Three Little Words(8)

By: Susan Mallery

“I have to get back to work,” Isabel said. “I have two brides coming in this afternoon to try on gowns. Let’s have lunch this week.”

“You’re on.”

* * *

FORD HENDRIX COULD disappear into the mountains of Afghanistan for months at a time. He could live within a mile of a village and no one would guess he’d ever been there. He’d traveled the world for his country, fought, killed and been wounded. More than once, he’d stared down death and won. But nothing in his fourteen-year career with the military had prepared him to have to deal with the determined, stubborn woman that was his mother.

“Are you dating?” Denise Hendrix asked as she filled a mug with fresh coffee and handed it to him.

It was barely six in the morning. Normally Ford would have been up and heading for work, but he was a civilian now and starting his day at O-dark-thirty was no longer necessary. He’d stumbled into his kitchen, only to find his mother had shown up and started coffee. Without warning.

He glanced around the small furnished upstairs apartment he’d rented and tried to make sense of it all.

“Mom, did I give you a key?”

His mother smiled and took a second mug for herself, then settled at the small table in the corner. “Marian gave me keys to the apartment and the house before she and John left on their vacation. In case something happened.”

“Like you thinking I can’t make my own coffee?”

“I’m worried about you.”

He was worried, too. Worried that coming back home had been a mistake.

When he’d first arrived, he’d stayed in the family home because it had been easy. Only he’d awakened more than once to find his mother hovering. What she couldn’t possibly know was that with his military training, he didn’t react well to people hovering while he slept. Sneaking around like that was a good way to get dead.

So he’d moved out and into a house with Consuelo and Angel. Only he and Angel were too competitive for that kind of arrangement, so he’d been forced to move again. Technically, Consuelo had threatened to gut him if he didn’t, but he was going to ignore that. In a fair fight, he could take her. The problem was Consuelo didn’t fight fair.

He’d found what he thought was the perfect apartment. Close to work, quiet and away from his mother.

He sat across from the woman who had given birth to him and held out his hand.

She blinked at him. “What?”

“The key.”

Denise was in her mid-fifties. Pretty, with highlighted hair and eyes. She’d survived six kids, including triplet girls, and the death of her husband. A couple of years ago, she’d fallen in love with a guy she’d known in high school. Or maybe after. His sisters had written Ford about the romance. As far as he was concerned, his mom had been a faithful widow over a decade. If she found someone else at this stage in her life, he was happy for her.

“You mean the key to the—”

“Apartment,” he finished. “Hand it over.”

“But, Ford, I’m your mother.”

“I’ve known who you are for a while now. Mom, you can’t keep doing this. Dropping in on me. You have grandkids. Go freak them out.”

Her dark eyes filled with emotion. “But you’ve been gone for so long. You almost never came home. I had to travel to other places to see you, and you didn’t even let me do that very often.”

He wanted to point out that she was the reason why. She smothered him. He knew that of the three boys, he was the youngest, but he’d grown up a long time ago.

“Mom, I was a SEAL. I know how to take care of myself. Give me the key.”

“What if you lock yourself out? What if there’s an emergency?”