Matteo always said his first stop after prison would be Saucy Buns for a burger. Extra pickles, no mayo.
Turns out ground beef can’t compete with his sisters.
Tech World barely could.
He only stopped there for computer gear. His offshore accounts have plenty for a new laptop, plus external hard drive and six burner phones because that’s just good business sense. Out front, he gives a homeless guy hand warmers from aisle six. Cookies from checkout, plus two hundred in cash. “Stay safe.” He gets in his car without looking back.
Now Matteo’s on I-5 in his 1973 Alfa Romeo Spider, headed for Miss Gigglywink’s Daycare. Not a normal post-prison stop for a felon, but Matteo’s hardly normal. Besides, his conviction’s overturned. He’s a free man.
He’s got the top down, windows open, though it’s twenty-degrees and drizzly. Thank God his sisters brought the keys. They wanted to pick him up, but Teo needed the closure of watching those concrete walls fade in his rearview mirror.
Needs his sisters not to see him detour past the home of the shady cop who stuck him behind bars. Detective Reggie Dowling doesn’t even own the brick rambler anymore, but Matteo needs to see. Needs to know where the bastard landed after Teo’s pals twisted his arm. The twisting freed Matteo, but also sent Dowling underground.
Maybe he shouldn’t care. He’s free and that’s what matters.
Errands complete, Matteo’s killed enough time to be sure all the students are gone from Miss Gigglywink’s. It’s farm show-and-tell day, so his sisters should still be there.
Hitting his signal, he turns onto the road he knows like security code for a Unix operating system. Two more blocks and he’s on the leafy street where his grandma’s craftsman bungalow sits in the swoop of a cul-de-sac. His chest gets tight as his brain brews a memory of sitting on that curb with a grape soda.
“Tenants left this behind.” Grandma Nondi wheeled the bike from the garage. “Looks your size. Almost new.”
He’d never had a bike. Never dreamed of riding one. All the way home, he cried fat, quiet tears, smearing his face with a sleeve so she wouldn’t see. They took it to the farm where he taught himself to ride. Taught Nic and Jen, hovering when they wobbled.
Nic got the bungalow when Grandma passed, and Jen got the farm. Matteo got the beach house and he’s glad about that. Maybe he’ll buy a bike. A red one with a black seat so he can pedal to the shore with the sun on his back.
He parks at the curb and scans the dental clinic next door. Sebastian LaDouceur, DDS. The Dentist swears he’s gone straight. Just a dentist now, not the kind that makes bad guys go away for money. Matteo will believe it when he sees it.
At the front door of the daycare, he hesitates. They expect him at the farm by five, but that’s three hours. He needs to hug his sisters sooner.
“Matty!” Nic flings the door open and throws herself at his chest. “You’re here! I hoped you’d come early.”
“Hey, kid.” Hugging hard, he wonders how the girl with pigtails and a lisp became a business owner. Not just any business. A daycare for folks fleeing bad situations. Pride floods his chest as he hugs her harder.
Pride and concern. “Is it okay if I’m here?” He sets her on the steps. “I can leave if—”
“No, you’re good.” She grabs his hand and hauls him inside. “Students are long gone. We’re just cleaning up so we can load the lambs.”
“Matty!” Jen wipes her hands on dirty blue jeans. “I shouldn’t hug you. I’m covered in lamb poop, but I really want to hug you and—”
“Then we hug.” He squeezes the girl whose diapers he once changed. All grown up and living with his best friend. Jesus. How did that happen? “Missed you.”
“I missed you, too.” She pulls back and laughs. “I know we saw each other three days ago, but this feels different.”
“Damn right it does.” If she only knew. “How’s Dante?”
“Good.” She wipes her hands again. “He’ll be at dinner tonight.”
“He’s making dinner tonight.” Nicole slaps a hand to her heart. “If Jen doesn’t hurry and marry him, I’ll bang the man silly for his elk chili recipe.”
“Jesus.” The throbbing in his head is new. “Can we maybe not talk about banging?”
An eyeroll from Nic. “You just got out of prison. I’d worry if you didn’t have banging on the brain.”
More throbbing, mostly in his temples. “Let’s also not say the P word.” He scans a shelf lined with kids’ board books. “Not here.”
“P word?” Nic’s grinning as she moves through his periphery to straighten a stuffed animal. “Penis? Prick? Piss? Pussy?” She’s enjoying this too much. “Or did you mean pris—”
“You’re like a mime with his tongue yanked out.” Nicole looks at Jen. “Let’s load the lambs and get out of here.”
“Actually, we kinda need you.” Jen sidles over with her sweet little sister smile. “Think you could help for a sec?”
His gun hand slips to his belt before he remembers he’s not carrying. Also, helping at a daycare doesn’t call for weapons. “Sure.”
Nic points at a pen of bleating lambs. “One of my sweet little angel students broke the latch.”
Jen mutters something like “demon child,” but she’s smiling. “The second we open that gate, the lambs will run for it. We need someone to hold it shut.”
“Only until we get the first ones in the truck.” Nic’s already walking to the pen. “With five lambs, Jen and I can each get one on the first run, and then with the three of us—”
“I follow the math.” He’s got dual degrees in mathematics and computer science. He can figure out how to count sheep. “So I’m on guard duty.”
“Not with brute force.” Nic lifts an eyebrow. “We just need your body to block them from darting out.”
He’s done worse with his body for a lot less payoff. “Let’s do it.”
They get into position. Jen’s got a hand on the gate, while he squats beside Nic as a human blockade.
“Let ‘er rip,” Nic calls.
Jen swings the gate open and three lambs bolt. Nic snags the first one, while Matteo grabs the second, spinning so his back shoves the gate shut.
“Got you!” Jen scoops up the third lamb.
Behind him in the pen, two lambs bleat in protest. The one in his arms is a wriggling wad of fleece, baah-ing in his ear. “No complaining.” He shifts so his back’s firmly at the gate. “You’re well fed, I’m positive. My sister’s the world’s biggest softie.”
“Hey.” Jen pretends to glare. “Who kicked ass on a kidnaper when—”
“We’re not talking about it.” Picturing his kid sister in danger has his head throbbing again. “Hurry up.”
“Come on.” Nic starts for the door. “You sure you’re okay holding down the fort?”
“Positive.” His lamb squirms some more. He scratches its ears and the animal relaxes.
“We’ll be quick.” Jen shoves the front door as her lamb bleats. “It might take a sec to get them situated.”
“Got it handled.”
“Thanks, bro.” Nicole follows her out the door calling, “Glad you’re back!”
“It’s good to be back.” He says it to empty air, maybe the lambs. Brown eyes plead for freedom.
“Sorry about the cage.” He’s a sucker for brown eyes. “If it helps, I relate.”
The smallest lamb bleats and rears behind the bars. Adjusting his hold on the one in his arms, he scans the classroom. Miss Gigglewinks. The cuteness hurts his teeth.
Bright plastic chairs march miniature rows around the room. The wall above the whiteboard holds paper cutouts of numbers formed by cartoon animals. A caterpillar three, a spider eight. There’s a bookshelf with titles like The Wonky Donkey and Never Ever Tickle a Turkey.
Through the window he scans the playground. Can kids really fit down that plastic slide? It’s made to resemble the trunk of an elephant, with steps up the back. So damn adorable.
And so far from where he’s just been. God, this is weird.
Stroking the lamb, he stretches his legs out in front of him. “My sisters are great, huh?”
The lamb bleats and wiggles.
“Smart,” he continues. “Tough as hell.” His throat’s tight all of a sudden. “For a fuckup, I’ve got pretty great sisters.”
Another bleat from his fleecy friend. He shouldn’t swear at daycare.
A child’s squeal swings his eyes to the doorway. Matteo stares as a boy in red sneakers rockets toward him like a missile in overalls. “Lambie Lambie Lambie Lambie!”
The kid’s red shirt ripples as his sneakers squeak the vinyl. There’s a gleam in his green eyes, and Matteo’s not sure if it’s joy or budding psychosis.
“Hey there.” Matteo shields the lamb with his body. “Can I help you with something?”
The kid skids to a stop. “Lambie!”
“Yes.” He looks down and confirms. “Correct.”
Clasping his hands together, the boy grins. “My hold?”
“Um.” What’s the protocol here? “You can pet, I guess.”
The kid drops to his knees and sighs with joy. Eyes wide, he strokes the lamb’s neck. “Gentle.” He looks at Matteo and smiles. “Gentle.”
“That’s right.” Cute kid. Looks like Jen as a toddler with those ocean eyes and sandy hair and a dusting of freckles. One strap of his overalls looks twisted. Should he fix it?
Better not. “You like lambs, huh?”
The kid nods at the dumb question. That’s what’s great about kids. No judgment. Kinda like Nic when he gave her a haircut. He was twelve and she was six and their parents were dead and what the hell did he know about girls’ hair? She wasn’t even pissed about the bowl cut. “You did your best, Teo.”
Like that’s enough.
Anyway, this kid has hair like that. Tiny Tic-Tac teeth that gleam when he smiles.
“Soft.” He watches Matteo with his fingers raking fleece. “Sofffft.”
Footsteps approach the door left gaping in the wind. Matteo looks up and feels his heart stagger.
“AJ!” Renee scans the boy, and for eight breathless seconds, Matteo scans her. The lush curves he knows by heart. The dainty fingers, the gold-brown curls that match her eyes.
Eyes that’ll turn cold in five, four, three, two…
“AJ, we’ve talked about you running off and—oh God.”
The color leaves her face. A face framed with curls shorter than last time he saw her. She gapes with a look that’s half stunned, half horrified, and a hundred percent unhappy to see him.
“Renee?” His voice comes out rusty, so he tries again. “Renee Lorenson?”
Three years, two months, and nineteen days. That’s how long it’s been. The buzz in his brain says he’s missing something. That he’d already know it if his heart wasn’t sucking all the blood from his brain.
“Don’t call me that!” She bolts with a hand outstretched.
For an instant he thinks she’s reaching for him. He’ll give her anything she wants. A handshake? A kidney? The keys to his car?
She snags the kid’s hand instead. “We’re going home.”
“But Mama.” The boy swings sad eyes to Matteo. No, not him. The lamb in his arms. “My hold.”
He sounds so pitiful Matteo’s ready to hand over both the lamb and his pin number. “Another time, kid.”
“No.” Renee’s voice snaps like lightning. “Not another time. Not ever. Not—”
“Wait.” The buzzing spreads to his ears. Numbers whirl, dates and memories and a jumble of history. His brain’s firing now.
The kid senses something because he tugs Matteo’s sleeve. “Who you?”
“AJ.” Renee’s voice sounds strained.
Matteo swallows. He needs to know. “How old are you, AJ?”
The kid lifts one sticky, starfish hand. “This many.”
One finger, two, three.
Realization dawns like a kick to the head. He’s dizzy and dumbfounded and above all, sure of one thing.
“Renee.” He gulps and drags his eyes to her face. “Were you going to tell me?”