Home For The Holidays
“Daddy, do you think Mommy will be able to find us in our new house?
Joe Lawson paused a moment before answering his daughter’s question. Ruby stared up at him from her bed, her small, angular face anxious.
“I’m sure Mommy can find us no matter where we are,” he said.
“That’s what Grandma always says, but I’m not so sure. Melbourne is a long way from Sydney. It took us ages to drive here.”
As he struggled to find an answer, Ruby sighed heavily and tugged the covers up closer to her chin.
“I guess I’d better go to sleep. School tomorrow. I need to be fresh.”
She rolled over onto her side and closed her eyes, apparently completely at peace now that she’d voiced her deeper metaphysical concerns.
The joys of being ten years old. If only he could dismiss her question as easily. Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d done the right thing moving the kids away from everything that was familiar to them so that they could be closer to the support his mother could provide.
Be honest. At least with yourself.
The truth was, he’d been more than happy to abandon the family home. Pulling Ruby’s door shut behind him, he walked up the hall to check on Ben. As he’d suspected, he was out for the count, his bedroom light still on. Joe stared down at his thirteen year old son for a long moment, then flicked the light off and walked back to the living room.
Boxes were still piled against the walls, filled with DVDS, books and God only knew what else, since he’d paid professional packers to box the contents of their former home. The kitchen was equally disastrous. In fact, the kid’s rooms were the only spaces that were even close to being livable.
He stared at the boxes for a moment. He hated moving. Always had. Beth had claimed he was the worst packer in the southern hemisphere and used to supervise him ruthlessly to ensure he was working up to her standards whenever they moved. He was pretty sure Ben had been conceived the afternoon they were packing to leave the small apartment they’d bought when they married. After a day of being dictated to, he’d rebelled against Beth’s bossiness and seduced her on the kitchen floor. She’d been laughing and protesting right up to the moment when he’d tugged her bra down and started kissing her breasts.
He shied away from the memory, as he had from all the other memories that had come up at him during the day. It was impossible not to think about her, though, when he was unpacking the life they’d shared together. The dinner set they’d chosen when they were married. The kid’s finger-paintings she’d saved from preschool. Even the damned side-by-side fridge reminded him of how excited she’d been the day it was delivered.
It had been two years. Everyone said that time was the great healer - so why did he still burn with anger and grief when he thought about his dead wife?
He forced himself to cross the room and slit the tape on the top-most carton. The boxes weren’t going to unpack themselves. He peered inside. Books. Good. Books he could handle.
He’d stacked half the contents onto the shelves in the built-in entertainment unit when he found the photo frame. It had been wrapped in several layers of tissue paper, but he recognized it by feel because of its chunky shape. Beth had made it herself as part of a framing workshop and even though it was just the slightest bit off-centre, it had always held pride of place on the mantlepiece.
He folded the tissue back and stared at the photo inside the frame. They’d been on a family picnic and Beth had asked a passerby to take the shot. The kids were much younger - Ben eight or so, Ruby only five - and Beth’s blonde hair was long, well past her shoulders.
He stared into her face. Sometimes he forgot how beautiful she’d been. How could that be when he still missed her like crazy?
His head came up as the low, throbbing rumble of an engine cut through the quiet of the house. A motorbike. A really noisy one. He waited for it to pass by, but the rumble grew louder and louder. Just when it seemed as though the bike was about to race through the living room, it stopped.
Unless he missed his guess, the owner of the world’s noisiest motorbike was also his new neighbor. Which meant he could look forward to the roar of a badly tuned engine cutting into his peace morning, noon and night.
There ought to be a rule when a person bought a new house: full disclosure. The vendors should have to reveal everything about the house and the neighbors so there weren’t any nasty surprises on moving day. Leaky roofs, yapping dogs, motorcycle gang neighbors, peeping Toms.
It seemed unnaturally quiet after the racket of the bike. He put the frame to one side. He’d find a place for it later. He reached for more books, then tensed as the motorbike started up again. He gritted his teeth, waiting for the bike to roar off into the night. It didn’t. Instead, the engine revved again and again, the sound so loud he guessed the guy must be parked inside his garage, the roller door open, the sound amplified by the garage walls.
Over and over the bike revved and Joe grew more and more tense. His kids were asleep, but they wouldn’t stay that way for long if this kept up. Surely the moron next door must have some idea that this was a residential neighborhood, a quiet middle-class suburb full of quiet, middle-class people who liked a little peace and quiet at the end of the day? Surely -
“For Pete’s sake!”
He slammed the box shut. He was barefoot, but he didn’t bother putting shoes on, simply threw open the front door and headed down the driveway. As he’d guessed, the garage was open next door, light spilling out into the night. A motorbike stood propped on its stand toward the rear of the garage. A man squatted beside it, his back to Joe as he worked on something near the exhaust pipe.
Joe stopped on the threshold as he registered the guy’s leather pants and long hair and the Harley Davidson jacket thrown over the rusty frame of a second bike. It was every bit as bad as he’d suspected - he’d moved in next to a long-haired redneck. No doubt he had noisy, boozy parties, visits from the cops and loud domestic arguments to look forward to in the future.
Fantastic. Just what he goddamn needed.
“Hey, buddy, you want to keep it down?” he yelled over the roar of the bike.
The guy didn’t even lift his head from whatever he was doing. Joe took a step closer.
“Mate!” he yelled. “You want to shut that thing off?”
Still nothing. Joe’s temper began to burn. He didn’t consider himself a short-fuse kind of guy, but he was tired and unpacking all the old stuff had been tough and he needed this added aggravation like a hole in the head.
He strode forward and reached over the guy’s shoulder for the ignition key. One twist and the bike fell silent. The guy jerked in surprise, then shot to his feet and spun around.
Joe took an involuntary step backward as he realized that he’d miscalculated somehow. The leather jacket, the pants, the bike. He’d just assumed...
But he’d been wrong. Because his new neighbor was a she, not a he.
Her chin came up as she stared at him.
“Who the hell are you?”
She was tall - almost his height - with brown eyes and long, wavy brown hair.
“I’m sorry. I thought... I called out but you couldn’t hear me over the bike. I came to ask you to keep the noise down. My kids are asleep.”
She blinked at him, then comprehension dawned.
“You’re the guy who bought the old Steveway place,” she said.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. His gaze dropped to her breasts, then her waist. She had a good figure. Long legs, full breasts.
He looked away. He didn’t care what kind of figure she had.
“I didn’t realise you’d moved in,” she said. “The Steveways were happy for me to work on my bike any time.”
“Then they must have been deaf.”
He knew he sounded like a cantankerous old man but he couldn’t seem to help himself. Her being a woman had thrown him off balance, one too many curve-balls on what had already been a trying day.
“It isn’t usually this noisy,” she said. “There’s a problem with the muffler.”
“Maybe you should leave it to the experts to fix, then.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Thanks for the advice. I know just what to do with it.”
He’d pissed her off. Seemed only fair, since she’d roused him out of his home with her racket.
“So you’ll pack it in for the night?”
“Like I said, I didn’t know you’d moved in."
She put her hands on her hips and her T-shirt stretched over her breasts. Again he pulled his gaze away.
“Thanks, I appreciate the consideration,” he said flatly.
He turned away.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” she called after him as he walked down the drive.
She sounded about as sincere as he had when he’d thanked her.
He stopped in his tracks when he reached the privacy of his own driveway, a frown on his face, aware that he’d over-reacted and not sure why. He stood there for a long moment, breathing in the cool night air. Then he shook off his unease and returned to his sleeping children.
What a jerk.
Hannah Napier pushed her hair off her forehead then grimaced when she remembered her hands were greasy from the bike. She wiped her hands on a rag then hit the button to close the roller door. She’d wanted to get to the bottom of the noisy muffler tonight, but it could wait until tomorrow. The last thing she needed was Mr High and Mighty from next door on the doorstep again with his attitude and impatience.
She’d met some chauvinistic assholes in her time, but her new neighbor was going to take some beating. The way he’d spoken to her like she was one of his kids. The way he’d dismissed her with a quick once-over of his very blue eyes.
He’d almost given her a heart attack, sneaking up on her the way he had. She’d turned around and seen six foot plus of solid, hard man standing over her and almost wet her pants. And not in a good way.
Not that he was unattractive. He had short, dark hair, and his face was deeply tanned. His shoulders were broad, his belly flat. Not bad, if your taste ran to bad tempered, bossy men. She put him at mid to late thirties, then she remembered the deep lines that bracketed his mouth and the hardness in his blue eyes and upped her estimate to early forties. He’d been around the block a time a two, her new neighbor. Probably managed to piss off everyone he met along the way, too.
So much for her mother’s hopes that that new owner of number twenty-four would be nice. Hannah grabbed her jacket and flicked off the lights as she used the connecting door to enter the house. Her work boots sounded loud on the tiled kitchen floor as she crossed to the fridge.
“Is that you, love?” her mother called from the living room.
“Your dinner’s in the fridge. And there’s dessert, too, if you want it.”
Hannah sighed. No matter how many times she told her mom not to cook for her, inevitably she came home to find a meal in the fridge, neatly covered with cling wrap. When she’d moved back in with her mother six months ago, she’d done so on the basis that she wouldn’t be a burden. She should have known that her mother would fight tooth and nail to defend her right to wash Hannah’s dirty laundry and cook her meals. It was what her mother had always done and it had been foolish to even think that things would be different because Hannah was twenty-eight now and had been living independently for nearly six years.
“Did you notice the lights on next door? The new neighbors have moved in.”
“Yeah, I noticed.” Hard not to when her new neighbor had just read her the riot act.
Hannah took the plate of chicken and salad through to the living room and sat next to her mom.
“This looks great, Mom. Thanks.”
Her mother dismissed her gratitude with the wave of a hand and leaned forward, her brown eyes dancing.
“So, don’t you want to know?”
“What he’s like. The new neighbor. And you’ll note I say he,” her mother said.
“I don’t need to know. I just met him.”
“Really?” Her mother almost leapt off the couch. “How? Did he come over and introduce himself?”
Hannah felt as though she was suddenly trapped in a scene from Grease. Tell me more, tell me more, did you get very far? Since when was her mother so interested in neighborhood gossip?
“He was pissed about the noise, actually. Came over to give me a piece of his mind.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very promising start.”
Hannah bit into a chicken leg, shrugging a shoulder.
“Who cares. He’s a dick,” she said around a mouthful of food.
“Hannah! I thought he seemed very nice when I popped in to introduce myself earlier. His mother was helping him unpack, you know, and there was no sign of a wife.”
Hannah scooped up a spoonful of potato salad. She could feel her mother watching her, waiting for something, so she stopped and raised an eyebrow.
“You didn’t think he was good looking?” her mother asked.
Hannah put down her fork, suddenly understanding where this conversation was going.
“Mom. Give it up.”
“All I want to know is if you think he’s attractive or not.”
She wanted a lot more than that but Hannah decided the best way to defuse this conversation was to answer the question and move on.
“I thought he was sad looking, if you must know. I thought he was about the saddest looking man I’ve ever met,” Hannah said, and she realized that it was true. Those lines by his mouth, those hard blue eyes. All that anger bubbling just below the surface.
“Oh. Do you think?”
Hannah shook her head in frustration. “It doesn’t matter, Mom. He could be Brad Bloody Pitt and I wouldn’t be interested. You know that.”
Her mother eyed her steadily, her face creased with concern.
“Don’t be like this, sweetheart.”
Hannah stood. There was no way she could eat the rest of her meal. She certainly couldn’t endure another heart-to-heart with her mother.
“I need a shower. Thanks for cooking.”
She scraped the remainder of her dinner into the bin, rinsed her dish and slid it into the dishwasher. She spent ten minutes in the shower, washing and conditioning her hair and shaving under her arms. All the while, she reviewed the work she had on tomorrow, prioritizing things on her to-do list. Anything to avoid thinking about what her mother had been suggesting.
As if she was going to start dating again. What a joke.
A towel wrapped turban style around her hair and another around her torso, she made her way to her bedroom. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the long white box on her bed. A receipt was taped to the front of it, along with a note from her mother.
H, the dry cleaners called again today. They said if you didn’t pick your dress up soon they’d consider it unclaimed goods and sell it off. I knew you wouldn’t want that. Mom.
Hannah circled the box as though it was a wild animal. Even though she told herself she didn’t want to look, that it didn’t matter to her any more, that it was all in the past, she reached out and slowly folded back the lid.
Intricate crystal beading sparkled in the overhead light. Her gaze ran over the shaped bodice, the pleating at the waist. The white silk skirt shimmered and she couldn’t resist running a hand over it. She could remember the first time she’d seen the dress, the way it had felt sliding over her body when she put it on - cool and slippery and perfect. As though it had been made for her.
Anger rose up inside her in a hot flash. She shoved the box so hard it slid off the other side of the bed. She’d paid a small fortune to have it packed away in acid-free tissue, but she didn’t want it in her room. It was too pathetic - a wedding dress that had never been worn. Too, too sad.