Although I’m much improved since I was shot, I still tire easily, and a trip to the Cincinnati airport to drop off my parents exhausted me. They came to stay when I was released from the hospital, but they’re both professors at the University of Kansas and they needed to get back for the start of the new semester. Mom said the only reason she felt okay about leaving me was that she knew I had Mac to watch over me.
I took a nap in the afternoon, but I was still feeling draggy when Mac arrived from work, carrying take-out and a bottle of champagne. It was as much New Year’s Eve celebrating as either of us thought I could manage.
He set the bag and bottle on the counter, then hugged me carefully. “Did you get any rest today?”
“A little. I doubt I’ll make it to midnight, though.”
“That’s okay. The only new years I seem to usher in anymore are when I have to work a late shift.”
“Good. I’m glad to know you aren’t rigid in your holiday observances.”
Mac’s full name is Darren McElroy, and he’s a detective on the Montgomery, Ohio, police force. There’s a lot we don’t yet know about each other, but we’re working on it.
We ate the food he brought, and then I moved to the couch and continued to sip my one glass of champagne while he washed dishes. When he finished, he came to sit beside me. His arm curved around me, and I leaned my head on his shoulder.
“I’ve been wanting to ask you something,” he said.
“You’ve been asking me lots of things lately.” I yawned from the effects of the champagne on top of the trip to the airport.
“I know I have. But there’s something we haven’t talked about yet. And it’s maybe premature to bring this up. But . . .”
“What is it?”
I felt him pull in a deep breath, then release it.
“Kids,” he said.
My own breath stuttered. I’d been dreading the kids question, although I knew it was coming. Had to come. And it was better to face it sooner rather than later, although it was already too late for me not to have my heart broken if it was a deal-breaker for Mac.
I swallowed. “What about them?”
“How do you feel about them? Do you want any?”
Closing my eyes, I shuddered. “I’m sorry, Mac. I should have told you.”
He shifted until he could look at me, but I couldn’t face him. I buried my head more deeply in his shoulder.
“I-I can’t have children. The bullet did too much damage, and I . . .”
His arm tightened around me, and I held my breath waiting for his response, struggling to focus on the steady beating of his heart.
“I’m so sorry, Devi. I expect you wanted them, didn’t you.”
The tears I was trying to hold back slid down my cheeks. No matter how grateful I was to be alive or how happy I was that Mac and I had found each other, everything hurt when I remembered the surgeon delivering a full accounting of my injuries. He said I’d eventually be as good as new, except for residual twinges that might last for months. And, oh, by the way, I would never have a child.
Every time I let myself think about that, I pictured Mac with his neighbor Teddy. Teddy was five and has Down Syndrome, and Mac clearly loved him. From the first time I saw them together, I could tell Mac would be an exceptional father.
He kissed the top of my head. “It’s okay, love. I only asked because—” He stopped, and I waited. “You see my wife and I, that is my ex-wife. She wanted kids so badly that when it didn’t happen, she . . .” He heaved in a breath. “And I wasn’t sure I could deal with that again. But if you wanted—anyway, you need to know it’s okay. Not having any.”
I pushed myself upright and stared at him. This was the first time he’d said anything that sounded real about why his marriage failed. When I’d asked, he’d said only that Lisa had a hard time being a cop’s wife, and it caused them to grow apart. But this had to be the real reason. And it was huge.
“If you both wanted kids so much, why didn’t you adopt?”
“Lisa didn’t want to adopt.”
“What about you? How do you feel about adoption?”
“Lisa was so set against it; I didn’t give it much thought.”
I settled back against his shoulder, shaken at the bleak look I’d seen on his face.
“I’m so sorry.” And what an odd reversal that wa—this conversation ending with me consoling him, instead of him consoling me.
His arm tightened around me, and we didn’t talk at all for a while. Eventually I asked him what his favorite color was. He said purple. And when he asked me in turn, I replied that mine was turquoise. We continued to talk about mundane things for a while, although every few minutes, we’d stop talking and kiss instead. Somewhere in the middle of either talking or kissing, I fell asleep.
I awakened deep in the night to find Mac’s arm still around me and Mac himself sound asleep.
Feeling safe and cherished, I fell back to sleep myself.
Devi and Mac arrived for dinner New Year’s Day, both of them with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, either from the bitter cold or from inner warmth, and I’d put my money on the latter.
They weren’t making any announcements yet, but Lill and I had no doubts they would be soon. Clearly, they were in love, and it did my heart good to see it.
After we were seated and passing food around, Devi turned to me. “Hey, Lillian tells me the man who’s filling in for me is single. And attractive.” Devi was the associate activities director here at Brookside Retirement Community. But while she was recovering from being shot, a temporary replacement had been hired. “And an art lover. You two should have a lot in common.”
I glared at Lill, who looked serenely back. “Now that you and Mac are settled,” I told Devi, “Lill’s got time on her hands, and she’s using it to interfere in my life.”
Devi looked startled, but Mac grinned.
“Well,” Lill said, “I say Josephine better get on the stick and sign up for an activity or two before Myrtle stakes a claim. You know that Myrtle. She’s been in a dreadful tizzy since Norman showed up. Heard the hussy say she thinks he’s as dreamy as Harrison Ford.”
“Hmmph.” In my opinion, the words dreamy and Harrison Ford did belong in the same sentence. “Myrtle can stake all she wants. I’m not interested. Any more than you’d be if someone dreamy like Denzel Washington took over planning our activities.”
“Don’t know about that. Mm-mmm. If someone who looked like Denzel was doing the planning, I do believe I’d be doing the activying.” Lill, who turned sideways would nearly disappear, treated us to that deep, rich chuckle of hers.
“Oh, let Myrtle have her fun.”
“Myrtle and Norman . . . has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” Lill said, winking at Devi. “I suspect Bertie will be back on the market soon.”
That made me snort, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t sipping wine; I could have aspirated. “What a shame, Bertie being the catch he is.” Bertie had been the target of Myrtle’s romantic attentions up to now, and I was tired of hearing about it, even if Lill wasn’t.
Lill giggled, sounding for a moment seventy years younger than her eighty-two years. And I may be twelve years younger, but I have to work to keep up with her.
“You do realize, Josephine, that if Myrtle turns Norman into her toy boy, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Don’t you mean boy toy?” I didn’t know Lill even knew the term. “Oh, well. My loss. Besides, I have no interest in meeting another art lover. Hasn’t art gotten us all into enough trouble?”
“That wasn’t art’s fault,” Mac said. He and Devi had been watching the volleys between Lill and me with increasing mirth.
“No, of course not,” I said. “You know, speaking of art, I’ve had a thought.”
“That’s dangerous territory for you, Josephine,” Mac said. “Or if not for you, for the rest of us. Leads to all sorts of mayhem. Not to mention extra paperwork for me.”
“But you have to admit, Detective McElroy, without Lill and me, you never would have caught the Brookside thief.” Which was a rather highfaluting way of referring to Edna Prisant.
“I’m willing to concede that,” Mac said. “As long as you and Lillian agree to retire from crime fighting.”
I sighed. “I don’t think we have much choice. Nothing else is happening. It’s dreadfully boring.”
“Which is precisely why you need something, or someone, to spice up your life,” Lill said. “And I believe Norman’s just the ticket. Besides, he’s interested in you.”
“What I want to know is why on earth someone named Neumann would saddle their child with a name like Norman?”
“No accounting for white folks,” Lill said with an arch look. “Present company excepted.”
Lill liked to tease that she and I are Brookside Retirement Community’s yin and yang. Or, as she dubbed it, the Babbling Brook Retirement Community, in honor of the missing brook and some of the present annoying residents. I retorted that instead of the black and the white, we’re the black and the gray, and that always made her laugh.
“You know, Josephine, as improved as Devi’s looking, you need to get moving before Norman leaves.”
Devi leaned her chin on her hand and stared at Lill. “What makes you think Norman might be interested in Josephine?”
“Because he’s come up to me several times to chat.”
“Oh, well. That’s certainly a dead giveaway,” I said.
“He’s noticed we’re friends, and since you’ve been avoiding him, he figures on getting to you through me.”
“Really, Lill? That’s what you think? Here’s what I think. He’s heard the rumors about my painting, and he’s looking for a sugar mama.”
Lill hooted. “Oh, honey. That’s a good one. I’ll have to ask Norman about that and see what he says.”
“Don’t you dare. Really, Lill, this entire conversation is most undignified.”
“And to think it started with you having a thought,” Mac said, his lips twitching.
“Oh, yes. That. Well, here it is. But don’t say anything right now, Devi. Just think about it, and we’ll talk later.”
“What is it?” she said.
“I’m thinking about loaning Sea Watchers out to museums, and I need someone to coordinate the visits and make all the arrangements.” Devi was a curator at the Winterford Art Institute in Chicago before she came to Cincinnati, and she’d know exactly what to do.
She cocked her head and looked like she was thinking, then she straightened and opened her mouth.
“No, don’t say anything yet. I know you’ll need to think about it. After all, you may prefer to return to your job here at Brookside, and I’m okay with—”
“What if it’s yes, I’d love to do that? And, just tell me when I start.”
“Hmm, okay. Let’s get together this week and work out the details.”
Devi and I smiled at each other.
“I like it,” Lill said, beaming. “If Devi isn’t coming back, it means Norman will have to hang around a while longer.”