Against the Heart(9)

By: Kat Martin

The lure of a homemade breakfast had his mouth watering again. Being a bachelor, he didn’t get many home-cooked meals. Still, the implications were worrisome.

"I guess that means you don’t have an apartment or anywhere else to stay."

Her chin hiked up. "I didn’t say that. I just thought it would be easier if I stayed here."

He knew she wasn’t being honest. And she knew he knew. But she had her pride, and Ian wasn’t about to take it from her. "Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you."

"I just got into town, you know? It would just be more convenient, that’s all."

A helluva lot more convenient for her. Ian had no doubt Meri and Lily would be sleeping in Meri’s old car tonight if he didn’t let them sleep in what had originally been built as a maid’s room.

"I think you’re right," he said. "Staying here would be easier for all of us. When you get to a stopping spot, come get me and I’ll help you empty out the room."

The relief in her face made his chest feel tight.

"All right." She turned away from him. "I’ve got some other stuff to do first."

Ian nodded and left to return to the barn. When he came back three hours later, the maid’s room was empty, the cardboard boxes inside stacked neatly in the garage. The floor was scrubbed clean, even the windows had been washed.

When he walked back into the kitchen, he found the table set, the aroma of roasting meat in the air.

"I was hoping you wouldn’t mind helping me move one of the mattresses down from upstairs."

"We’ll bring down one of the beds and set it up."

"Just the mattress is enough."

"You need a bed."

The sound of footsteps cut off any argument. Ian looked up to see his dad standing next to Lily.

"I’ll give you a hand, son. That’s a man’s work, not a woman’s."

Ian worked to keep his eyebrows from shooting up. He didn’t argue. Things were happening in this house that should have happened a long time ago.

"Come on, Dad. Let’s go."

Every night, Meri fell into bed exhausted. But also proud of the work she had done. Housekeeping wasn’t a career choice, but she was earning money and stashing it away. Ian paid her every day. She and Lily had a place to stay and she wasn’t even paying for food.

And her little girl was happy. The third day they were there, Ian insisted Meri and Lily come out to the barn to see the litter of kittens he had found.

"The mother cat lives here," he said to Lily. "Keeping the mice away is her job."

"Can I hold one?"

"Not yet. They’re still babies. But it won’t be long before they’re old enough. Then you can hold one."

Since Lily had never seen a newborn kitten before, she was enthralled. Everyday after, she went out to the barn and just sat there watching them nurse and sleep.

One afternoon, after stripping the beds in the rooms upstairs, Meri tossed the sheets into the washer, then walked outside to dump some trash. Hearing Ian and Lily in the barn, she found herself walking in that direction.

This time of year the weather was warm. In jeans and a T-shirt, Lily sat on a clean pile of straw Ian had placed in the stall with the kittens. He was standing at the rail, his arms draped over the top.

"Lily’s a beautiful little girl," he said as Meri walked up beside him, his voice as smooth as honey and just as warm.

"Thank you."

"Dad isn’t ready to admit it, but Lily’s the best thing that’s happened to him in years."

"She likes him. She’s never had a grandfather. I guess she sees Daniel as kind of a substitute."

"He’s promised to take her over to Mrs. Peterson’s. She the widow who lives on the property adjoining ours. One of her mares just foaled."

"Lily would love that."

Ian shook his head. "I can’t believe it. Dad hardly ever leaves the house anymore."

"Maybe once we get everything cleaned up, he’ll be more active. Maybe he’ll even want to have people over again."

"Maybe. I don’t know. Heddy Peterson used to come by and see Dad once in a while, but she finally gave up on him."