Ryan sat at the side counter, staring out the large windows at the mountains. That all too familiar shot of anger on his face pierced her heart with sniper accuracy.
She swallowed the lump of mourning, fostered her veteran widow duty, and joined him. “I’m sorry. I wish there was another way,” she said, snuggling Ryan into her side.
“I don’t want to stay with Mrs. Fletcher. She always talks about her dead husband.” Ryan inhaled a ragged breath, a bandage breath to cover the wound of no father. “Why can’t I go with you? I’ll be good, I promise. I can sit quietly and read.”
She pressed a kiss to his forehead and inhaled the musky scent of his big-boy shampoo. He was growing up so fast. He deserved to play with friends and have a life beyond her burdens. “I know you’d be good. It’s not that. Please, will you give it a try? We need this. If I’m able to get a job in nursing I won’t have to work seventy hours a week at two jobs to pay the bills.” Ryan sighed and she continued, “That’ll mean more time for us to play Clash of Clans on our iPads together.”
He smiled, a marathon-video-game-with-cookies smile. “I’ll try,” he muttered.
Julia messed his hair. “Thanks, buddy.”
Mrs. Fletcher sauntered like Grace Kelly toward them with a cup in each hand. “Here you go. One latte for mom and one white-chocolate milk for Ryan.”
“Thanks.” Ryan took a long drag from the to-go cup.
Mrs. Fletcher patted his head then turned her attention back to the espresso machines.
Cinnamon filled the air, soothing after such a traumatic morning. She took a sip then set it on the counter next to Ryan.
Cathy sashayed over to them with a broad smile. “You know, I’d be happy to watch Ryan for you. We’d have fun together. Right, kid? I bet we can even get Rebecca and Rusty to hang with us. I know she misses you after moving out of your house.”
Ryan spun on his stool. “Yeah! Can we?”
A little weight of parental obligation lifted from Julia’s shoulders. “Thank you. That would be nice. He misses Rebecca. We’re happy for them both, but he definitely misses her living with us.”
Cathy leaned close. “That’s not the only reason I offered, darling. I think it’s high time you got some ‘me’ time,” Cathy air quoted.
“If you’re implying I need to date, then you’ve lost so much weight that it’s shrunk your brain cells.” Julia shook her head. “No way. No how. I’m not ready for that. Besides, I don’t have the time.”
Cathy shifted and tilted her head to the side with her all-knowing brow lift. “That wasn’t what I was referring to, but I think Mrs. Fletcher may have put some truth serum in your coffee. Sounds like you’re the one who’s missing companionship.” She held up a hand to stall Julia’s protest. “Not that it’s any of my business. But who knows, maybe a man will just glide on past you one day and snag your attention.”
Yeah, right. That was the last thing she needed. When Cathy West took someone on as a project, it meant trouble. Julia made a mental note to stay far away from Cathy for a while and hope she set her sights on someone else.
Cathy glanced over her shoulder then back at Julia. “I should probably return to Judy before she gnaws through the table waiting for her husband and their guest. But I’ll see you later, little man.” She winked at Ryan and he grinned.
“You ready, Ryan? I need to drop you at camp and then head to work.”
“Yeess, maa’aam.” Ryan’s head drooped with defeat, but he hopped from the stool and snagged his white-chocolate milk. Julia offered her hand, but he stomped ahead and once more, she felt crushed under the weight of single parenting.
The front door opened and a gust of damp, warm air with a hint of cedar and manly cologne drew her attention. A man glided inside in a wheelchair. At one glance, she knew the man. A man with a flat top, dedicated gym time shoulders, jaw line chiseled by hard labor. A man of honor and code. A man dedicated to serving his country and who’d sacrificed both his legs for God and Country.
No, not a man. A hero. And she’d had enough of heroes.