...at the local bar with some of the guys. He should never have had his gun with him, but he’d just gone off duty. He got in an argument when the bartender tried to cut him off. One thing led to another . . . I’ll tell Joey the truth when he’s old enough to understand. Anyway, what there was of Joe’s insurance went to a college fund for Joey. I’m not touching it.”
“What brought you to Fair Meadows?” Aiden reached out to grasp her hand in an instinctive urge to comfort her. He stopped himself abruptly when he realized how inappropriate that would be. He realized how much he missed the comfort of the casual human contact he’d enjoyed during his marriage.
“Carol died just before Thanksgiving. Children aren’t allowed in her building, but the landlord turned a blind eye while Carol was alive. After she died, there were complaints. We had to leave.”
“You’ve had it rough.” How could anyone put out a young mother and child? What was wrong with people? It was the holiday season, for God’s sake.
Ginny sat up straighter. “It’s not like we’re destitute. Carol left her condo to me, but her estate has to go through probate before I can put it on the market. The lawyer wouldn’t even let me take our things until they can sort out what belongs to who. I still had Joe’s old Ford, and I remembered Carol talking about Fair Meadows. She had visited here as a kid and liked it a lot. I filled the tank and here I am, talking a blue streak.”
Aiden played with his coffee cup, avoiding her eyes. “Where are you two staying?” He had a bad feeling they were living in her husband’s old Ford, a feeling confirmed by her silence.
“I’m not broke,” she said after a minute. “I’ve got today’s tips, and I’ll have a paycheck on Tuesday. We’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“Stay with me.” The words were out before he could come up with all the reasons why it was a bad idea. Only one thing mattered: they needed a place to stay. “You can’t really see it from here, but I live behind the bookstore. There’s plenty of room – three bedrooms, two baths. Sorry, I’m talking like a realtor again. Joey isn’t afraid of dogs, is he? I have an elderly retriever – Buster loves kids, wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Ginny laughed. “You named your dog after the puppy in the books. My son loves those stories.” Her lips thinned. “Why do people have to be so greedy? The new 'Billy and Buster' book is all Joey wants for Christmas – he knows I can’t afford much. But even if I have the money, the books will all be gone by the time I finish my shift.”
Aiden felt his pulse throb at his temple as a headache threatened. “Sometimes it’s not up to the author. When a writer sells the rights to a book, it doesn’t belong to him anymore. Could be the author regrets selling the rights to that TV network.”
“Hmmph.” Ginny shrugged. “It’s still not right. Lots of kids are going to be sad when those books sell out.”
“C’mon, Joey’s falling asleep over there. Get your things together and come on over to my place.” Aiden stopped abruptly, unsure if he was being too forward. Wondering if he’d completely lost his mind – inviting a virtual stranger to stay at his house, where, if Ginny accepted his invitation, her son would sleep in Will’s old bed.
“I’m just offering you a place to stay, Ginny. No ulterior motive. You heard Frida; she’ll be expecting a report. If I don’t behave, she won’t feed me.” Aiden didn’t know why he had the urge to reassure her when he had doubts himself. Although he dated occasionally, he’d never brought a woman back to his home. It had never felt right before.
Ginny twisted her wedding ring as if she was having similar reservations. “You seem like a nice man, and if it was just me . . . but, there’s Joey, you see. I have to make sure he’s safe.”
Aiden respected her for taking her responsibility for her son so seriously. “You’re right to be cautious.” Oddly, the more Ginny hesitated, the more certain he became that this was the right thing to do. “You can check with the sheriff, if it makes you feel more comfortable.”
“I don’t know.” Ginny swayed. She rubbed her eyes as if she could barely keep them open. When Joey shifted as if he were uncomfortable on the seat where he’d fallen asleep, his mother seemed to make a decision. “Joey needs to sleep in a real bed. If you’re sure it’s okay, I’ll let Frida know I’m leaving.”
While Ginny disappeared into the kitchen, Aiden whipped out his cell and punched speed dial. “Stephen. Any news?” He paused to listen. “Hell, yes, it’s a deal breaker. Fix this now, or I find a new agent. They might not have technically crossed the line, but they’ve certainly gone against the spirit of the deal, and time is running out. Contracts were made to be broken, Stephen, and that includes yours. Yeah, you do that.”
And if he couldn’t get the TV station to release the publisher from the ridiculous clause so they could sell the damn books, well, by God, he’d start a new series – another boy, another dog. Suddenly, he was bursting with ideas.
Frida bustled out of the kitchen with Ginny right behind her. “You’re taking them home? Good. Come by before opening tomorrow, if you’re awake – I’ll whip up some breakfast for the three of you. You two can’t work on an empty stomach, and that boy needs some meat on his bones. You’ll be safe with Aiden, Ginny. He’s one of the good guys. But you let me know if he tries to get fresh – if he wants to eat at my diner, he’ll behave himself or else.”
To hide his embarrassment, Aiden slipped out of his booth and bent over Joey’s sleeping form. He smelled of heat and little-boy-sweat, reminding him so much of Will he nearly doubled over in pain. But Joey was alive and well and in need of a warm bed. Luckily, Aiden had more than he could use. He lifted Joey over his shoulder, barely feeling the slight weight.
Aiden bid Frida goodnight and led Ginny across the street, their footsteps echoing in the silent night. The crystalline snow that had begun to fall made his house look like a Christmas card. It had been a happy house when Will was first born. It could be happy again.
Tonight, as the brightest star shone down on the three of them, he felt as if Will and Annie were watching. Buster would be joining them soon; some days the old guy could barely drag himself up from his favorite rug. Will had been four when they got the puppy for him, not long before he became ill. The loyal Golden Retriever had kept Aiden company through all the long, lonely years. Buster’s joints were stiff and painful, and his whiskers were turning white. It was going to break his heart when his dog died.
As he opened the front door, he could imagine Annie’s voice as clearly as if she were in the other room. “What have you two been up to now?” He and Will would exchange a secret grin, then Will would say, “Nuttin’, Mom. What’s for dinner? We’re staaaarving.”
What would his wife and son think about Ginny and Joey sleeping in their house, in their beds? He liked to think they’d be happy about it. For the first time in years, Aiden felt the tingle of hope. He felt as if Ginny and Joey had been led to him for a reason. Maybe they needed him as much as he needed them.
He’d written the first Billy and Buster after his son’s illness was diagnosed, and wrote the second book at Will’s request after a difficult round of chemo. After Will died, Aiden just kept writing, long after he’d lost the spark, because kids enjoyed the stories. He’d kept his anonymity because he missed Will too much to talk about the books and what they meant to him; they hit too close to home, Buster and not-Will.
Every boy should have a dog. Aiden wondered how Ginny would feel if he offered to get Joey a puppy for Christmas. He was making assumptions he had no right to make. He barely knew Ginny or her son. But he believed in a future with her the way he believed in Santa Claus. Aiden remembered the words of the famous editorial responding to another Virginia as if they were etched into his heart. He quoted softly to himself, “‘The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see’.”
As he laid the sleeping boy on his son’s old bed, Aiden felt a sense of rightness. When Ginny met his eyes with a shy smile, he reached for her hand and squeezed it lightly. Linking her fingers with his, he switched on the night light. Buster pushed past them and walked over to the bed, sniffing at Joey’s slight form. Aiden felt something uncoil in his chest when Buster curled up next to the bed, just like in the old days.
Ginny broke the silence. “Thank you. Those aren’t big enough words, but I don’t know what else to say. I hardly know you, but I feel as if Joey and I have come home.”
Aiden drew Ginny into his arms and held her. Just held her. It wasn’t a thunderbolt, wasn’t fireworks, but it was magic, all right. And he believed. Hell yes, he believed.
For the first time in years, he could hardly wait for Christmas.
This story is dedicated to two wonderful children who died too soon:
Chance Carr and Emily Paeltz
Chance Carr and Emily Paeltz
Copyright 2009 by Rebecca Martin Davis