Chapter One

Leslie Raymond squatted in front of the broken sprinkler head in the backyard of her childhood home. It wasn’t a big job to fix it, but she’d have to get a replacement head. She always kept spares, but anything like that had been sold or given away, along with everything else, when she’d decided to move across the country for a fresh start.

“Are you going to water that dry grass?”

Leslie startled at the closeness of the voice. She lost her balance and toppled backward. “Holy sh—cow.” She caught her expletive when she realized it was a little girl standing beside her. She looked about seven, Elijah’s age. Leslie winced. She tried not to think of him, but he was always right there.

“Cows don’t have holes.” The little girl’s face was expressionless, her gaze fixed on the dry patch. “If they did, their intestines and internal organs would fall out.”

Leslie blinked. “Uh, yeah.” She rolled onto her side, then rose to her knees. “It’s just a saying. Kind of like…” She thought for a second. “Kind of like, oh my gosh.”

“My dad says holy shit sometimes. I’m not supposed to say it. Is it like that?”

There was something about the girl’s voice, or her tone, or her delivery…something…that drew Leslie’s attention. It seemed flat, her words tumbling slightly, almost on top of one another. “Yeah, like that.”

“Shit is poop and poop can’t have holes either because it’s gooey and smooshes, so that doesn’t make sense either.”

Leslie chuckled. “No, I don’t suppose it does.”

“My mom doesn’t like it when I talk about poop. Or wee-wee. Or vomit. Especially at dinner, but that’s when there’s the most to say about it because it’s all food. I think she doesn’t like to talk about vomit because she hates it when she throws up. She doesn’t like diarrhea either, but she reallyhates throwing up.”

Leslie glanced over her shoulder. Where’d this child come from? She noticed the open gate between her backyard and the neighbor’s. She remembered her parents putting it in years ago when they’d gotten close to the family living next door at the time and had invited them to use the pool whenever they wanted.

“Are you?” the girl asked.

Leslie tensed. What did I miss?These kinds of conversations with Elijah could go anywhere without notice. The combined joy and anguish the memory brought twisted into an ache in her heart. She hardened against it. “Am I what?”

“Are you going to put water on the dry grass?”

Leslie followed the girl’s still riveted gaze, then looked down at the sprinkler head in her hand. “Yes,” she said, relieved to be back in the present. She got to her feet. “As soon as I fix the sprinkler.”

“I like the smell of water on very dry grass,” the girl said matter-of-factly.

Leslie studied her profile. Her blond hair brushed the tops of her shoulders, and the tip of her small nose turned up ever so slightly, like a tiny ski slope. Leslie waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. “I’ll tell you what,” she said lightly. “When I get everything working, you can come over the first time I turn it on. Would you like that?”

The girl pursed her lips, as though thinking, then shook her head. “I don’t like sprinklers. They all go different ways at the same time. I don’t like things that go different ways at the same time. They make me have an episode.”

An episode? Ah, Leslie was starting to get it. Maybe some form of autism? She’d met a woman in Elijah’s playgroup when he was two, who had an older son “on the spectrum” as she’d called it. Leslie had learned a little about it from her. The boy went into hysterics one day when the fluorescent lighting was flickering. “Oh, well, I can understand that,” Leslie said, considering other options. “How about if we just water it with the hose? Then the water would only be coming out one way.”

For the first time, the girl turned and looked at Leslie, but her gaze skittered away again in an instant and landed somewhere past her. Her eyes widened. “You have a dog!”

Leslie turned to the dirty, skinny, scraggly dog sitting perfectly still at the edge of the redwood deck that stretched from the French doors of the family room. She’d picked him up at a rest stop a few days earlier and planned to take him to the animal shelter on Monday.

His amber eyes were intelligent and inquisitive as he watched them, his one huge ear standing straight up, reminding Leslie of a satellite dish. The other looked as though something had bitten it off halfway down its length. He’d been so quiet throughout her exchange with the little girl, Leslie had forgotten about him. Odd, since last she remembered, he’d been racing around the yard with a sock he’d stolen from her duffel bag, dodging her attempts to get it back. It now sat beside him, apparently having lost its appeal. “He’s not mine. I just found—”

The little girl moved toward him.

“Hey, you’d better not…I don’t know if he…” Leslie let her words and concern trail off as the dog lay down and rested his head on his paws at the girl’s approach. He rolled his eyes upward to look at her, his damaged ear twitching.

“He’s dirty,” she said, her tone entirely without judgment, merely an observation. “You have to wash him so I can pet him. I don’t like touching dirty things. Dirt by itself is okay because dirt is supposed to be dirty. It can’t help it. But things that are supposed to be clean can’t be dirty. I want a dog, but my mom says we don’t have time to take care of one.” She scrunched her face into a serious expression that made Leslie smile, presumably mimicking her mother’s gravity on the subject. “And she doesn’t want dog poop in the backyard, since I’m out there a lot. I told her at least she wouldn’t have to worry about vomit, because dogs eat their own vomit—they’re kinda gross that way, but I still want one. My mom still said no. What’s his name?”

Leslie was amazed at how much information could spill out of her in one burst. “Uh…I don’t know. I found him. I guess he’ll need a new name when he gets a new home.”

“I want his name to be Gus,” the girl said.

“Siena?” A woman’s voice drifted over the fence from the yard next door. “Siena, where are you?”

“Siena?” Leslie asked. “Is that yourname?”

The girl didn’t answer, seemingly mesmerized by the dog.

“There you are,” a woman said breathlessly as she hurried through the gate. Her mid-length, silver-gray hair shone in the afternoon sunlight in sharp contrast to the dark tint of the sunglasses that hid her eyes. She wore a blue and green flowered sundress that tied at one shoulder, leaving the other bare, and strappy, tan sandals snaked their way around her slender feet and pink painted toes.

Leslie tried to make herself speak, but her attention kept returning to the blue topaz and white gold teardrop earring that dangled just above the milky white skin where the woman’s neck curved into her shoulder. There was something ethereal about her.

“Oh!” the woman said in evident surprise when she saw Leslie. She came to an abrupt halt. “May I help you?” She edged her way toward the deck, positioning herself between Leslie and Siena.

Leslie gave her head a quick shake to focus. “I…uh…I just…” She heard the question again in her mind. “Help me what?”

“What are you doing back here?” The woman’s words were clipped. “This is private property. You’ll need to leave.”

Private? Leave? Suddenly, Leslie understood. “Oh, no. I live here.” She wiped her right hand on her cut-off jeans, leaving a smear of dirt and grass, then extended it to the woman. “I’m Leslie Raymond. I own the house.”

“Since when?” The woman glanced behind her at Siena, who remained fixated on the dog.

“Well…” Leslie felt like a doof, standing there with her hand sticking out to some woman she didn’t know but abruptly realized she knew way too much about—her feelings on poop and vomit and diarrhea, about dogs and dog poop—all things one usually didn’t know about someone at a first meeting. Sometimes never. “I’ve owned the house since my mother passed, nine years ago, and I’ve lived here since about two thirty this morning, when I pulled my car into the garage.”

“Oh.” The woman relaxed a little. “I thought the owner was selling.”

Leslie let her hand drop to her side. “She was,” she said with mild annoyance. “Now she’s not.”

The woman laughed softly. “I’m sorry. I can get overly vigilant about strangers. My daughter can be extremely friendly to people she’s never even seen before.”

Leslie nodded. “No problem. I can understand that.” She smiled. “She isquite a talker.” 

At the moment, though, Siena sat stoically beside the dog, her hands folded in her lap.

“Siena?” the woman said, turning her attention to her daughter. “Since you’ve been visiting with our new neighbor, did you introduce yourself like you’ve been working on in your class?”

A tiny frown tugged the corners of Siena’s mouth downward. She rose and walked stiffly to where her mother and Leslie stood.

Leslie fought back a smile in the name of parental solidarity.

“Hello,” Siena said, making eye contact fleetingly. “My name is Siena Cooper. It’s nice to meet you.” She held her hand out to Leslie.

Leslie took it gently, its smallness and fragility bringing a rush of emotion. It’d been a long time since she’d held a child’s hand. She’d missed it so much. “Hello, Siena,” she said, managing to keep her voice steady. “I’m Leslie Raymond. It’s nice to meet you, too.”

Siena turned immediately and went back to sit beside the dog.

Leslie chuckled. “And what about you?” she asked the woman in front of her. “Were you absent that day in class?” She smiled to soften the question to a tease.

The woman’s attention was still on Siena, or maybe the dog. With a start, she looked at Leslie. “I’m so sorry.” She held out her hand. “I’m Erica Cooper. We’ve lived next door for the past four years.” Her fingers were soft and slender in Leslie’s stronger grip, her skin seeming to put off a light glow in contrast to Leslie’s darker olive complexion.

Leslie felt a twinge of loss when Erica released her hand, as though something she’d wanted for a long time had just slipped through her fingers. It was the strangest thing. Was it merely attraction? No.Erica wasn’t her type—or at least if she had a type, Erica wouldn’t be it. Do I still have a type? What had it been? Nine years since I’ve been on an actual date? Who knew what her type would be these days? But it wouldn’t be this woman. Despite her gray hair—probably prematurely gray—Erica was most likely a lot younger than Leslie’s fifty-three years, since she had such a young child, andthere was that—she had a child. First and foremost on Leslie’s list for potential dates, she’d sworn off women with kids. And younger women. “Leslie Raymond,” she heard herself repeating.

Erica smiled. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing you again, Leslie, but right now…” She looked at Siena. “We were going to take a walk. Remember, Siena?”

“I don’t want to anymore,” Siena said, her tone unequivocal. “I want to stay with Gus, even if he’s dirty.”

Erica paused. She slid her sunglasses down her nose with her fingertip and peered over the top. “He’s filthy.” She shifted her gaze to Leslie.

Leslie stared, transfixed, at the light blue eyes that were clearly sizing her up—not simply light blue, a pale blue with specks of sapphire. At the judgment in them, though, she flushed with embarrassment. Her defenses flared. “No, no. He’s not my dog. I found him like that. I’d take much better care of him if he were mine.” Hmmm, that didn’t sound a lot better. 

“Erica!” A man’s voice broke the early afternoon quiet.

Erica slipped her sunglasses back into place, the slightest hint of annoyance flashing in her eyes before they vanished behind the tinting once more. “Next door,” she called in response.

And there he was at the gate. The dad. The husband. The man. The all-important element of what it took to create a normal and healthy family environment, according to some people.

And that cinched Leslie’s earlier question of whether Erica could be her type. Younger. Straight. Married. And with a kid. Leslie’s stomach clenched with a wave of nausea. Ain’t no flippin’ way. She wanted to turn away from this guy, didn’t want to deal with him and everything he represented, but nothing that had happened was his fault.

“Trent,” Erica said, “this is Leslie Raymond, our new neighbor.”

“Hey.” Trent stepped up beside her and shook Leslie’s hand, but his attention was on Erica.

“Leslie, this is—”

“Have you seen my cell?” he asked Erica. “I would’ve sworn it was on the nightstand.”

“I put it on the charger in the kitchen,” Erica said, evidently letting go of the introductions. “You only had one bar.”

He smiled. “Thanks, hon.” He kissed her cheek. “You’re the best.”

“Don’t forget we’re going to walk down to the park with Siena.” Erica’s tone held a hint of resignation.

“Yeah, yeah,” Trent said, backing away. “I just have to make one call.”

Leslie watched the exchange with curiosity. She definitely saw Siena in him—the blond hair and brown eyes, the slight slant of his mouth when he pressed his lips together. She felt Erica’s scrutiny of her as well, even though she could no longer see those eyes.

Trent turned and strode back through the arbored gateway and across his own patio, then disappeared into the house.

Leslie could only stare after him, stunned at how summarily she’d been discounted.

“Don’t take it personally.” Erica’s smooth voice cut through Leslie’s astonishment. “He’s preoccupied.” With her own abruptness, she turned to Siena. “Come on, sweetie. Let’s let Leslie start getting settled.” She held out her hand.

“I want to stay with Gus.” Siena scooted closer to the dog but still didn’t touch him. “I want to pet him when he’s clean.”

“Sweetie, I’m sure Leslie has things to do, and so do we.” Erica sounded patient, practiced, as though this tableau wasn’t uncommon. She glanced at Leslie.

Leslie couldn’t tell if she was seeking help or confirmation. “I’ll tell you what, Siena,” she said, moving toward the deck. “I have to go buy some dog shampoo before I can give…” She faltered. Her grandfather had always said once you name something, it’s yours, and she didn’t intend to keep…Gus. Damn it. “Before I can give Gus a bath,” she continued. “How about you go for your walk with your folks, and I’ll bring…Gus…over later so you can pet him.”

Siena and Gus looked at each other. “Okay,” Siena said, standing abruptly. She took a step, then halted, her gaze on the dry spot in the lawn again. “What about the grass? I want to smell it.”

Leslie chuckled at Siena’s determination and focus on her two goals. “That’ll just take a few minutes. We could do that now.” She caught herself. “If it’s okay with your mom.” She looked up to find Erica smiling at her.

“She’s been watching that spot for several weeks,” Erica said.

Leslie took that as a go-ahead and clapped her hands. “All right. Let’s take care of it.” She ushered Siena to the rolled up hose by the faucet, careful not to touch her. She knew some people with autism didn’t like to be touched, and though she also knew that wasn’t true of all from a documentary on Netflix—not to mention the fact that she wasn’t even sure Siena had autism—she didn’t want to take any chances of violating some kind of boundary with her. She gave Siena the end of the hose and waited while she selected the perfect position beside the dry spot. “Ready?” she called out.

Siena nodded excitedly.

Leslie turned on the water and watched as Siena’s face took on an expression of pure concentration.

After a moment, Siena closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Her lips parted and a huge smile spread across her face.

Leslie looked at Erica, who’d sat down in the precise spot Siena had vacated, her arms looped around her knees, and saw the exact same smile of pure joy shaping Erica’s lips as she gazed at her daughter.

So there was one thing Siena had gotten from her mother—that smile. And it was infectious. Leslie couldn’t help but grin. She waited, simply watching, remembering her own moments of joy with Elijah. She crossed to the deck and sat beside Erica.

“Thank you for doing this,” Erica said, her voice soft and tender.

“Sure, it’s no problem.” Leslie rested her forearms on her knees and clasped her hands. From the corner of her eye, she saw Erica turn to her, but Erica didn’t speak.

She seemed to be studying Leslie.

Leslie fidgeted under the scrutiny.

“Most people wouldn’t have realized the importance of such a seemingly silly thing,” she said finally. “Or even if they did, wouldn’t have taken the time.”

Leslie considered the circumstances of her life. No schedule. No conventional job to report to. No one to speak of to account to for her whereabouts. No family obligations, except for dinner with her cousin Nell the following Wednesday. Some people would view such a brand new, clean slate exciting, and maybe it would be once she got settled. For now, it felt lonely. She let herself live vicariously through Siena’s excitement about the smell of water on dry grass. She turned to Erica and smiled. “Time is something I have plenty to give.”

Erica kept watching her.

Leslie wished she could see her eyes for at least a hint of what she might be thinking.

“So where are you from?” Erica glanced back to Siena.

The relief of no longer being under Erica’s concentrated focus swept through Leslie like a gentle summer rain. How odd that she could feel the intensity of her stare without being able to see it. She relaxed. “Technically, I’m from here.” She tilted her head toward the house. “But I’ve been in Florida for the past twenty years.”

“And now you decided to come home?” Erica seemed at ease. She was obviously comfortable with people, even new ones.

“Yep.” Leslie couldn’t think of anything else to say that didn’t open up the subject to more than she wanted to share, but Erica saved her from the awkwardness.

“And you drove all the way home?” she asked. “That’s a long way to drive.”

“Yeah, well, you know…” Leslie shrugged. “There’s never a pair of ruby slippers around when you need them.” She offered a grin.

Erica returned a slow smile.

“I’m done,” Siena called.

Leslie and Erica looked to her in tandem.

She dropped the hose and headed toward the gate.

“I guess we’re ready for our walk.” Erica laughed as she rose. “Thank you for letting her do that.”

“My pleasure.” Leslie chuckled. “If only everyone’s needs were so easily met.”

Erica moved across the yard, following Siena. As though in afterthought, she turned around. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she said, walking backward. “Maybe we’ll see you again after you’ve washed your dog?” The sentence trailed up at the end in question.

“He’s not my dog,” Leslie said as he trotted up to the deck and jumped up beside her.

“So you’ve said.” Erica laughed, then turned with a wave over her shoulder.

Leslie watched the dog…Gus…as he stared after Erica until she disappeared around the corner of the gate. Then he looked up at Leslie. “You’re not my dog,” she said to him.

He cocked his head.

After turning off the water, Leslie began to recoil the hose. When she bent to free it from where it looped around a tree root near the dry patch, she inhaled deeply. She’d never noticed the smell of water on dry grass, but now that she did, she found it strangely pleasant—simultaneously earthy and lightly refreshing. She glanced toward the Coopers’ backyard. It never ceased to amaze her what she learned from children.

Later, as she sipped from a bottle of orange juice, she stared out the living room window and took in the street she’d grown up on. The trees were bigger, the hedges higher, and some of the houses had additions or had been remodeled completely, but she remembered racing down the same sidewalk on her bike, Nell on the handlebars, on their way to an adventure. She tried to imagine Elijah learning to ride a bike on that same sidewalk, then swallowed hard against the sudden ache in her heart. She looked down at the dog—that wasn’t her dog—at her feet, his front paws on the low windowsill and his wet nose smearing the glass.

He tilted his head back and gazed up at her.

“What the heck am I doing here?” she asked, half expecting a response. She got one.

He wagged his stub of a tail.

She sighed. “If only I understood what that meant.” She knew what she was doing there, though. She didn’t have to ask. I’m here to get as far away from Miami as I can. To make a fresh start. And it’d been practical to return to California. She owned a house here outright and could live in it for free. She needed furniture, of course, but that was remedied easily enough. She scanned the living room. Even empty, it held her memories. 

She’d first moved into this house with her parents when she was eight and lived there until she’d left for college at eighteen. They’d been a family there—a small one, with Leslie being the only child, but a family, nonetheless. She’d come home for frequent visits over the many years since, until her father’s fatal heart attack ten years earlier and her mother’s quiet and serene passing in her sleep a year later. Leslie hadn’t been home again since her mother’s funeral, but she’d been unable to let go of the house and had leased it out. She’d even thought briefly at one point about maybe bringing Cassie and Elijah here to live, but that family was gone, too. What the hell did she need with a family home?

Movement outside drew her attention. The Coopers strolled past—Erica holding Siena’s hand, Trent on the other side, his cell phone pressed to his ear. They seemed an odd unit, or maybe it was only Erica. She seemed older than most women with seven-year-olds, which wasn’t impossible, of course. Leslie glanced at Trent and saw the shimmer of some gray at his temples she hadn’t noticed before. She looked back to Erica, remembered her eyes—that pale blue that had captured Leslie’s attention so fully—then in those few seconds she’d tipped her glasses down, the crinkled corners. And now that she thought about it, faint laugh lines around her mouth. Maybe she was closer to Leslie’s age.

Did that change anything, though, make her Leslie’s new type, make Leslie remotely interested in anything other than being neighbors? No. She’s still straight, still has a husband, and still has a kid. Three strikes. And you’re out.

Leslie would have to be an idiot to end up there again.

And she was no idiot.

 

Chapter Two

Erica poured herself another glass of iced herbal sun tea, then lifted the carafe to her best friend.

Becky shook her head. “I should go soon. I think we’ve pushed our luck with the amount of time Rosi and Siena have been in the same room together without one of them having a meltdown.”

Erica smiled. “They do seem to be getting along better than usual today.”

“Should we check to make sure one didn’t fall asleep and the other one quietly smothered her?” Becky asked conspiratorially.

Erica squinted past her through the sliding screen door and into the family room. The girls sat next to each other on the sofa just inside the door working on a jigsaw puzzle. “Nope,” Erica whispered, never sure when Siena was aware of her surroundings and when she was completely absorbed in her own world. “I can see them. They’re both still upright and breathing.”

Erica had met Becky in the support group for parents of children with autism when she’d moved to California four years earlier. They’d become fast friends, but their daughters were an entirely different story. Siena and Rosi had nothing in common aside from their age and the fact that they were both on the spectrum. Even where they fell on the spectrum differed, Siena being high functioning, Rosi moderate to low. Erica and Becky had decided to push them, though, so they themselves could enjoy a supportive friendship. The first few play dates had been rough, but after a while the girls seemed to get used to one another enough to coexist when they were together. 

“Yowza! Who’s that?” Becky asked.

Erica returned her attention to Becky to find she’d lifted her sunglasses and was blatantly staring into the yard next door. She glanced over her shoulder. She knew exactly what she’d see, but she looked anyway, just to enjoy the view. From her raised patio, she could easily take in the back end of the adjacent property that held the fenced pool. “That’s my new neighbor,” she said appreciatively before returning her gaze to Becky.

“Wow!”

Erica shook her head. “I know you love Jack, and you told me when we first met that you’re straight, but sometimes I wonder.” Erica enjoyed teasing Becky, knowing that she looked at women for Erica, not for herself. She was always on alert to find someone for her to settle down with. She even tried to fix her up on blind dates from time to time, until Erica would put her foot down. Then they’d have another serious talk about why she was done with relationships, and things would go back to normal. Erica did hook up with someone occasionally, only for the physical release, though, nothing more.

“What can I say? You’ve taught me to appreciate a beautiful woman.” Becky dropped her glasses back into place. “Besides, look at those legs. I’d do anything to have legs like that. Except, you know…eat right and exercise. Even then, I don’t think mine would look that good.” She lifted her shades again for a second perusal.

In the quick peek Erica had taken, it wasn’t Leslie’s legs she’d noticed. Leslie had been bent over the pool pump, those short little cut-off jeans hugging her hips and a very fine ass. Now that Becky mentioned it, yes, the legs were pretty fine, too. What really stuck in her mind, though, was from earlier—the outline of plump nipples tipping small breasts, just the perfect handful, beneath the faded orange tank top that draped loosely over her torso. It’d been all Erica could do to remain focused on Siena, introductions, and small talk while Siena watered the grass.

“Hello?” Becky’s slightly raised voice halted Erica’s meandering thoughts.

“Yes, her legs are nice,” Erica said, taking a drink of tea. “Stop gawking. She can see us, too, if she turns around.”

Becky smirked. “I asked if you’d met her yet. If she’s single. Do you know if she likes women?”

“Oh.” Erica’s ears went hot. Busted.“Yes, I met her this morning for about five minutes. Amazingly, though,” she said with mock astonishment, “we didn’t discuss our sexual orientations or marital status.” Although, she did say I a lot.

Becky eyed Erica. “So with this nonchalant act you have going, do you really expect me to believe you don’t think she’s hot?”

“Of course I think she’s hot.” Erica rolled her eyes to keep from stealing another glance over her shoulder. “Because…she’s hot. But what do you expect me to do? I just met her this morning.”

“So in a week or two, you’ll hit on her?” Becky grinned.

“Of course not. She’s my next-door neighbor. I can’t sleep with my next-door neighbor.”

“Right, because it would be awkward. And you can’t date your next-door neighbor, because what if it all went wrong?” Becky did her best impression of Erica’s arguments. “Just like you can’t date someone you work with, or the manager of your bank, or the guy on the maintenance crew at the girls’ school.”

“Becky, please. Don’t start.” Erica averted her gaze and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “You know why I don’t date. It’s too hard.”

Becky sighed. “Okay. You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just that when we first met and you told me about yourself, I thought, wow bi andsingle! I was sure I’d get to hear twice as many hot sex stories. I’m supposed to be able to live vicariously through you, but you’re utterly boring.”

“I know. I’m a disappointment.” Erica hung her head, feigning shame. “I do tell you about the sex I have when I have it, though. Doesn’t that count?” She smiled at Becky.

“Of course it counts. But, woman, Ihave sex more than you do, and I’vebeen married for fifteen years.” Becky tilted her head, obviously looking past Erica again. 

“Is she still there?” Erica asked, lowering her voice as though Leslie might be able to hear her from a hundred feet away.

“Oh yeah,” Becky said. “She’s strutting around like the pool guy in a porno movie, only, in this case, a pool girl.”

Erica chuckled at the reference. She wanted to look so badly but consoled herself with an image in her mind from earlier. This time, though, what struck her was the smile Leslie had flashed when Siena had introduced herself, the spark of warmth in her lush brown eyes when she’d watched Siena water the grass. And her hair…that thick brown hair, only slightly darker than her eyes, that fell just past her shoulders. It looked like it’d be so soft to the touch. The white strands that wove through it shimmered in the sunlight.

“You’re going to at least look, though, right? Enjoy the eye candy?”

Erica blew out the breath she’d been holding. “How could I not?”

“Okay, good.” Becky leaned back into her chair. “And if you ever do—”

Erica cut her off sharply with a warning look.

Becky held up her hands. “Okay, I won’t go there again. Maybe we should focus on men for you,” she added, humor sparking in her eyes. “And speaking of men, where’s Trent?”

“He had to leave,” Erica said without emotion. “He had to get back to Chicago for some emergency meeting tomorrow.”

“Really? A meeting on a Sunday?” Becky frowned. “Did he reach his breaking point with Siena already?”

Erica didn’t bother defending Trent’s excuse for leaving. “It seemed to come sooner this time for some reason.” She ran her fingertip through the condensation on her glass. “He only made it three days. I’m not sure what was going on with him.”

“Kudos to you for even caring.” Becky pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head and met Erica’s eyes. “If Jack bailed on me and left me to raise Rosi on my own, I’d never let him into the same room with me—for his own safety.”

“Trent does the best he can, just like we all do,” Erica said softly. “You know how hard it is dealing with autism. Some people just can’t do it. Besides, Trent and I never had the marriage you and Jack do, even before Siena. I’m just glad he’s come around to the degree he wants to visit at all. I think, in the long run, it will be good for both him and Siena.”

“As I said, girlfriend.” Becky raised her glass to Erica. “Kudos to you.”

Erica smiled.

“Would you ever take him back?” Becky asked. “I mean, if he really stepped up with Siena?”

“No.” Erica didn’t have to think about it. “The divorce was the best thing that could have happened to us. We would have ended up hating each other if we’d stayed together. This way, we both have the chance to be happy.”

“Are you?” Becky asked. “Happy, I mean?”

This time Erica did think. She looked at Siena through the screen, then glanced around her patio. She thought of the quiet routine of her job teaching journalism at the junior college and her evenings and weekends at home with Siena. She smiled. “I’m content. And at peace. And I think that’s enough. I like that it’s only me and Siena, that there isn’t someone else whose needs I have to worry about. That was one of the hardest things with Trent, after Siena was born. Then when her behavior started to escalate and she was diagnosed, it became impossible. Everything’s better this way.”

Becky’s expression was reflective. She clearly wanted to say something but didn’t.

Erica was grateful. She needed to relax. It’d been such a relief when Trent had left. There’d been so much tension in the air during this visit, but he hadn’t said what was bothering him, and she wasn’t in the mood to ask. His interaction with Siena, or lack thereof, had been typical—he still hadn’t found a way to be comfortable with her, but at least he was trying. And he was preoccupied with work, but that was nothing new. He’d been that way since the day he and Erica met. In fact, that was one of the things that had attracted her to him, since she’d been focused on building her career as a television newscaster at the time and needed to be available to travel at a moment’s notice. On this visit, though, Trent had been on edge. There had been a moment, late Friday night after Siena was in bed and he and Erica were sitting outside, when he’d looked at her and she thought he might have something he’d wanted to discuss. But then he’d simply said good night and gone inside.

Becky sighed. “Well, I need to grab my kid and head home,” she said, clearly deciding to keep her remaining thoughts to herself. “See you Monday at the meeting?” She downed the rest of her tea.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Erica said.

 

v

 

Erica scattered the crispy onions on top of the macaroni and cheese she’d made for dinner, then set the casserole dish back in the oven. “Did you have a good time with Rosi this afternoon?” she asked Siena.

Seated at the kitchen table, Siena swapped the blue crayon she’d been using to color in the sky in her picture for a red one. “No,” she said without looking up. “I don’t like Rosi.”

“You seemed to be sharing your puzzle with her nicely.” Erica closed the oven door.

“That’s because you said I had to. I don’t like it when Rosi touches my puzzle pieces.”

“I see.” Erica still sometimes mistook Siena’s compliance for the possibility that she was enjoying something. Wishful thinking, most likely. When Siena truly enjoyed something, though, there was never any doubt. Erica thought of the pure happiness on Siena’s face when she’d been watering the grass earlier that morning. She smiled. “Well, I appreciate you letting Rosi spend time with you so Becky and I could talk for a while. Thank you.” She stroked Siena’s hair. It was one of the displays of physical affection Siena had grown to accept from her.

“You’re welcome.”

Siena’s reply was rote, but it was better than what it would have been two months earlier. Erica was grateful for the social skills class Siena was enrolled in for the summer. It was making a difference in how she interacted with people in general. While Erica knew Siena wasn’t being rude in her responses, the rest of the world wouldn’t, and Siena needed to be able to function out in the world. “Dinner’s almost ready,” she said, cupping the back of Siena’s head. “Finish up your drawing, okay?”

A clang from outside on the patio and a scratching sound on the screen interrupted their exchange.

“Hey, get back here. We weren’t invited in.”

Erica recognized Leslie Raymond’s voice. Then a loud rattle and scraping sound carried inside, and a tan and white flurry launched itself into the kitchen, heading straight toward Siena.

Erica’s heart leapt into her throat as her protective instincts flared. She grabbed for Siena.

“Gus!” Siena’s squeal was filled with joy.

The dog skidded to a stop in front of her, and his whole body became a wriggling mass as he twisted and squirmed, flopping onto the floor, then leaping into the air. He never jumped on Siena, though.

Siena slipped from her chair and knelt before him. He immediately stilled, and she threw her arms around him. “You’re clean!”

And there it was—unadulterated, unequivocal enjoyment. Erica laughed, even as she patted her chest to calm her heartbeat.

“Jeez. I’m so sorry,” Leslie said from the kitchen doorway. “He took off the second we came through the gate.”

Siena ran her hands all over the dog’s head, behind his ears, and down his back. She buried her face in his fur.

He stood on his hind legs, his front paws in her lap, his back end and stubby tail shaking like a paint mixing machine.

“Really, I’m sorry,” Leslie said again. “Gus—or whatever your name is—get down.” She grabbed the dog and started to pull him away.

“Nooo,” Siena cried. “I want him.”

“It’s okay,” Erica said, grasping Leslie’s wrist, while still trying to get control of herself. “He’s okay. Siena’s fine.”

Leslie stepped back and ran her fingers through her disheveled hair. Its disarray and her distressed expression made her look adorable. “I’m so sorry.”

Erica started laughing again.

Siena giggled, her arms tightly around Gus as he wildly licked her ear.

“It’s fine,” Erica said, finally gaining some composure. She met Leslie’s gaze. “Would the two of you like to come in?” She broke into laughter again.

This time, Leslie joined her. “Thank you. I think we will.”

“You gave him a bath,” Siena said excitedly still running her hands through his fur.

“Actually, I couldn’t stand the thought of it, so I took him to a groomer,” Leslie said. She looked between Siena and Erica. “And you’ll be happy to know that the groomer gave him an ‘A’ for his behavior—except for when she tried to file his toenails. He doesn’t like his feet messed with. And he got a doggie treat. And…” She held up a PetSmart bag. “I got a few toys for you and him to play with,” she said to Siena.

Siena scrambled to her feet. “Can I see?”

“Of course.” Leslie handed her the bag, then knelt and scratched behind Gus’s ear.

Gus tilted his head into her hand and let out a loud groan.

“Look, Mommy, a ball. And a rope with a tire,” Siena said, her pitch high.

Erica loved it when Siena called her Mommy. It only happened when she was excited.

“Can we go outside and play?”

“Sure.” Another chuckle slipped from Erica’s throat. “But keep in mind dinner’s almost ready.”

“Okay,” Siena said. “C’mon, Gus.” She raced out of the kitchen, the dog at her heels.

When they were alone, Erica smiled at Leslie. “You just made one little girl very happy. Again.”

“Not me,” Leslie said, putting her palm to her chest. “That crazy dog. And don’t worry. I’ll take care of your screen before I leave.”

“What?” Erica asked, alarmed. “What happened to my screen?”

Leslie laughed. “He just knocked it off the track in his desperation to get to Siena. It’s an easy fix.” She slid her hands into the back pockets of those little cut-offs she still wore, drawing Erica’s attention to the long, shapely legs Becky had gone on about—and they werelong.

For the first time, Erica noticed that Leslie stood a few inches taller than her, at least five nine or five ten. At five foot eight, Erica was used to being the one to lower her gaze with another woman, not raise it. It was a novel feeling, and she liked it. She cleared her throat, then stepped around Leslie and moved to the counter to finish the salad she’d been making. “Would you like to join us for dinner as a thank you for making Siena so happy?”

“That’s all right.” Leslie faltered. “I don’t want—”

“Are you sure? There’s plenty.”

Leslie glanced around, indecision in her eyes. “It does smell good.”

“Homemade macaroni and cheese,” Erica said tauntingly. “Salad. And peanut butter chocolate brownies for dessert.”

Leslie groaned. “That sounds way better than the Twinkies and Funyuns we got from the gas station last night.”

“We?” Erica arched an eyebrow. “You fed your dog Twinkies and Funyuns?”

“He had some kibble I picked up, too, but yes, he did have a bite or two of Twinkie. He looked sad.” Leslie shrugged. “And he’s not my dog. Remember? I found him?”

“That’s right.” Erica smiled and nodded. “I forgot. So what did you decide about dinner? Should I make you a salad?”

Leslie hesitated. She looked down at herself. “I don’t know. I’m really dirty. I’ve been working in the yard and on the pool all day.”

Erica kept herself from following Leslie’s gaze over the soiled and sweaty tank top and dirty cut-off jeans, because she knew it wasn’t the dirt she’d see. She didn’t need to be ogling her new neighbor. “It’ll be another twenty minutes before the mac and cheese is done, if you want to run home and get cleaned up.” She kept her attention on the tomato she was slicing.

Another pause. “Really?” Leslie sounded more tempted. “You wouldn’t mind me barging in on your dinner?”

“You’re not barging in. I’m inviting you.”

“All right, I’ll be quick.”

The eagerness in Leslie’s voice made Erica smile. She wondered how long Leslie had been on the road, making meals out of the offerings of gas station vending machines and convenience stores. “No rush. We can wait for you.”

As Leslie made her way from the kitchen, Erica put together a third place setting, added it to hers and Siena’s, and headed out to set the patio table. When she rounded the corner, she halted, a sharp gasp escaping her lips.

Leslie stood on the other side of the screen door, her legs spread wide, her arms outstretched as she gripped both ends of the door, her head tipped back as she stared up at the slot it fit into. In that position, her hips were thrust forward and her breasts strained against the well-worn fabric of the tank top. The slender column of her neck stretched backward, making Erica wonder what those taut muscles would feel like beneath her mouth. Heat flooded her body, and she felt herself flush.

“There we go,” Leslie said, fitting the bottom of the door into the track at the threshold. She slid it open and gestured Erica through. “All fixed.”

Erica inhaled a steadying breath, then walked outside. The movement took her closer to Leslie than she was comfortable with, but it was only for a split second.

“I’ll be back in a few,” Leslie said. She jogged across the patio, then hopped off the one step onto the walkway that led to the gate.

Erica took a moment to breathe. Surely, her reaction to this woman who’d simply shown up this morning almost in Erica’s backyard would wear off. Or maybe I just need to get laid. She’d learned to maintain a somewhat crass terminology around that particular subject in order to keep the romantic that was her natural inner voice under wraps. How long has it been? When no answer came, she turned her attention to Siena while her body finished its cooling process. The sight brought a smile to her lips.

Siena threw the ball for Gus, who chased after it, scooped it up, then raced in circles and figure eights around the yard with it clutched in his mouth, while Siena shrieked and clapped her hands. Then he came to a screeching halt in front of her, dropped the ball at her feet, and sat, clearly waiting for the next round.

Erica cast a glance into the yard next door and wondered who Leslie Raymond was. Who was this new neighbor, this stranger, who’d manage to delight Siena twice in one day? It wasn’t that Siena was a sullen child. She laughed. She played. She had favorite books and movies and toys that entertained and amused her. But this level of happiness and fun didn’t usually come twice in a day. It rarely came twice in a week. An uneasiness rustled through her.

She didn’t know anything about Leslie, only that she owned the house next door, she was moving from Florida, and she’d found the dog on her way here. And she somehow knew just what to do to make Siena smile. That was a good thing, of course. How could making someone smile not be good? So why did it make Erica uneasy?

A playful yip from Gus pulled her back to the moment. And what about the dog? Leslie kept saying he wasn’t hers. Did that mean she wasn’t keeping him? 

Erica could tell Siena had already claimed him in that way she assumed ownership of anything she liked—it was her form of attachment—and if he suddenly disappeared, Siena would be triggered. It was one of the areas in which they had yet to find any successful replacement behaviors. Siena would ultimately be okay, but it hurt Erica’s heart to see her go through such trauma. Leslie knew his name, though, or had given him one, and Gus seemed comfortable with her. Somehow, Erica doubted he was going anywhere, even if Leslie might not know it yet. She hoped she was right.

Erica went back inside to start bringing out the food and drinks. When she stepped outside on her final trip with the macaroni and cheese in hand, Leslie had returned and was sitting on the lawn with Siena, Gus on his haunches between them. Leslie pointed up into the twilight sky and was saying something to Siena that Erica couldn’t hear.

Siena listened, then seemed to be repeating Leslie’s words.

Leslie grinned. “That’s great,” she said, her voice rising in evident enthusiasm.

Erica watched as Siena smiled brightly yet one more time. “Dinner’s ready,” she called across the yard. “Siena, please get washed up before you sit down.”

As Siena raced past Erica and into the house, Gus at her heels, Leslie sauntered up to the table. Her hair looked damp, her face scrubbed clean, and she’d changed into tan jeans, a dark orange, button-up shirt tucked in at the waist with the sleeves rolled to just below her elbows, and brown flip-flops.

Erica was glad she had more clothes on, but she still felt the tug of arousal from earlier when she looked at Leslie. She’d have to get a grip on that. She’d meant what she’d said to Becky. She couldn’t get involved with someone who lived next door. The situation held too many inherent complications, and they’d only met that morning. Leslie might make a good friend, for both her and Siena, though.

“This looks great,” Leslie said, scanning the table. “And by candlelight, no less.” Her tone was playful.

Erica laughed. “It’s citronella. It keeps the bugs away.”

Leslie smiled knowingly. “Isn’t your husband joining us?” she asked, taking in the three place settings.

Erica pulled out a chair and sat before answering. She didn’t want to talk about Trent for some reason, not with Leslie.Normally, she had no problem with that. But she didn’t really like discussing him in front of Siena, and Siena would be back shortly. “No,” she said finally. “Something came up at work.”

Leslie’s expression softened as she lowered herself into her own chair. “I hope everything’s okay.”

The screen door slid open, and Siena and Gus were back.

“Your dog seems to have made a new friend,” Erica said, watching the two. “Excuse me.” She glanced at Leslie. “Notyour dog seems to have made a new friend.”

Leslie chuckled. “Yeah, I noticed that.”

“He’s so good with her. It’s like he knows exactly what to do, and what not to do.” Erica scooped a large spoonful of the macaroni dish onto Siena’s plate as Siena got settled in her seat. She held out her hand for Leslie’s plate. “This is hot. May I serve you?”

Leslie gave it to her. “He’s a good dog.” She reached down and scratched his ear as he settled once again directly between Siena and her. “He was good company the last couple of days of my trip…except for the smell,” she added in a gruffer tone.

“He cleans up nicely, though,” Erica said, dishing up her own food. “Who knew such a pretty dog was underneath all that dirt?”

“And now he smells good,” Siena said, gazing down at him adoringly. “He smells like coconuts.”

“Speaking of smelling good, this smells delicious.” Leslie waited until Erica was finished plating her own food, then took a bite. She moaned while she chewed. “This is sooooo good. Thank you for the invitation. I can’t remember the last time I had homemade mac and cheese.”

“Did you know that cheese can make you constipated?” Siena asked in between bites. “That means you can’t poop.”

“Siena,” Erica said, hoping her warning tone was enough to stave off the ensuing discourse she knew Siena was capable of on all the things that could keep one from pooping. Just to make sure, she added, “Not at the table.”

Siena frowned.

Leslie cleared her throat. Was there a chuckle underneath?

“Why don’t you tell me what Leslie was showing you in the sky earlier,” Erica said, offering a new subject. “That looked interesting.”

Siena stabbed at several pieces of macaroni with her fork. “We were looking for the first star.” She swirled the pasta around in the melted cheese. “You can make a wish on the first star you see, if you say…” She paused, then glanced at Leslie.

“Do you remember?” Leslie asked.

Siena squinted in thought. “Star light, star bright…First star I see tonight…” She pursed her lips, then shot a quick look to Leslie again.

Leslie waited a few beats, then said slowly, “Wish…I…”

Siena sat up straight, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “Wish I may. Wish I might. Have the wish I wish tonight.” She ate the forkful of macaroni and cheese with a satisfied nod.

Siena’s triumphant expression warmed Erica’s heart. She was impressed that Leslie had waited until Siena looked to her for help, and then simply gave her a prompt rather than finishing the rhyme for her. Erica had noticed that so many adults who didn’t have kids had a tendency to take over when a child hesitated. Maybe she does have kids. Or had them, and now they’re grown? Despite the fact that her body looked as though it could belong to a much younger woman, Erica sensed Leslie was old enough for the latter. There were the white strands in her hair, although that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Erica had gone fully gray in her thirties. Leslie’s patience with Siena, though, the cast of wisdom to her eyes, her assured manner, all spoke of a maturity that drew Erica in. 

Having a seven-year-old at fifty-one put Erica around much younger people in the parents’ club at Siena’s school and in the support group where she’d met Becky. Becky was only thirty-four. And in Erica’s job, she taught young college students every day. She liked the idea of getting to know someone closer to her age. “And did you make a wish?” she asked Siena.

“Yes.” Siena kept her gaze riveted on her dinner, an indication that she was about done with the topic. Conversations with Siena went that way sometimes. “I don’t want to tell you any more.”

Erica caught the slight quirk of Leslie’s lips and allowed her own smile, along with a soft laugh, to let Leslie know she didn’t take Siena’s response as rudeness or back talk. It usually took people a while to understand children, and adults, on the spectrum. “That’s okay. We all have our private thoughts,” she said, more for Leslie’s benefit than Siena’s. She turned her attention to Leslie. “How did you end up owning a home here when you lived in Florida?”

As Leslie talked about her parents and growing up in the neighborhood, piquing Siena’s interest with the story of Matt, the little boy who lived across the street and pretended he was a kangaroo, and amusing Erica with a recounting of her father’s handyman projects around the house, Erica found she was enjoying herself more than she had in a long time. When Siena finally asked to go inside and work on her puzzle, Erica realized she was looking forward to some time to herself with Leslie. “Of course, sweetie. Go ahead.” She watched Gus follow Siena inside with unexpected contentment. “It seems you and Gus have won her over,” she said to Leslie once they were alone.

“I’m sure it’s Gus,” Leslie said, a tinge of pink touching her cheeks. “Dogs have that irresistible charm.”

Erica wasn’t sure of that at all. Leslie had her own way of charming, so much so Erica would need to be careful if Leslie were to be around much. “Yes, but dogs—”

“No, no, no. No, no, no!” Siena’s voice rose higher and louder, until all that could be heard was a long shriek.

Erica bolted to her feet, knocking her chair over and hearing a dish shatter on the cement floor of the patio, and dashed inside. She found Siena in the family room, running in tight circles pulling at her hair. Her high-pitched wail rang shrilly in the confines of the room.

Gus stood on his hind legs several feet away, looking frantic and whining.

Erica raced to Siena, covered her hands with her own, and tried to disentangle her fingers from her hair. She was vaguely aware of Leslie calling Gus to her in the doorway.

When Erica had released Siena’s grip and had hold of her wrists, she pressed Siena’s arms to her sides and wrapped her in a hard, tight hug. Her breath came fast, and her heart pounded. Even though she’d been handling these situations for years, they could still unnerve her. When her hold was secure, she lowered them both to the couch and eased the full weight of her body onto Siena.

Siena continued screaming and struggling beneath Erica. Whatever had triggered this episode was a biggie. What on earth happened? Had the dog done something?

When Siena began to calm, Erica lifted her into her arms and carried her upstairs. In Siena’s room, she pulled her special sweatshirt from the closet, the green one that fit her snugly and comforted her following one of these spells. She helped her into it and pulled and tied the drawstrings of the hood, tightening the soft fabric around Siena’s head, then lay her on the bed and snuggled close around her. It was the routine.

Later, as Siena’s breathing evened and deepened in sleep, Erica felt the length of the day and the constant emotional weight carried by all parents of children on the spectrum overtake her and let herself drift off as well.

When she woke later in the soft illumination of Siena’s Winnie the Pooh nightlight, exhaustion still shrouded her like a heavy cloak. She knew she should get up and go downstairs to clean up the kitchen and whatever mess awaited her on the patio from the dish that had broken, but she couldn’t make herself move. As she started to close her eyes again, a movement in the doorway drew her attention.

Gus lay across the threshold on his stomach, his head held high, his ears perked, even the one that was half gone, and his alert eyes were trained directly on Erica. If she didn’t know better, she would have sworn the obvious question shone in them. Is she okay?

Erica watched him, remembering her earlier wondering if he’d done something to upset Siena. Looking at him now, she knew whatever had happened, it couldn’t have been him.

He inched forward on the carpet, as though asking permission to fully enter the room.

Erica reached across Siena’s sleeping form and dangled her hand over the side of the bed. She wiggled her fingers, beckoning him.

He sprang up on his short little legs and hurried to her, his stubby tail wagging his whole backend. He gently licked her fingers, then once again, looked directly into her eyes, the same question lingering in his.

She stroked his head. “She’s fine,” Erica whispered. “Everything’s okay.”

He rose onto his hind legs, his front paws on the edge of the bed, and gazed at Siena. Even more tenderly than he’d licked Erica’s hand, he touched his nose to Siena’s cheek and gave her the lightest of doggie kisses.

Tears sprang to Erica’s eyes as the comfort of someone else sharing her concern for Siena flooded her. It was silly. Gus was a dog. She couldn’t quell her emotion, though. She patted the spot in the curve of Siena’s tummy, inviting Gus to join them.

And he did. He jumped onto the bed, turned one circle, and curled up closely against Siena.

Erica let her eyes close again and drifted back to sleep, her arm protectively draped over Siena, her fingers gratefully entwined in the warmth of Gus’s fur.

The next time she woke, Gus was gone, Siena was sleeping soundly, and the dinner dishes were calling to Erica all the way from downstairs. She hated walking into a dirty kitchen first thing in the morning. It’d be better to tackle the mess now.

She eased herself up from the bed, draped a plush Winnie the Pooh blanket over Siena, and headed to the stairs. In the family room, she stopped at the card table that held Siena’s jigsaw puzzle and studied it for a moment. It was coming along nicely. Siena loved puzzles and had already worked her way up to the thousand piece ones that intimidated Erica, but they didn’t faze Siena in the least. Erica glanced at the TV tray they’d set up for Rosi and saw the cause of Siena’s meltdown. A pile of shredded cardboard that used to be puzzle pieces sat in the corner of the tray. A handful of other pieces remained in the middle, presumably waiting to be destroyed as well.

Erica squeezed her eyes shut and massaged her temples in an attempt to ward off the burgeoning headache.

There were many things that could set Siena off—any situation that felt chaotic, repeated irritations like a fly landing on her over and over, the intermittent beep of a smoke alarm when the battery was dying, the color pink if it got too close, having her things in her room touched or moved. But one of the things hardest for her to recover from was being prevented from finishing something she’d started. And there was no way the shredded puzzle pieces could ever be repaired and fit into the puzzle. There might be a couple more meltdowns over this. She considered clearing the entire puzzle away and throwing it in the trash, but finding it missing completely might actually be worse. There was never any way of knowing.

Erica sighed, wishing she could go to bed and wake up in the morning with it all worked out. But that never happened. Each day brought new things to deal with. She at least needed to get today’s dishes done before tomorrow’s started piling up on top of them. When she stepped into the kitchen, though, she froze in shock. She blinked, just in case she wasn’t seeing clearly. But she was.

The kitchen was spotless. Even in the dim illumination from the light above the stove, the refrigerator door handle and the white tile countertops gleamed. The sink was empty. The light on the front of the dishwasher was on, indicating it’d been run, and the dishtowels were hung precisely over the handle of the oven. She moved out onto the patio to find the table cleared and wiped clean and the chairs pushed into their spots in perfect alignment. The tiny white lights that adorned the latticework around the patio roof and the lower branches of the nearby elm tree reflected cheerfully in the rippled glass of the tabletop.

Emotion threatened to overtake Erica again. Was this what Leslie was doing while her dog was sharing the worry Erica felt whenever she was reminded of what Siena had to deal with on a daily basis? Erica had heard of situations like this, like Jack handling life while Becky soothed and comforted Rosi, or vice versa. Other parents in the support group shared how grateful they were for their spouses or family members that helped them cope and picked up the slack when they needed rest.

Erica, though, handled it all. Her experience was when things got tough, people left, so she’d learned not to count on anyone. She’d learned how to make it on her own with Siena. But this was what having someone take up the slack must feel like, to be able to be upstairs comforting Siena and when she came down, everything was different—better—than how she’d left it. This wasn’t her life, though. It was a nice surprise, one she would definitely thank Leslie for, but then do her best not to think about again. This—this feeling of being helped, being taken care of, while she was taking care of Siena—was dangerous. Thinking about it was dangerous. Leslie Raymond and her little dog were dangerous.

But Erica wouldn’t get sucked in. She listened to Becky all the time and managed to keep her perspective. This is no different.

With a sigh of resolve, she went inside, locked the sliding glass door, and headed upstairs to the luxury of her bed and a few hours of blissful sleep.

Soon enough, it would be tomorrow.