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“Wait, you’re just going to leave us here? Alone?” Ellery Hathaway had faced down serial killers and lived to tell about it, but she felt a cold trickle of fear as she glanced at the lone child playing nearby on the grass. “I believe your ex-wife specifically forbade this proposition. In writing. With her attorney.”
Reed laid a comforting hand on her arm. “You’re not alone. There are fifty thousand people here,” he replied, gesturing at the noisy street fair around them. “And not one of them is my ex-wife, so I don’t think you have to worry. Also, I’m getting lunch, not jetting off to Guam. It’ll be ten minutes at the most.” He nodded down the road in the direction of the taco stand they had passed earlier.
“But I don’t know anything about kids.”
“Think of Tula as having more or less the same needs as your dog, only with less fur.”
Reed’s seven-year-old daughter, Tula, frolicked with Ellery’s basset hound, Speed Bump. Bump had cheerfully gone belly-up, tail thumping in lazy fashion as Tula sung nonsense to him and scratched his barrel chest. Ellery furrowed her brow. “Do you have a leash for her?”
Reed laughed, but she was only half-joking. She’d met Tula only once before and had no idea how to talk to her or any other person under the age of ten. She’d barely had a childhood herself. She’d agreed to this outing because Reed plainly hungered for family and she had to figure out if she fit into it. One thing she was learning fast was that Tula paid attention to conversations even when it appeared she wasn’t listening. She turned guileless brown eyes up at them. “She’s right, Daddy. Mama said I shouldn’t be alone with Ellery on account that she’s got emotional problems.”
Ellery put a hand on her hip. “Your mother,” she began tartly, but Reed cut her off with a look. “Your mother is a wise woman,” she muttered instead.
Reed rewarded her with a smile and reached out to squeeze Ellery’s clammy hand. “Mama hasn’t met Ellery,” he said to Tula. “She doesn’t know her like Daddy does.” He stepped closer into Ellery’s personal space, an intimacy she still couldn’t quite believe she permitted. They had been seeing each other since their adventure in Las Vegas six months ago, but Ellery couldn’t even use the word “boyfriend” yet. Reed, meanwhile, had started adding family members to the mix. “If this is going to work,” he murmured, “you’ll have to be alone with her sometime. I promise she doesn’t bite.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I do.” Ellery turned her face away. If this was going to work, she’d have to become a different person. One who didn’t wake up breathless from a nightmare about being nailed into a closet. One who didn’t freeze up the minute someone touched her. One who was comfortable carrying the little pink sparkly purse that Reed thrust into her hands.
“Hold this. I’ll be back with tacos before you know it,” he said, pecking her cheek before disappearing into the crowd.
Ellery held the offending purse away from her body. It was surprisingly heavy. “What does a second grader need a purse for, anyway?” she asked Tula.
“For my ponies,” Tula replied as though this were an obvious answer.
Ellery risked a look inside and found a dozen plastic horses in various riotous colors staring back up at her. She snapped the thing shut again with a shudder. “So, what else does your mother say about me?”
Tula giggled as Bump’s enormous tongue licked her entire forearm. “She says Daddy’s only with you because of his God complex. On account of he saved you when you were a kid.” She tilted her head at Ellery. “What’s a God complex?”
“I, uh…” Ellery looked frantically through the crowd for Reed, but he’d only been gone for two minutes. There were so many people on Boston’s Common that they seemed to inch along as one giant organism, digesting all the air around them. Claustrophobia threatened to overwhelm her and she closed her eyes to block out the sea of slowly moving bodies. She took several deep breaths and reminded herself she was doing this for Reed. She had to pretend to be socially normal for at least a few hours. Smile at strangers. Not go for her gun at the sharp pop of a child’s balloon. Her heartbeat still skittered, but she pasted a smile on her face and resolved to make small talk with Reed’s daughter. When she turned around, she found a herd of redheaded children had descended upon her dog. Bump leaped to his feet, woofing and jumping between the kids. She could barely see him amid the chaos. “Hey, wait a second.” She tried to grab for the leash as the swarm of children seemed to grow around her.
“His ears are so long!”
“I want a puppy like this.”
“Hey, he ate my ice-cream cone. Dad! This dog stole my ice cream!”
A man came huffing over the hill, his round face red like a lobster. “Kieran, Solange! Get away from that dog. Boyd, you know you have allergies.” The small one with the freckles increased his carping about the ice-cream cone.
“He ate it! He ate it in one gulp.”
The man confronted Ellery. “Did your mutt steal my son’s ice-cream cone?”
Ellery eyed Bump, who sat amid the children grinning with his tongue hanging out, a satisfied gleam in his eyes. “I’m going to go with ‘yes.’”
“You shouldn’t bring him around people if he isn’t better trained.”
“I could say the same thing about your kids.” One of them had placed Bump in a headlock. Before the man could wind up his outrage even further, Ellery put up her hands. “Look, I’ll give you the money for another cone, okay?” Anything to make the noise and grabby hands go away.
The man took in the pink sequined bag Ellery had slung over her shoulder. “Fine. It was five dollars.”
Copyright © 2020 by Joanna Schaffhausen