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Mari looked up from where she stood at the kitchen island. Sophie didn’t. She was still concentrating on banging her pans together, a noise Mariliz had gotten used to.

She hadn’t heard him come in. As he was standing to her left, toward the side of the house, she was guessing that he’d entered from the garage and through the mudroom door. Mari loved the irony that there was a mudroom in this house—she didn’t think there was any mud in the neighborhood.

The man stared at her for a moment, his sandy brown hair a bit long, old t-shirt clinging to muscles that probably got a great workout over a drum set. Behind him, on the bottom step, sat a worn-out black nylon duffel bag. Something about him looked worn-out, too.

Mariliz Jennings didn’t care.

“Mr. Beaumont! . . . Alex.” She corrected. “I wasn’t expecting you for a few more hours.”

Good, she was free at last, and she opened her mouth to say so, but he beat her to it.

“Where’s Olivia?” He looked at the back of Sophie’s head, but she was engrossed in her work. “Is she up?”

“With this noise? Yes. She’s upstairs getting ready.”

Even as she spoke the words, the eight-year-old was jumping merrily down the steps. Dressed for school, but still barefoot, she flung herself into her father’s arms for a huge hug. He swung her around until she squealed, then set her down with a pat. “You still have to get ready. You still have school today.”

“I know, Daddy!” She bounded back up the stairs, hugs dispensed and her world righted when Mariliz hadn’t quite realized it was wrong. But what did anyone expect, throwing her to the lions like they had?  She’d done her best, and if she still had a job when she got back this evening, she’d be grateful.

Smiling, she decided to ignore all the seventeen thousand things she needed to talk to this man about in favor of the one pressing issue she had. “Now that you’re here, I’ll transfer the carseats and you can take Olivia to school.”

He blinked at her as though the thought had not crossed his mind. His mouth opened, but then he seemed to think better of it. His hand began a gesture, but quit mid-air. She noticed he still hadn’t hugged his younger daughter, or even gotten her attention. Mari did it herself.

Tapping the flat of her hand on the counter in front of the little girl, she grabbed her attention, then pointed a sweep up and back. Saying, look over there.

Sophie did, but she didn’t move. It was Alex who stepped closer and hugged his younger daughter and rubbed her head. Not the vigorous welcome he’d gotten from Olivia. Sophie barely reacted at all, and Mari fought the frown that wanted to come.

Something wasn’t spot-on here. It was likely it was Sophie. The girl wasn’t functioning on all cylinders. She hadn’t wanted to sign. “No” was useful, and she used it frequently, which was actually age appropriate, Mari noted. But getting her to sign other words was like pulling teeth. On the other hand, Mari had told her, “Go get your bag,” the other day, and Sophie had gone to do it. So she understood far more than she was saying.

She and Sophie were still feeling their way around things. It seemed that after two-and-a-half years, her father hadn’t found his footing with the child either. That was what bothered Mariliz.

Again, item number seventeen thousand and one that she didn’t have time for right now.

Alex Beaumont opened his mouth. “Can you take Olivia to school? I’ve been up since God-knows-when.”

He’d just gotten home. He’d been gone at least ten days. He didn’t want to drive his daughter to school? Then again, who was she to judge? Her own father had a nine-to-five job. Maybe Alex coming home was commonplace, and sometimes he was tired. She tried to be flexible. After all, she already planned on the morning loop to drop Olivia off at school.

“Okay, but when I get back, I need to head out. I need all the rest of the day off.” She was going to stand firm on that, despite the panic she saw blooming on his face. What kind of father was he?

“Surely you—”

Holding up a hand, palm toward him—she was gesture prone, go figure—she cut him off. “No, I can’t. I arrived here for an evening meeting and was abandoned with two children. I’m supposed to work an average of five days a week with evenings and weekends off. I’ve worked twenty-four/seven for nine days straight. I’m taking today off and you can give me extra days off or hazard pay.”

Her heart pounded.

She’d never done anything like that before. If Reynold wanted his party planned, she planned it. If he came in at the last minute and said her colors were stupid, she changed them. If he didn’t like the menu, she fixed it. Mostly, Mariliz Jennings did what was expected. But now she was divorced and working a nanny job to make ends meet. She’d also discovered that being a wife or a nanny was the only thing she was apparently qualified to do, and she wasn’t going to be a wife again.

She couldn’t afford to lose this job, but she was going to damn well stand up for herself for once in her life. Besides, Alex looked shell-shocked. She hated to take advantage of it, but she did it anyway.

Making the decision, he nodded briskly, then said softly, “Hazard pay.”

Her eyebrows arched. Was he so afraid of his own kids? Even Sophie the Terror wasn’t that bad. She reacted well to being ignored. In fact, she acted attention starved, so Mari had been playing with her, including her in tasks, praising her whenever she could, and turning her back on bad behavior. It was working. Sophie wasn’t perfect, she would always be noisy, but she wasn’t a complete terror anymore. Hazard pay, ha!

First step taken. Hazard pay meant she wasn’t getting fired. Mari took another one. “I’ll be back tomorrow at seven a.m. to get Olivia to school.”

He nodded. The man still looked shell-shocked. She wanted to feel sorry for him. Okay, she did feel sorry for him, but not enough to give up her day off. She had an old apartment to clean out. A key to turn in. A life of her own to freakin’ live.

“Come on, Olivia.” She hollered up the stairs. It was a routine of sorts. She left the older sister on her own for a while, but called her for breakfast each morning. Today, toaster waffles with peanut butter. If Mr. Drummer there wanted to complain, he could make pancakes himself.

He didn’t say anything. Just kissed Olivia on her head when she seated herself at the bar, and rubbed Sophie’s head as he passed by. Olivia reacted. Sophie didn’t.

“I’m going to take a nap.” He mumbled. “Knock on my door when you bring Sophie back after dropping off Olivia.” Alex picked up the bag off the steps and was halfway up before he turned around and really engaged. “Unless you found a daycare for her?”

“No.” Mariliz looked up the steps at him. He looked so hopeful not to have to interact with his youngest. Curiouser and curiouser. After the first mention, it hadn’t even really crossed Mari’s mind to find a daycare. Who would care for a deaf girl who didn’t speak or understand? How would she possibly interact well with other kids there when no one could communicate? Normal two-year-olds were just learning how to talk and say what they needed. No wonder Sophie was always getting asked to leave.

Alex looked defeated as he nodded and headed up the stairs.

Not my problem, Mari reminded herself as he disappeared, but it kind of was.


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