifty wooded acres, which provided a barrier from the world around them.
Cassie parked and sprinted up the steps into the office. Dillon’s wife, Shelley, stood behind the counter bouncing between three open college textbooks. Her face was tense, and she looked relieved at the interruption. She worked three days a week at the farm while taking a full schedule of online college classes.
“How was your afternoon?” Cassie asked, joining her behind the counter. Shelley matched Cassie’s five-foot-nine height, but she was leaner in all the places Cassie was muscular. Though she preferred to work in the office and had a very feminine appearance, she could still throw a bale of hay if they needed her help.
“Not bad. Things have been quiet. Mr. Jackson in Cabin Four and one of his sons would like to ride horses in the morning at ten. I put it on the schedule and told Dillon.”
“Dillon already fed the fur babies,” Shelley said, referring to Cassie’s two dogs.
“Wow, that’s great. I didn’t expect that, but I’m sure they appreciated it.”
“They hung outside with him all day, and when he came in earlier, he swung through the house and fed them. They’re in the backyard now.”
Cassie logged onto the computer and took a quick look at the business email account.
“I checked a little while ago. There haven’t been any new ones since you left this morning.”
“Okay. Thanks for staying late. Drag Dillon with you on your way out. He can call me if there’s anything that can’t wait until tomorrow.”
“Sounds great,” Shelley said, throwing her books and laptop into her backpack. “See ya.”
“See you on Friday,” Cassie called.
She clipped the farm radio to her belt and went through the side door into her house. The radio was the only means of communication she needed after five p.m. when the resort office closed. All of the guests had radio base units in their cabins and her cell number for emergencies. They also had mobile units with about a two-mile range. She kept a handful of long-range units in the office for anyone headed into the surrounding woods.
She detoured past the doggie door in the dining room and called for Zoey and Pandy. Within seconds, they flew through the door and amid lots of squealing, whimpering and petting, she was able to make it as far as the kitchen to preheat the oven for her dinner. Before she could relax for the evening, she needed to check on the rest of her animals.
As soon as she stepped outside, she could see six of the horses in the big pasture eating hay from the round bale. She walked through the open doors of the barn and saw the other four horses, grazing nearby. She inhaled the aroma of horses and hay; it felt good to be home. A buckskin horse with black feet approached the fence as soon as she stepped out of the barn. She loved all the horses, but Cheyenne was her favorite.
She took a few minutes and stroked Cheyenne’s soft black nose. Patting her neck, she continued along the fence line for a closer view of the pygmy goats. She leaned on the fence and watched two of them fight to stand on one of the platforms in the pasture. Each goat was only about two feet high, but they liked to jump and climb. She had worried about them getting out of the pasture, but after Dillon had built several climbing apparatuses, they seemed content to stay. Dillon had only selected females without horns from animal rescue. They were gentle and liked to be petted, if you could catch them.
As she returned to the house, Pete and Rory from Cabin Two were grilling by the lake. She waved but didn’t head their way. The thought of small talk made her feel even more tired though she knew either man could carry the conversation without her participation. They were retired and arrived every May, staying for the entire month. Neither one was shy and would let her know if they needed something whether she stopped to talk or not.
Cabins One and Three were empty this week. The Jacksons were in Cabin Four. It was her largest one and the last one built. With three bedrooms and two baths, it could hold Ryan, Judy, three boys and one girl comfortably. Ryan and the youngest boy, Darby, had ridden horses earlier in the week and were probably the ones scheduled for tomorrow as well. The other boys preferred to ride bicycles on the trails, and she hadn’t seen much of the girl. They would be leaving on Saturday, and a week later a new family would come into Cabin Four. She couldn’t remember their names, but she would know them by the time they checked in.
She locked the office doors and headed back into the house. Sliding a frozen pizza into the oven, she climbed the stairs two at a time, glancing into the small bedrooms as she passed. It would be a tight fit to add an additional bed to each room, but she could make it work. Four teenagers would bring a lot of activity and probably some drama into her life. Surprisingly, she was looking forward to sharing her living space with them. The house often felt too big and empty, even with the dogs around. By the end of the summer, though, she would be happy to have her space back. She was sure of that. At the end of the hall she entered the master bedroom, where she changed into gym shorts and a T-shirt. With ten minutes left on her pizza, she collapsed into the recliner and flipped on the DVD player. Her favorite television show, NCIS, resumed in mid-episode.
* * *
Kathleen pulled into her driveway and switched off the car engine. Leaning her head against the back of the seat, she stared at her two-story townhouse. She didn’t see the red brick siding or the flowers that she had planted in front of the porch last weekend. What she saw was the hope of seeing Cassie Thomas again. She hadn’t been able to get her out of her mind since their meeting earlier. There was something about the soft-spoken “country girl” that Kathleen couldn’t let go.
She was attractive, of course, but there was something else that pulled at Kathleen, keeping her off-balance. Cassie had moved and spoke with a confidence that displayed her years as a law enforcement officer. The few times she had given in to a blush, she still managed to maintain an edge of control. Kathleen still couldn’t believe how Cassie’s smile had made her heart race. She had to admit the soft brown eyes had rocked her a bit, causing her body to respond like that of a kid with her first crush. She liked the way Cassie’s dark hair fell around her face softening her features. Oh, and then there was the single raised eyebrow.
Kathleen sighed. Maybe she could convince Travis to trade duties with her in June. Chauffeuring the kids to their locations for the summer was a good excuse to see Cassie, but could she wait that long? Maybe there was another reason she could come up with. Of course, it had to be one that didn’t make her sound like she was losing her mind.
Kathleen jumped as a hand rapped lightly on the window inches from her face.
“Are you all right in there, Kathleen?” Mrs. George called, pressing her face in close to the window.
Kathleen sucked in a deep breath, barely muting the startled scream that was hanging on the end of her tongue. She unlocked her door and pushed it open as her elderly neighbor stepped around the open door, leaning in for a closer view of Kathleen’s face.
“Yes, Mrs. George. I’m fine.” Kathleen stepped out of her car, gently forcing Mrs. George to take a step back.
“Well, I wasn’t sure. I saw you pull in and then when I carried my dinner plate to the kitchen you were still sitting there. Are you sure everything is okay?”
Kathleen smiled, hoping to ease her worry. “I was lost in thought about my day.”
“One of those kids got you all stirred up again. I don’t know how you do that job.”
“No, everything is going well, in fact. Very well.” Kathleen smiled at her again.
Mrs. George studied her.
Kathleen touched her softly on the arm. “I really am fine. Thank you for your concern.”
“Well, okay, if you’re sure everything is all right.”
Kathleen could hear Mrs. George mumbling as she turned toward her own yard, and she couldn’t help but smile. Mrs. George was always there when you needed her and, yes, even when you didn’t. She’d probably been standing at the window watching her from the time Kathleen had pulled into the driveway. Mrs. George kept a close eye on the neighborhood. Kathleen appreciated that, especially when she was away, so times like these were easily forgiven.
She tossed her car keys on the hall table and went straight for the kitchen. After opening a bottle of wine and throwing together a salad, she headed upstairs to change her clothes. She returned to the kitchen in comfortable pajama pants and a T-shirt and took her meal to the living room. She turned on the television, flipping randomly through news channels and sitcoms as she ate her dinner from the coffee table. While her eyes watched the television, her mind returned to the day’s events. Normally she hated having anyone else in her house, but she couldn’t stop herself from trying to see how Cassie would fit. With a sigh, she ate the last cherry tomato and sat back with her glass of merlot. Tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep, she would be rested and able to analyze this attraction logically and things might look different.