Some habits were hard to break.
She bent down to scratch the cat behind the ears and got bit for her efforts. Yeah, definitely some habits were hard to break. She walked straight through the house and out the back door. In the backyard, she headed to the sole lounge chair. Plopping down, she hit speaker on her phone and finally accessed the messages, squinting as she did, as if that would help not hear them.
“Mallory,” Jane said in her Displeased Voice. “Call me.”
No thank you. Clearly her boss had seen the picture. Just as clearly, she assumed that Mallory had ignored her warning. Mallory supposed she should call in and let Jane know that the picture had been taken before their “talk.” Or that she was no longer seeing Ty. But tired of being the peacemaker, she hit delete.
“Wow, Mal,” came the next message. Tammy. “You’re one serious badass lately. If you find yourself heading to Vegas, make sure you buy the wedding package without the photos. You don’t need any pics; this one is perfect.”
Third message. “Mallory, this is Deena. From the grocery store? Yeah, listen, I play Bunko with a group every Wednesday night, and this week we had a drawing for who could go for Cute Guy and I won. So you’re going to need to back off. He’s mine.”
He’s all yours, Deena.
Sweet Pea bumped her head into Mallory’s shin. This wasn’t a show of love but a demand for more food. “You have no idea how good you have it, cat,” she said with a sigh. “All you have to do is sleep for, what, eighteen hours a day? No pressure, no expectations. No Mysterious Cute Guys messing with your head, giving you mixed signals.”
Except the mixed signals had been all hers. He’d been honest with her from the get-go. Well, if not exactly honest, he’d at least been up front.
Don’t fall for me, Mallory. That wouldn’t be good for either of us.
Right. She’d just stand firm and not fall.
Except she already had.
What is the meaning of life? All evidence to date points to chocolate.
After a sleepless night, Mallory worked a long shift, then took a detour home by Mrs. Burland’s house. Last night the HSC had hosted a healthy living seminar given by Cece Martin, the local dietician, and Mrs. Burland had promised to go. Mallory had looked over the sign-in sheet from the event but Mrs. B hadn’t shown up.
Mallory pulled into Mrs. B’s driveway. The yard was neglected, as was the house. With a bad feeling, Mallory got out of her car, grabbed the bag of groceries she’d picked up, and knocked at the front door.
No one answered.
Mallory knocked again, knowing that Mrs. B probably wouldn’t open the door to her, but something definitely felt off. She wriggled the handle, and the door opened. “Mrs. Burland?” she called out. “It’s me, Mallory Quinn.”
The voice sounded feeble and weak and somehow arrogant at the same time. Ignoring the command, Mallory walked inside the dark house and flipped on a light.
Mrs. Burland lay on the scarred wood floor at the base of a set of stairs.
Mallory dropped everything in her hands and rushed to her, setting two fingers against Mrs. B’s carotid artery to search out a pulse.
Sagging back on her knees, she let out a breath of relief. “You got dizzy and fell down the stairs?”
“No, I like to nap here,” Mrs. B snapped out. “I told you to go away. You have no right to be here.”
Okay, so little Miss Merry Sunshine was stringing her words together just fine, with no obvious disorientation. It was her vasovagal syncope then. Mallory ran a hand down the older woman’s limbs and found nothing obviously broken. “Can you stand?”
“Sure. I just chose to be the rug today,” Mrs. B snapped. “Why the hell are you here? Don’t you ever get tired of saving people? Why do you do it?”
“Well, in your case, I do it for your charming wit and sweet nature.” And anyway, there weren’t enough shrinks or enough time to cover why she really did it…“Can you sit up?”
Mrs. Burland slapped Mallory’s hands away but didn’t move.
Well, that answered that question. Mallory sat on the floor next to her and rifled through the bag of groceries she’d brought. “What’s going to float your boat today? I’ve got soup, a sandwich, or—”
“Just go away! I’m old. I’m alone. I’m going to die any second now. Just let me.”
“You’re not old,” Mallory said. “You’re just mean. And FYI, that’s why you’re alone. You could have friends if you’d stop snapping at everyone. Lucille’d take you into her posse in an instant if you were even the slightest bit less evil. She loves snark.”
“Hello,” Mallory said. “I’m sitting right here! You’re not alone. You have me.” She pulled out a snack-sized box of apple juice. “Your favorite.”
“Then how about some chicken soup?”
Mrs. Burland showed another sign of life as a slight spark came into her eyes. “Is it from a can?”
“No,” Mallory said. “I spent all day cooking it myself. After raising the chickens and growing the carrots and celery in my garden.”
Mrs. Burland sniffed. “I don’t eat soup out of a can.”
“Fine.” Mallory pulled out a bag of prunes.
Mrs. Burland snatched the bag and opened it with shaking fingers.
“You’re enjoying my misery?”
“I knew I’d get you with the prunes.”
After a minute or two, with the sugar in her system, Mrs. B glared at Mallory. “I’d have been fine without you.”
“Sure. You’d be even better if you took care of yourself.”
“What do you know? You’re not taking care of yourself either.”
“What does that mean?”
“In a storage attic?” Mrs. Burland asked snidely, then snorted at Mallory’s look of shock. “Yes, I heard about your little interlude. Someone caught your Mr. Garrison coming downstairs from the auction, and then you following him a few minutes later looking all telltale mussed up. Either you were practicing for a WWE tryout or you’d been having some hanky-panky. Don’t think just because I’m old that I don’t know these things. I remember hormones.”
Oh good Lord.
“And what kind of a woman dates a man who takes her to a storage attic?” Mrs. B wanted to know.
A red-blooded one. Ty Garrison was seriously potent, and Mallory defied even the most stalwart of women to be able to deny herself a Ty-induced orgasm. Just thinking it made her ache, because in spite of herself, she missed him way too much. She hoped he missed her too, that he wasn’t planning to fill the void with…Frances. “Actually,” she said, “it’s not really an attic, but more of a storage area. And we’re not dating.”
“So you’re giving away the milk for free?”
“First of all, I’m not a cow,” Mallory said. “And second of all, we’re not discussing this.”
“You’re trying to save him, right? Like you try to save everyone? Surely even you realize that a man like that isn’t interested in a small town nurse, not for the long term.”
The jab hit a little close to home because it happened to be true. But Mallory wasn’t trying to save Ty.
She wouldn’t have minded keeping him, though…“Watch it,” she said mildly. “Or the prunes come with me.”
They sat there on the floor for a few minutes longer while Mallory checked Mrs. Burland’s vitals again, which were stronger now. Then she glanced up and nearly screamed.
Jack Nicholson from The Shining stood in the front doorway.
Or Mr. Wykowski. He stepped inside. “Louisa,” he said quietly, eyes on Mrs. B. “You all right?”
The oddest thing happened. Right before Mallory’s eyes, Mrs. Burland changed. She softened. She…smiled. Or at least that’s what Mallory thought the baring of her teeth meant.
“Of course,” Mrs. B said. “I’m fine.”
“Liar,” Mr. Wykowski said, squatting beside her. “You get dizzy again?”
“Of course not.”
Mrs. Burland’s eyes darted away. “Maybe a little. But only for a minute.”
Mr. Wykowski nodded to Mallory. “Good of you to stop by. She doesn’t make it easy. She hasn’t figured out that we take care of our own here in Lucky Harbor.”
Mallory smiled at him, knowing she’d never be afraid of him again. “It’s good to know she’s not alone.” She shot Mrs. Burland a long look.
Mrs. Burland rolled her eyes, but shockingly not a single bitchy thing crossed her lips.
There were more footsteps on the front porch and then another neighbor appeared. Lucille. She was in a neon green track suit today, which wasn’t exactly flattering on a body that gravity hadn’t exactly been kind to. Her wrinkled lips were in pink. Her tennis shoes were black and yellow.
You needed a pair of sunglasses to look at her.
“There you are, Teddy,” Lucille said, smiling at Mr. Wykowski. “Ready for that walk around the block?”
Mrs. Burland narrowed her gaze. “He was visiting with me.”
Lucille put her hands on her hips. “You don’t even like visitors.”
“Out of my house.”
Lucille smiled. “Make me.”
Mrs. Burland narrowed her eyes.
Lucille held out her hand. “Need help getting up first?”
Mrs. Burland struggled up by herself, glaring triumphantly at Lucille when she did it. “I could beat you around the block if I wanted.”
“Yeah?” Lucille sized her up. “Prove it.”
“I’ll do that.” Mrs. Burland moved toward the door, where Mr. Wykowski carefully drew her arm into the crook of his. Then Lucille flanked Mrs. Burland’s other side.