Read The Sweetheart Rules Online

Authors: Shirley Jump

The Sweetheart Rules (7 page)

“Now is a great time,” Diana said. “I’m done with appointments for the day, and those kittens can always use a cuddle.” Plus being with all those kids and kittens would keep her far away from Mike’s mouth. His hands. And oh my, his other parts.

“I told Ellie to wait with Jenny,” Mike said. “I didn’t want to bring her in if it was busy and—”

“Daddy! Where’s the kitties?” Ellie poked her head into the room. “I wanna see kitties. Can I hold them? I wanna hold them. Is there a white one? I like white kitties.”

Mike shot Diana a see-what-I-mean look, then turned to his daughter. “I thought I told you to wait in the car with your sister.”

“Jenny told me my feet smell and I had to get out.”

“I’m going to have a talk with Jenny. You two can’t be breaking the rules. Because rules are…” He gestured toward Ellie.

She stiffened her spine and put on a serious air. “Rules are important and”—her nose wrinkled—“important.”

He chuckled. “Okay, yes, but they’re important because people get hurt when you break the rules. You have to listen to me, and to Jenny.”

Ellie’s face scrunched up. “Jenny says I’m smelly. Am I smelly, Daddy?”

“Nope, not even a little.” He leaned over, caught a whiff of his daughter’s hair. “You smell like strawberries.”

Ellie beamed. “I like strawberries.” Then she marched over to Jackson. “Do you like strawberries?”

“Uh, yeah. I guess.”

“Me too. Do you like kitties?”

Jackson shrugged. “Yeah. But I like dogs better.”

“I like kitties. Doggies are good but they lick me. And it tickles.” She patted Mary on the head. The golden sat there, patient as a priest, accepting the awkward attention. “Is this your doggie? She’s pretty. I like her.”

Jackson’s face broke into a smile. If there was one way to her son’s heart, it was through that dog he loved more than life itself. “Thanks. Her name is Mary.”

“Like Mary had a little lamb!” Ellie clapped her hands, then spun on her feet and marched up to Diana. “Where’s the kitties?”

Diana bent down to Ellie’s level. “If you want to see them, you have to ask nicely, Ellie. Want to try that again?”

Ellie dropped her gaze and toed at the floor. She was a cute little girl, if a little disheveled. Her hair hung in a lopsided ponytail that had lost more strands of hair than it held, and her neon floral tank top was a jarring combination with the green plaid shorts she wore. Clearly, Mike was in over his head with the little girls. Something Diana could relate to. Those early years as a single mom had been hell.

“Can I see the kitties now?” A pause. Ellie’s wide blue eyes, so much like Mike’s, got even rounder. “Please?”

Diana smiled. “Much better. And yes, we can go see the kitties. Why don’t you go get Jenny? I think she might like to see, too.”

Ellie pouted. “Jenny’s grumpy.”

“Nothing cheers a grump up like a kitten, trust me. Go ask her.”

Ellie spun on her flip-flops and dashed out the door toward the car. “Jenny! Jenny!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Come see the kitties!”

Mike let out a sigh. “She’s a handful.”

“But an adorable one. I haven’t had a little one around in a long time.” Diana noted the stress on Mike’s face, the tension in his shoulders. She’d been a single parent long enough to know how tough it was—and to have the duty suddenly thrust on him had to be a rude awakening. She glanced over at Jackson, who was spinning the wheels on his board, with the angry attitude that Jackson wore every day like a threadbare coat.

As much as Diana wished Mike Stark would just go away and quit popping up in her life, a part of her wanted him to stay, because when he was around, Jackson cracked a smile. When Mike had been here in January, he and Jackson had gotten close during the days he helped Mike make repairs to the shelter. Mike had been kind and patient with her son, and she’d done her best to keep her son unaware of the relationship between herself and Mike. Maybe part of his attitude was anger over Mike’s abrupt departure—something she had explained away at the time as the Coast Guard calling Mike back early?

Either way, Mike seemed to have found a way to connect with her difficult, angry son, and to put a patch over Jackson’s constant bad attitude. Right now, that was more important than getting rid of the reminder of that one night.

“If you want, we could trade kids for a bit,” she said to Mike. “I’ll take the girls, if you want to hang with Jackson.”

“Nobody needs to hang with me,” Jackson said. “I’m not two.”

“That works for me.” Relief flooded Mike’s face. “I feel like I’ve been through a war, only with Barbies and teddy bears swelling the ranks on the opposing side.”

Diana laughed. “I’ll take that over puberty hormones and teenage attitude any day.”

“Yo, I’m right here,” Jackson said. “Quit talking about me.”

“Okay, I’ll give you a choice.” Diana turned to her son. “You can either change the kitty litter and help me with deworming, or you can hang out with Mike.”

“Or I can just go home and watch TV. Who says I gotta help anyone?”

“Your mother does. Who, I might remind you, is the one who pays for your cell phone and the roof over your head.”

Jackson scowled. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he just shook his head and looked away.

Ellie and Jenny came back into the shelter, Ellie bouncing and skipping across the threshold, Jenny dragging her feet and making aggravated faces. Clearly, Jackson wasn’t the only reluctant participant today. A ribbon of sympathy ran through Diana. After the rough time she’d had with Jackson, she could only imagine what Mike was going through.

“Hey, Jackson, let’s go check on those repairs we made when I was here last time,” Mike said. “Leave the girls to
ooh
and
ahh
over the kittens. And maybe if we take long enough, they’ll change the kitty litter, too. Sound like a plan?”

“Yeah, whatever.” Jackson let go of the skateboard, then called Mary to his side, and the two of them headed down the hall. Mike asked him about Mary, and how the other puppies from the litter were doing, which got Jackson engaged in a conversation that was devoid of the anger and frustration Diana normally heard. It was nice to see her son being an ordinary kid with someone.

She told herself not to get too used to it. Mike would be gone as suddenly as he had appeared, and she wasn’t going to count on him being here to bridge this gulf. She’d learned long ago not to count on the men in her life, and she wasn’t about to change that now.

As they turned the corner into the dog wing, Diana glanced at Jenny, who thus far had hung behind, silent, sullen, like a younger version of Jackson. She reminded Diana of herself when she was young, and angry at her mother for the time she spent working with the dogs and cats, instead of coloring pictures and playing board games with her daughter. Diana had spent a lot of years with resentment, then realized the best way to spend time with her mother was to join her at the shelter.

For years, Diana, Jackson, and Diana’s mother, Bridget, had had that bond together, that shared loved of animals. Then Bridget had died, the shelter had fallen into disrepair, and just as Diana was reconnecting with Jackson, his father had popped into their world like a grenade, and Diana had been trying to rebuild the connection with her son ever since.

Diana could see and understand the cold war between Mike and his daughters, particularly with Jenny. Maybe she could help ease some of that tension, the same way she’d done it when she’d been young.

“Her name is Cinderella,” Diana said, gesturing toward the dog Jenny had stopped to look at. “My sister found her on the side of the road a week ago and brought her in.”

Jenny fingered the clipboard hanging from a hook beside the kennel. “Nobody came to claim her?”

“Not yet.”

“I wanna see the kitties,” Ellie said. “I like kitties more than doggies.”

“Wait a sec, Elephant.” Jenny bent down and wriggled her fingers through the chain-link and gave the dog a tender rub on the nose. Cinderella licked Jenny’s fingers, and the young girl giggled, actually giggled, like the eight-year-old she was. “She likes me.”

“That’s because you’re nice to her. Dogs can sense when someone is nice, and when they do, they’re eager to make friends.”

Wistfulness washed away the smile on Jenny’s face. “She’s so cute. Maybe someday I can have a dog like her.”

“And a kittie for me,” Ellie said.

Diana recognized that love for animals, that need for the warm, unconditional love of a pet. It was why she had three dogs of her own and would take every last one of these animals home if she could. For whatever reason, Jenny couldn’t have a dog or cat at her house, but maybe Diana could provide the next best thing while the little girl was here. “I have an idea. Until you can get a dog of your own, why don’t you come here and play with Cinderella? Shelter dogs need lots of attention, but our volunteers and staff are so busy we can’t give them all the love they need. You’d really be helping me out, and I know Cinderella would love the extra attention.”

“Really?”

Jenny’s eyes were wide with hope and trust, the kind of look Diana had seen a hundred times in the pets in her care, the one that said,
Please don’t hurt me, because I’ve been hurt before
.

It made Diana wonder about Jenny’s mother and father. Who had broken this little girl’s heart and made her so wary and so tough? Jasmine? Mike?

“Yes, really,” Diana said softly. She wanted to wrap Jenny in a tight hug and promise her that everything would be okay from here on out. But she couldn’t make that promise, as much as she wanted to. She fished in her pocket, pulled out a business card and pressed it into the little girl’s hand. “Any time you want to come over here, give me a call. Okay?”

“Okay.” A smile winged across Jenny’s face and she pressed the card to her chest. “I will. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie.”

Ellie tugged at Diana’s hand. “Can we go see the kitties?”

Diana laughed. “Okay, okay, you’ve been a patient girl. Jenny, why don’t we take Ellie to see the kittens? Then we’ll come back and spend some time with Cinderella. I promise.”

Jenny nodded and gave Cinderella one last pat good-bye, then the three of them headed into the cat castle, as it had been dubbed. One large glassed-in room for the older cats to climb and sleep and sun themselves, which sat beside a smaller glass kennel that had been converted into a cozy space for the mama cat and her kittens. They were about six weeks old now, curious and active, tumbling all over each other and their poor beleaguered mother.

“What’s their names?” Ellie asked. “Can I hold them? Can I kiss them? I love them! I want to keep them!”

Diana laughed. “One thing at a time. They don’t have names yet, and yes, you can hold them, but you have to be very quiet and good, so you don’t scare them or upset Momma Cat. Can you be quiet and good?”

“Uh-huh,” Ellie said. Her face was serious, her demeanor shifting from bouncing excitement to restrained eagerness in an instant. Her little hands clenched at her sides, and her thin frame quivered with anticipation. “Am I being good now?”

“Yup, good job.”

As soon as the three of them entered the oversized kennel that housed the kittens, the kittens started mewing and prancing over their feet. Seconds later, Jenny was on the floor, covered in kittens. The smile blossomed into a laugh, and by the time Diana had waved Ellie into the room, Jenny had dropped the tough-girl facade. She held a kitten to her face, nuzzled its black-and-white furry body, and giggled again when the kitten placed its front paws on Jenny’s chin.

Diana stepped back, watching the two girls and listening to the rise and fall of their happy voices. Momma Cat, maybe grateful for the break from her rambunctious kittens, kept a wary eye on the girls for the first few minutes, then curled into a ball and fell asleep.

“Thank you.”

The deep timbre of Mike’s voice, coming from just over her shoulder, sent a hot-cold shiver down Diana’s spine. She inhaled and drew in the tantalizing and familiar scent of his cologne, something woodsy and dark, mysterious, like him. She steeled herself before turning to face him. “You’re welcome. But it was nothing, really. The kittens need interaction and—”

“They’re laughing,” Mike said softly. “Smiling. I haven’t seen that… well, in forever.”

“Nothing cheers up a grump like a kitten,” she repeated.

“Or a smile from a beautiful woman.”

The smile curved across her face, settled in her heated cheeks, before Diana could remind herself that she wasn’t falling for Mike again. She already knew where that road led, and only a fool took the same wrong turn twice. She cleared her throat, erased the smile. “Where’s Jackson?”

“He’s making a list for me. I noticed that you hadn’t finished the repairs on the back of the building. I thought, since I’m going to be here for a while, that maybe I’d finish some of those for you. You seem a little crowded in here, and could probably use the extra space.”

“Our repair budget only went so far, so we did the most critical areas first. You’re right, though. We could really use those additional kennels at the back. I’ll take any help you’re offering, if…”

“If what?”

She came out from inside the kennel and closed the distance between them, lowering her voice but holding his gaze. “If you’re going to be here long enough to finish what you started.”

Nine

Greta pretended to be busy pinning together quilting squares while she waited for Olivia to arrive at work. Her granddaughter-to-be worked as an animal-assisted therapist at Golden Years, a job that brought a lot of smiles to the residents whenever Olivia and her little dog Miss Sadie stopped by.

Beside Greta, Esther and Pauline sewed and chatted, Esther as happy as a pig in mud to have participation on quilting day. Greta had her coffee cup of Maker’s Mark beside her, but didn’t drink. She wanted a clear head at a moment like this, when she was working hard to bring a plan to fruition.

Her daddy used to be that way, too. He’d sit at the table, with his snifter before him, twirling the glass between his palms. He’d tell Greta he was working things out in his head, whether it be which plants to set in the garden that spring or the best way to tell Momma that he wanted to take the weekend to go fishing, and when she’d hear the clink of ice in the drink, she’d know her daddy was done thinking and the world was set to rights again.

Greta was still thinking on things, feigning stitching moves just to keep Esther and Pauline from distracting her with their sewing chatter, when Olivia walked into the morning room at Golden Years. Miss Sadie pranced along beside Olivia in her usual Diva Dog red jacket. Greta had already snuck a peek at Olivia’s schedule this morning—when she’d distracted the duty nurse by having Pauline fake a coughing fit. That had given Greta just enough time to duck behind the desk and flip through the scheduling log.

She had fourteen minutes until Olivia’s first appointment. Just enough time to put the first wheel of her plan into motion.

“Good morning, ladies,” Olivia said. Pauline and Esther greeted her in return, then went back to their quilting, Esther as serious as a schoolmarm about the baby blue quilt she was putting together for a grandchild on the way. Pauline just went through the motions, her attention on Greta and Olivia. Greta had had to tell Pauline of her plan earlier—she needed that distraction, after all—and now Pauline was waiting like a teenager on prom night to see what happened.

Olivia leaned over and pressed a kiss to Greta’s cheek. “And what are you up to this morning, Grandma?”

Greta liked the sound of the word
Grandma
coming from Olivia. Liked Olivia very much. She was the perfect addition to the imperfect Winslow family. “Me? I’m not up to anything.”

Olivia laughed. “Uh-huh. Then why are you quilting? You hate quilting.”

“Shush. Don’t say that out loud. Esther might hear.”

Esther kept her head down, intent on her whipstitching. “I already did hear. There are days when I wonder why you joined our quilting club, Greta.”

“Because I love your company, Esther. And because it gives me something to do besides watch
The Price is Right
.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then one would think you’d do more
quilting
at quilting club,” Esther said.

“I would, but you know I got the arthritis in my hands.” Greta held up her hand, bending the fingers and faking a wince. “Awful bad. Maybe you should quilt for me, Esther, what with your amazing dexterity and talent for patterns.”

Pauline choked on a laugh. Esther’s face pinched, but she kept silent and whipstitched at lightning speed.

“You are terrible,” Olivia whispered.

“I prefer to call it intelligently lazy,” Greta whispered back.

“That’s one way of putting it.” She started to turn away, about to leave, and Greta hadn’t had a chance to launch her plan yet. Worldwide domination for the Common Sense Carla column was one mere happy ending away. Greta didn’t give a fig about the column reaching beyond Rescue Bay’s borders, but she did care about making sure one particular princess found her perfect prince.

“Do you have a minute?” Greta asked. “I was hoping you could keep me company until your appointments.”

Olivia slid into the opposite chair and crossed her arms on the table. Miss Sadie sat beside her on the tile floor, her little nose sniffing the air, probably hoping for a treat from one of the residents. “Now you know I love chatting with you, Grandma, but I get the feeling there’s something afoot.” She cocked her head. “You’re not scheming again, are you?”

“Who me? Scheme? I don’t do that.”

Pauline snorted. Esther tsk-tsked and started back in on her quilting, working at an even more furious pace, as if taking out her Greta disapproval on the thick blue-and-white squares. A moment later, the door to the morning room opened, and one of the candy striper volunteers came into the room, pushing a metal cart.

“Ooh! It’s make your own pretzel day! I almost forgot.” Esther popped out of her seat, the whipstitch forgotten. “Come on, Pauline, let’s go get a pretzel.”

“I don’t want a pretzel. I don’t like pretzels.”

“Good. Then I’ll take yours.” Esther tugged Pauline out of the chair and over to the cart. Pauline grumbled the whole way, but Esther forged to the front of the line. “Hush, Pauline, or they won’t give you a pretzel. And I really need yours. All that quilting made me hungry.”


Breathing
makes you hungry,” Pauline muttered.

Olivia laughed at the women’s bickering, then turned back to Greta. “Okay, spill. What’s up?”

“I just had an idea, that’s all.” Greta put aside her quilting squares, which looked more like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had been squished into the bottom of a backpack than the beginnings of a blanket. “I’ve been thinking about your sister, Diana.”

Olivia grinned. “Don’t tell me you have your matchmaking hat on again. I still remember that very obvious sandwich delivery you made.”

“Brought you and Luke together, didn’t it? And now look at the two of you. Happy as two lovebirds in a tree.” Greta smiled and thought her heart had never felt so good. Eighty-three years on this planet, and there were still days when she thanked the Lord above for rays of sunshine like this one. If the Lord was willing, she’d still be around to see her great-grandchildren born—so she could spoil them mercilessly and send them back to Olivia and Luke while they were still riding a sugar-for-lunch, drums-as-gifts-from-Grandma high. “I think the world deserves more happy endings.”

“And what about you?” Olivia asked, her voice gentle, her touch on Greta’s hand warm. “Shouldn’t you be looking for your own happy ending?”

“I had mine,” Greta said softly. She thought of another sunny day, a million years in the past and a crazy-in-love couple too foolish to realize the serious life road ahead of them. Oh, how she missed Edward and the way he could make her laugh when she needed to most. “A long time ago.”

Olivia rubbed her thumb over Greta’s fingers. “There’s still plenty of time in your life to meet another Mr. Right.”

Greta shook her head. “There’ll never be another man like my Edward. Besides, I’m too old and too stuck in my ways. Men like flexibility in a woman—in more than one way, if you know what I mean.”

Olivia gasped. “Greta!”

“What? I’m old, not dead.” She grinned, then got back to business. The little innuendo had deflected Olivia’s questions about Greta’s love life, thank goodness. Lord knew she had enough on her personal plate right now. The last thing she needed was a side of man trouble. “I was thinking it would be good for your sister to meet a good man. She’s such a nice young lady. Then maybe you could make it a double wedding.”

“Well, I’d be all for that, but I don’t think Diana is interested in dating. She’s a little sour on men right now, particularly after—” Olivia shook her head and cut off the sentence, as if regretting that she’d spilled a personal detail.

Greta leaned in, tried not to look too anxious. This was the kind of thing that made for the perfect happily ever after. Greta could write the headline herself: “Brokenhearted Single Mom Finds Love After Dating Disaster.” “Particularly after what?”

“Nothing, nothing. She’s just had a few bad dates lately, and one relationship that went south before it ever got off the ground.”

Greta searched her memory bank, cursing the irony that allowed her to remember her first kiss—with Norman Weatherbee, under a maple tree on the playground, a quick, sloppy embrace he’d snuck in on her just as the recess bell rang—but couldn’t remember the name of someone she’d met yesterday. She knew Olivia had mentioned something, months ago, about her sister dating someone that Olivia knew.

She shoved aside the thoughts of Norman—Lord, but that boy was a messy kisser, all slobber and no punch—and focused on what Olivia had told her before. The memory filtered in, light on details, but enough for her to put the pieces together. “With Luke’s friend, right? The one that was here a while back?”

Olivia nodded. “They dated a bit. It didn’t go anywhere. Now Mike is back in town for a few weeks, with his daughters.”

Mike. That was his name. Coast Guard fellow. Greta always had liked a man in uniform. There was something about a military man. They were organized, smart, disciplined, and strong. And even better, employed. Surely it couldn’t have ended that terribly—and if the man had daughters, well, he wouldn’t be all bad, right? If Diana had made a connection before, perhaps she could make one again.

“Back in town? Oh, well, that is convenient.” Greta said it with the casual air of delivering the day’s weather report. Across the morning room, Pauline gave her a how’s-it-going look. From under the table, Greta put up a hand. The last thing she wanted was for Pauline and Esther to return with their pretzels and prodding. Lord, but those women were nosy busybodies.

“I can see those matchmaking wheels turning, Grandma,” Olivia said.

Greta didn’t admit or deny. Always better to plead no contest than guilty. “Wouldn’t you like to see your sister just as happy as you are?”

“Of course.”

“Then work with me,” Greta said, leaning in and lowering her voice, “and we’ll force a happy ending on her.”

Olivia laughed. “Sounds like making her eat broccoli.”

Greta leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. This was why she meddled—a bit—because she’d learned long ago that you could lead the horse to water, but if he was too stupid to drink it, you needed to throw him into the river. “If you ask me, the problem with most people is they don’t know what’s good for them.”

Across the room, Harold gave Greta a little wave and held up a pretzel. “Do you want one, my lovely?” His voice boomed in the small space. Conversation in the morning room stopped and two dozen snooping senior citizens paused in their jigsaw puzzles and board games to see how Greta would respond. All the more reason for NBC to bring back soap operas. So folks could get all wrapped up in fictional dramas instead of poking their noses into real-life ones.

“No. And if you bring me one, I’ll twist it around your intestines.” Greta rolled her eyes and shuddered. “That man can’t take a hint.”

Harold, undeterred, ordered two pretzels. “One for me and one for my special little lady. Dip hers in a little chocolate, because she’s as sweet as honey.” He grinned and sent Greta another wave, then turned back to the girl behind the pretzel cart. “When she wants to be.”

Olivia laughed, then got to her feet. “From the looks of it, you’ve got a little broccoli coming your way, Grandma.”

“Harold Twohig is a useless waste of skin and bones. He breathes altogether too much air and eats far too much. And keeps on bringing me things I don’t want. He’s like a cat with a pile of dead mice.”

Olivia laughed again, then laid a hand on Greta’s shoulder. “Oh, Grandma, I do think you’re developing feelings for Harold.”

“Better start your doomsday prepping then,” Greta said, and swallowed back her distaste at the mere thought of combining feelings with Harold, “because if that ever happens, it’ll be the first sign of the apocalypse.”

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