In the Way
“Are you sure it’s okay?”
“Riley,” her brother, Max, said, his ever-present patience missing at the moment. “My door is always open. There is more than enough room and you know it.”
She looked over at Lily, Max’s sister-in-law, as she came strolling in. “I don’t want to be a burden.”
He followed her gaze and then laughed. “You aren’t.” Lily walked back out with a bottle of water in her hand, giving them both a little wave. “Lily is only here a few more weeks, then she’s heading back on campus to work and take some classes for the summer.”
“But I’m in the way with Quinn and the baby,” she said. Max’s wife had given birth to their daughter just three weeks prior.
“You aren’t in the way at all. Quinn is going crazy right now. Having another adult in the house—a female adult—is helping to keep her sanity.”
Riley was about to argue that statement until her niece, Lara, and nephew, Davy, came rushing in arguing with each other about some TV show they’d watched last night, then started banging around in cabinets.
Unlike Quinn, Riley wasn’t used to the noise. She was used to the peace and quiet of her own little apartment. She’d actually enjoyed the solitude the last few months before she moved. Until she didn’t feel safe anymore. Until the quiet felt like spiders crawling over her skin…even in her sleep, waking her up, forcing her to sit up straight, her heart pounding. The city had been getting to her and she’d waited long enough.
Max laughed. “Kids. Enough arguing and slamming things around. I don’t want you to wake up Jocelyn.”
“Too late,” Quinn said, walking into the room with the baby squirming in her arms. “She was up.”
“Sorry, Dad,” Lara said, rushing over and stopping in front of her baby sister. “Sorry, Joce. Can I hold her, Quinn?”
Quinn handed the baby off to Lara. “You didn’t wake her. This child wants to eat nonstop,” Quinn said, walking to the refrigerator and pulling out a bottle to start to heat up. “Speaking of food, what does everyone want for breakfast?”
Riley stood up fast. “I’ll fix it. You just relax and take care of my new niece.”
She hated adding to the chaos of the house and was trying to help as much as she could, when she could. If only they’d let her do something.
“Sit, Riley,” Quinn said, testing the temperature of the formula on her hand now. “You’re a guest in the house. I can’t just lie around doing nothing. I feel fine. Women used to squat in the fields, drop their kids, and finish working. I can handle breakfast for this rowdy bunch.”
Max winked and Lara said, unfazed, “I want pancakes. Can we have them if I feed the baby for you?”
Riley was going to offer to do that, loving the feel of that tiny baby in her hands. The soft smell of freshly cleaned skin. The contented sigh when the bottle was put in Jocelyn’s mouth and the only thing that mattered was immediate satisfaction. It was a peaceful feeling that Riley hadn’t felt in a long time. But Lara looked as though she wasn’t going to release her baby sister without a stick of dynamite in front of her.
“Pancakes coming up. Max, are you staying?” Quinn asked.
“If I wasn’t, I would be now. But you keep forgetting I’ve got to take the kids to school.”
“I can do that,” Riley said.
“And give up pancakes?” Max said, looking slightly outraged. “No way. Just sit and relax, Riley. What’s going on with you?”
Every time she offered to do anything, they shot her down. “Nothing,” she said, letting it drop. The more she talked right now, the more Max would be looking closer for the truth she wasn’t ready to share. “I really appreciate you letting me stay here until my house is ready.”
“Think nothing of it,” Quinn said. “I like having someone here at night who isn’t crying and asking for food.”
“We don’t cry,” Davy said, smirking at Quinn. Riley was glad to see Davy finally out of his shell. He’d been such a quiet kid the past few years. His parents’ divorce had hit him hard and it seemed no one had been able to reach him. She was guessing Quinn did.
“I’m talking about your father,” Quinn said, walking over and filling his coffee cup for him.
Riley saw Max smile at his wife. Yeah, she was jealous. But Max deserved it after his last marriage. They all did.
Still, she’d had dreams and hopes of having this family dynamic at some point in her life. But not now. The last thing she wanted was a man until she got her life in order.
“I’ll clean up when you’re done then,” Riley said.
“That I’ll let you do,” Quinn said.
After everyone was finished eating, with the kids and Quinn upstairs getting ready for the day, Max walked up to Riley at the sink and pulled a bowl out of her hands to dry. “I really am glad you’re here. I don’t want you to feel like you’re in the way. You’re not at all.”
She turned and looked at her older brother. The person she’d looked up to so much in her life. The person she always thought she’d be. The person her father wanted her to be…but she didn’t have it in her to follow in their footsteps. It wasn’t what she wanted, and if her father taught her anything in life, it was to stand on her feet and be her own person. She was trying to find that teenager from so long ago again to do just that.
“I don’t want to be another person Quinn has to take care of.”
“She isn’t taking care of you. You’re almost invisible here. You’re staying in her old suite that was just collecting dust anyway. It’s helping her since it’s one less room she feels she has to clean, because we’ve always known how much of a neat freak you are.”
The old nanny suite was nice and private, with a separate entrance from the rest of the house. It allowed Riley to come and go as she pleased, but it didn’t change anything. The two weeks she’d been here already felt like two years. She was ready to be gone. Almost as ready as she’d been to move out of her parents’ house and head to college eleven years ago.
Max sighed, sensing her mood, like he had so much when they were growing up. “When is your house going to be done?”
She’d bought a house sight unseen. A townhouse, really. Something closer to town for her, not so far out on the lake. Not that she didn’t enjoy it here, but after living in New York City, this was too quiet for her. She wanted to look out her window and at least see a streetlight now and again. Not pitch-blackness. Things could hide easier in the dark. Fears crept up in the dark. Nightmares happened in the dark.
Dreams got lost in the dark.
Courage sometimes needed to be found in light places, at least for her.
“The floors are finally finished, so the countertops are going in tomorrow and then I think just retiling both tubs in the bathrooms. That should be all that’s left.”
She had a little germ phobia—or as Max just said, she was a “neat freak”—which was odd considering her job. She had her hands in people’s mouths all day long. Nothing was hygienic about someone’s teeth no matter how much they brushed them. The mouth was a breeding ground for nasty things that would cause most people to gag if they knew.
But when she was working, she was in a zone, taking all the precautions she needed. At home, she wanted certain things fresh and clean. And since she didn’t know the previous owners, or how clean they might have been, replacing all the counters, toilets, and showers, and refinishing the hardwood floors satisfied her slight neurosis.
“So you’ve got one, maybe two weeks left with me?” Max asked.
“Pretty much. I didn’t even want it to be this long, but they said close to a month.”
“Then let’s take advantage of it. We never got to spend a lot of time together growing up.” He pulled her forward into his arms, and settling against his larger frame, she felt safe and secure. Kind of like what she thought Jocelyn might feel when she was held. Riley hadn’t felt safe and secure much lately. Not even mentally.
“Deal,” she said. “Since I know you won’t let me cook…” He gave her a funny look, but she continued on, “I know you’ve got a thing for your wife’s cooking and I can’t blame you in the least. I couldn’t compete even if I wanted to. But my point is, if you won’t let me cook, can I bring pizza home for dinner now and again? Or something. Just name it.”
“I think Quinn would like that. She loves to cook, but it is nice to have a break from it. I’ll let you know a good time to do it.”
“Thanks,” Riley said, hoping he kept his word. She may still be his baby sister, but she was an adult now. One who had lived on her own for a long time. One who had just picked up her entire life in less than three months and kept the whole thing a secret from most of the outside world until it was finalized.
She didn’t need to be babied by anyone.