Esther bit her tongue to keep from responding in kind, the words 'Why Cassie, I'm so proud you can spell after all those F's in my English classes.' If the woman deserved her animosity, it was not something she wanted either the little boy or the Sergeant to witness.
"And I see you hired a handy man to help out," she extended her carefully manicured hands; her long red nails glistened like cat's claws in the fading light. "I'm Cassandra Monroe and this is my son, Joey. You must be new to Sebida. I don't think I remember seeing you around town before." She winked as she finished, "And I definitely would have remembered seeing you."
Esther busied herself showing Joey the jack-o-lanterns. Why did this woman still get to her? The pain that she had caused her son was a distant memory. He had long since recovered from his momentary lapse of judgment brought on by raging hormones in high school. He had even laughed at her, throwing her hurtful words back at her when she had tried last year on his final visit to draw him into her web.
But the way that the woman was fawning over the Sergeant sickened and disgusted her. Not that it was any of her business. Even if the man was a good decade older than the woman. She supposed that decade did not matter as much in the eyes of most people as the decade the other way that stood between her and the Sergeant.
It was perfectly acceptable for a man in his mid to late thirties to date a woman in her twenties. But if a woman were to do the same? And certainly a woman of almost fifty had no place even having the type of thoughts about a man so much her junior.
But what could thoughts, fantasies even, hurt? It was not as if people could read her mind, see the naughty images that had haunted her sleep and kept her half awake all night long.
"I'm so glad that you came to help Miss Esther out then. All this would have just been too much for a woman her age," Esther heard the woman say.
The Sergeant took two steps closer to where she stood on the front porch with the boy. "I'm sure a mature woman like Esther would have managed without my help. After all she raised one of the finest men I have ever known on her own so a little thing like this would be a breeze. But then again I don't have to tell you what a special man Tommy was, do I?"
Esther did not know why her heart swelled with pride and sang with joy at his words. At the fact that he saw for himself the foolish games this woman played.
She watched as the woman's bravado deflated just a bit at the reminder of her past. Holding out those sharpened claws, she demanded, "Let's go, Joey. Miss Esther and her guest have lots of work to do."
The boy stopped toying with the pumpkin and looked up at her. "Miss Esther will there be marshmallow treats this year still?"
Esther smiled at him, brushing a lock of his dark curls back from his light brown face. "Of course, there will be sweetie. I'm going to make them in a bit. You stop by here tomorrow after Sunday School and I'll let you be my taste tester," she promised.
Her reassurance was all the boy needed to know that all was right his world as he jumped from the top step.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to do that shit?" the woman scolded as she dragged her child back down the path and across the street.
Esther sighed. Her heart heavy for the child. When he came tomorrow, and she was certain he would, even if he had to sneak away from his drunken mother, she would look closely for bruises. She knew that the day was coming when she would have to act...for the child's sake.
But she knew too that it was an action that might well be the final straw that would sever her ties to this place that had been her home for so long. These people had never really accepted her, never would. If she reported the grand-daughter of the mayor to social services, it would all be over. Her job and the life that she had built here would mean nothing.
Not for that uppity half breed Negress from the city with her bastard son that could pass. Oh yes, Esther had never been as oblivious as these people thought to the things they said behind her back. And she knew far more of their secrets than they imagined.
Perhaps it was time to move on anyway. This house, this place held so many memories. But then again, most of those memories were good ones. Her son laughing and playing on the swing set. Half the children in town filling his tree house as she served lemonade and cookies to everyone. White and black.
This place was all she had known for so long. Over half of her life spent hiding in its façade of community and days long gone by. Where would she go? What would she do? It was another of the bitter realities that had her crying herself to sleep each night.
A hand gripped her arm, drawing her back from the darkness that threatened to swallow her soul. She wiped her hand across her face, feeling the scalding trail of tears for the first time then.
"I'm sorry," she barely choked out the words.
"No need to be, ma'am. A woman like that has no business saying some of the things she does. She deserves everything she gets in life."
His words made Esther wonder just how much this man knew of their life here. Chocolate chip pancakes, iced tea and falling tents were one thing. But had her son shared the darker side? She supposed when you entrusted your very life to the comrades around you such things were trivial.
She certainly could not blame her son, who had grown up without a father, grandfather or any real male influence. His emails had dripped with admiration and worship and for the first time Esther had realized how much her son had suffered from the lack.
This man had been the ultimate role model that Tommy had been seeking all his life. The coaches, Scout leaders and others who had failed to see past the color of her skin or his birth, their half-hearted welcomes pushed aside as he had finally found the acceptance he always craved in their friendship.
She reached up. Her hand covering his as it rested upon her arm. "Thank you. Thank you for giving him what he never had."
The words were barely past her lips as she turned, ripping her arm from his grasp as she fled into the house. Tears raced down her face as she ran for his bedroom.
Esther lost track of time as the pain poured out behind that door. The sun had fully set and darkness had enveloped the house when she cracked the door.
The red stains of embarrassment on her high cheek bones warred with the red swollen eyes for dominance. This release was a luxury she should not have allowed herself. She did not see the Sergeant as she stepped from the room.
She would not blame the man if he hoped on the back of his motorcycle and high tailed it out of town given her behavior. She squared her shoulders and drew in a deep breath as she went looking for him. A quick perusal of the living showed that he was not that. The lights were still out in the kitchen so he must not be there either.
Panic threatened to choke her. She told herself that it should not matter if her odd behavior had run the man off. She would manage; she always had. But the tightness in her chest said otherwise.
The cool night air hit her as she opened the front door. The yellow glow of the street lamp gave a ghostly air to the front yard. Relief welled up inside of her at the sight of the red Harley sitting in the drive way next to her battered Neon. But she did not see the man.
"Join me." She was about to turn and close the door behind her when she heard that deep purr from the dark recesses to her right. "Please."
Pulling the door softly closed behind her, she made her way to the old wooden swing that was suspended from the porch rafters. The man leaned back in it. He used his dusty boots to kick slowly back and forth.
"I should apologize," she fidgeted with her hands unable to meet his gaze.
"Don't you dare," he replied. "I know things are hard. Maybe I should not have come. Maybe I'm too much of a reminder of Tommy right now. I can leave if you want."
"No!" The words sprang out of her mouth quickly. Perhaps too quickly, she thought. She paused for a moment. Her eyes searched the night sky as if seeking guidance. Some miraculous answers to questions she could not even voice. But there were no answers to be found as with so many things in her life. There was only silence and darkness.
Her voice was calmer when she spoke again. "No, Sergeant. Please don't go. Truth be told I get like that at the drop of a hat. Sometimes my tears could even fill in ten gallon one. Having you here, well, it helps a bit. At least there has been some laughter to break up the tears."
Waving her hand about she continued, "Besides without you how will I ever get that damned thing finished?"
His dark brows furrowed and for a moment Esther felt the bile rise in her throat, certain he would refuse.
"Alright. If you're sure." He patted the seat next to him.
She smiled and sat down. They rocked softly in silence for a couple of minutes. Esther knew that if she closed her eyes and laid her head back she would be cradled by the strong arm that rested along the back of the swing. She was tempted. Tempted to do just that. Instead she willed herself to sit still next to him, her bare feet keeping time to the rhythm of the swing on the cold concrete porch.
He shifted a bit, turning so that he faced her. The grey of his eyes shone brightly, reflecting the moon light. "I never want to hurt you."
Esther sighed and gave into temptation. Her tight dark curls brushed against heated skin in the darkness. The heat was a stark contrast to the cool night air.
"You don't. You didn't." She sighed as her eyes closed. "Life hurts. It isn't fair, but there is nothing much we can do about that."
She felt him stiffen a bit, whether at her words or the close contact, she was uncertain. She started to move away, but his fingers curved about her shoulders and he pulled her closer instead.
A thousand sparks flittered along her shoulder racing to her brain. The tingling spread through her ripe body like a bird song on an early spring morning, ushering in a new season and new life.
Of course, as a mature woman, she knew better than to read anything more into the Sergeant's actions than an act of friendship, comfort in her time of need. But that did not matter as she held tight to her girlish fantasies, treasuring them like one of the leather bound journals beneath her bed.
They sat, rocking in silence as the cool air wrapped like a quilt about them. The stars glittered and danced with the crescent moon. The crickets and frogs sang lonesome melodies that could inspire any country songwriter to ballads of love and loss. They sat, rocking. Forever it seemed.
Esther held her breath afraid to break the spell, the companionable silence that communicated more than words ever could between them. But she was powerless to stop the shiver that ran down her body. She was uncertain. Was it the coolness finally seeping into bones that were not as young as they once were? Or was it the heat that she felt emanating from this stranger, friend and fantasy lover? It did not matter either way her reflexive action broke the magic.
His voice was husky when he spoke a seduction in itself. "I'm sorry. I forgot how cold it was. We should go inside before it gets any colder."
Esther sat up and nodded as reality pushed back the crystal edges of her fantasies. "I should make you something to eat. You must be starving, you worked so hard today and all we had was those sandwiches earlier."
"Don't worry about cooking tonight. It's been a long day for you too." He stood up and held out his hand.
Esther smiled at the image of long ago knights of the realm whose chivalry was a thing of legend. She shook her head and smiled, thinking perhaps they lived today, reincarnated in men like Sergeant Michael O'Malley. She took the hand he offered as he gently tugged her to her feet.
"I won't hear of it, Sergeant. Dinner, it is and that is final."
"Yes, ma'am," he grinned with a mock salute.
She elbowed him in the ribs. "Come on then. You can get cleaned up while I cook."
He looked down at his dusty clothes and sweat streaked hands. "I would offer to help out in the kitchen, but I suppose you are right. I'm a bit too messy to be of much use there."
Esther shivered again as the memory of that morning's brush in the kitchen played through her mind. The idea of working side by side with this larger than life man in the confines of her tiny kitchen was enough to send her scurrying for safety.
"You'll find towels and stuff in the closet right outside Tommy's room. It is the last door to the right of the bathroom at the end of the hall."
She headed for the front door as she added, "If you need anything, just give me a call."
"What if I need you to scrub my back?"
Ester froze with her hand on the door. For a moment, she was not certain that she had heard him correctly. The images of those broad shoulders and back that had played under his t-shirt all day dried out her throat until she could not have forced a response across the parched desert even if she had one.
Instead she forced her hand to open the door and rushed through the living room to the safety of the kitchen. A few moments of privacy to clear those images from her brain was what she needed then.
By the time that he had finished his shower, supper was finished. Esther had kept things simple. She had made a fresh salad and grilled the steak that she had picked up during their trip into town that morning. She filled out the meal with some fried potatoes and onions and steamed a few green beans. It was nothing fancy but it should be filling after a long day of work.
She was just taking the steak from out of the oven when he came into the kitchen. Instead of the tight jeans, he wore an old pair of green sweat pants and sleeveless t-shirt. Esther forced her eyes from those muscled arms and shoulders. The dark chest hairs that peaked out at the edges of the shirt did not merit further consideration. Not if she was to make it through dinner with this man without throwing herself at the man as brazenly as Cassie Monroe had.
"Have a seat. I'm just finishing things off. Nothing fancy though. Steak and potatoes. Basic man fare." She sputtered nervously.
"You shouldn't have gone to all that trouble. A sandwich would have been fine. More than fine," he smiled.
In the bright light of the kitchen, she felt the awkwardness. They were both trying to be polite. The intimacy that they had shared in the safety of the moon light and as they worked that day was gone. They were strangers, sharing a meal.
She put the plate in front of him and turned back towards the stove. She bent over opening the cabinet door next to it. Her eyes searched for the large black cast iron pot. She finally found it and stretched to reach it at the very back.
"What are you doing?" He asked from behind her. With her head buried inside the cabinet she did not realize how close he was. She gripped the pot in her hands and stepped back. "Shit," she cursed as she pumped her head on the cabinet.
She felt firm thighs pressed against the fullness of her bottom. Hands gripped either side of her hips to steady her. He pulled her the rest of the way out and helped her stand.
She had heard the old cliché about seeing stars all her life, but in that moment it took on new meaning. He pulled her close as those strong fingers threaded through her thick curls. She knew he was simply examining her, searching for the knot that she could feel stinging and swelling. But its pain paled beside the very different sensation of electrical sparks racing through her at his gentle touch.
Their bodied were aligned. Barely an inch separated them. Her mind was filled with images of what it would feel like if his fingers were wound through her long hair in a different way. If he were to use them to tug her forward, closing that tiny gap. What would he taste like?
The smell of clean crisp man assaulted her nose. She wanted to bury her face in those shoulders that were at eye level. Wanted to inhale deeply, memorize the smell, file it away in the darkest recesses of her mind to pull out as a safety net to catch her when she fell as she had this afternoon, to draw her from that dark place that her mind went too often, a light to lead her back.
She moaned when his fingers brushed across the swollen lump that was raising fast on her scalp. Although there was most definitely pain at his touch, it was laced with the bitter sweetness of desire that his gentleness elicited in her.
"I'm sorry," he drew his fingers back from the wound. "That's pretty nasty. Maybe we should go to the hospital? Have them check you out, just to make sure you don't have a concussion."
His voice sounded quiet, a low deep whisper and for a moment Esther wondered if he might be right. Perhaps she was hurt worse than she thought, because for a moment she thought his lips were almost touching hers. She could almost feel their soft brush against hers. But that could not be right, she must be imagining things.
She stepped back before she could step forward and embarrass herself further. She felt the tug as his fingers released her tresses. She swallowed before she spoke. "I'm fine." She turned and reached for the pan where it had landed on the floor. Picking it up, she forced her mind to focus upon the tasks at hand.
Instead of returning to where his food was growing colder on the table, he came to stand beside her at the stove. His large hand covered hers as she placed the pan on the front burner.
"I asked what you are doing. Aren't you going to join me? Eat something?"
She shook her head. "I'm alright. I thought I would get started on the marshmallow treats that I promised Joey."
"We can do those in a bit. After you eat," he said. It sounded to Esther's ears distinctly like an order.
"No, I'm fine. I don't want anything. Honest."
"It doesn't matter if you want it or not. How much weight have you lost these last six months? Twenty pounds? Thirty?" He arched his brows, demanding an answer.
Esther tried to distract him, to take control of the conversation once more. She laughed and slapped the dust from the jeans that covered her ample backside. "There is plenty to lose, Sergeant," she dismissed him.
His hands firmly gripped her upper arms and turned her to face him. "Do you think that this is what Tommy would want? You were the last thing he thought about. I promised him that I would take care of you and I keep my promises. So march that cute ass right over to that table and sit down. You are going to eat something if I have to feed you myself."
"I am perfectly capable of feeding myself, Sergeant. When I want to eat. I am not one of your Marines to be ordered about. I am a grown woman who has taken care of herself for thirty years. By your own admission, I raised one of the finest men you have known, on my own. I think I can manage to decide when I do and do not want to eat."
He growled at her words. His face scrunched up. "Alright then. Please. Please join me for dinner. I don't want to eat alone."
"Oh," Esther was taken aback at the admission. Raised on Southern hospitality, she had not considered how rude her behavior was. "Alright," she conceded, turning towards the table, she pulled out the chair next to his.
The Sergeant opened the cupboard next to the stove and took out another plate. He came back to the table and began portioning food out.
Esther put out her hand to cover his. "Please. I really don't want anything."
He knelt next to her. "Please. Whether you want it or not, you have worked your butt off today. You skipped breakfast and barely ate half that sandwich at lunch. I meant it. Tommy would be worried sick about you."