Garret was shocked on Monday when Emily told him that Peg had asked her to continue babysitting through the month of July.
“And you agreed to do it?” That was even more surprising.
“You know I’m enjoying it. All I have at home is a garden and some reading to do. The boring life of Emily Riley.”
“Somehow I remember that life is not boring when you’re around.”
“Well, it will give you that much-needed break from Peg’s nagging. Scott can enjoy it for a while instead of you.”
“Yeah, he will wish he had taken the time off and taken care of Mel himself.” Garret picked up his laptop. He started down the steps, then turned back. “You know, maybe there is something to that prayer thing, after all.”
Emily smiled. “See? You still believe.”
He shrugged. “I guess there’s a part of me that always will. Just don’t ask me to go to church. I haven’t been able to go since Julie passed away.”
With Emily taking over the care of the twins, Garret didn’t have to deal with Peg’s nagging and complaining every day. His mood felt lighter than it had since losing Julie. How much of that was due to Emily’s healthy sense of humor he didn’t stop to contemplate. For the first time in a long time, he found that he looked forward to arriving home from work.
At the end of the day, Emily didn’t rush off when he came home. She told him about the day with the kids, and then she asked about his day.
“I’m under a lot of pressure to get this job done right,” he admitted to her on Wednesday evening.
“Will you be fired if it doesn’t work out?”
He’d never considered Emily pretty before because he’d always compared her to Julie’s blond-haired blue-eyed beauty. But the warmth in her blue-gray eyes as she expressed her concern stirred something in his heart. He’d had many looks of concern in the past few months, but he’d felt like everyone was just watching to see if he was grieving properly, if he would stand up under the weight of his grief.
Emily’s concern didn’t make him feel like he was under a microscope. He considered Emily a friend, after just the short time she’d been back in his life. And he needed a friend tonight.
His shoulders sagged.
“I think I will be.”
She reached out and touched his arm. “Why don’t we settle these two in their highchairs with a snack, and you can tell me what’s been going on with you.”
It wasn’t the first time Emily had touched his arm, but it was the first time that he’d acknowledged the warmth of her touch through the sleeve of his suit.
They fastened Cody and Chloe into their highchairs and gave them sippy cups of milk and a few animal crackers.
“Do you want a diet cola?” Emily asked. “I know you don’t like it, but you only have milk in here.”
“I’ll take a cola.” Garret reached out and took the cool can from her. She sat down opposite him.
“That’s a heavy load you’ve been carrying, Garret.”
At the warmth in her expression, just like that, the stress that he’d been carrying due to his job faded away. Someone cared.
He popped open the top of the can and swallowed a few sips. Then he set it down. He didn’t look her in the eye, but focused on the logo on the can. “I didn’t handle my job well after Julie died. I worked a lot of hours, but I wasn’t really there mentally.”
“What were you doing, then? Peg said you worked a lot of overtime in the beginning.”
Cody started pounding his highchair tray. Garret handed him a couple more animal crackers, almost groaning at the mess of sticky crumbs around Cody’s mouth and on his shirt. He’d definitely need a bath later.
He met Emily’s eyes across the table. “There were a lot of routine things I could do without much thought to them. But when it came to a team project we’d been working on I wasn’t putting in my full effort. It was like I had this thick fog in my brain. I couldn’t think straight, or focus long enough, to add anything to the group.”
“That’s part of the grieving process. Any counselor would tell you that.”
Garret’s temper flared at the idea of a counselor. His pastor had recommended it, and so had his mom, but he hadn’t wanted to go and share his feelings to a stranger. Instead, he’d bottled them up. But he couldn’t take that out on Emily. It wasn’t her fault.
“That’s probably true, but it affected the team. After a few weeks, they pulled me off the job. They gave me small projects that didn’t take a lot of thinking, and that’s how I got through the winter.”
“That’s why you weren’t working overtime then.”
He nodded. “That’s right. I clocked out at five o’clock every night. I came home and fed the kids, then just sat with them on the floor while they played or held them on the couch while I fed them their bottles. If it hadn’t been for Peg stepping in and doing the housework and cooking, I hate to think how bad things would have gotten.”
“If only she could have done all of that without making you feel guilty or unreliable.”
Emily’s words echoed his thoughts.
“Exactly. But it got me through a rough spot. By the time the twins’ had their birthday, I was feeling much more like my old self again. My boss noticed and started adding back some responsibility.”
“That’s a good thing, right? Why would you think you were going to get fired?”
“I’m in management. I got by for the winter without managing any teams, or being the lead on any projects. But that’s not what my job requires. I was an overpaid programmer. And it wasn’t challenging enough for me anymore. I talked to my boss in April about it. I told him I felt ready to take on more responsibility.”
“That’s great, though. And then they put you on this new project?”
Both kids had had enough of sitting in their highchairs while the grownups talked. “Do you want me to fix something for them to eat?”
Garret stood. He’d said more than he’d intended. “Nah, I’ll get their supper ready. It’s grilled cheese, and peas and carrots tonight.”
Emily’s eyebrows rose. “You have a menu for them?”
“Not really. But I try to decide before I get home what I’m going to fix. They usually don’t want to wait while I look through the fridge and cupboards to figure it out.”
Emily stood. “I’ll get going and let you do your Mr. Mom thing.”
Her joke fell flat. Her face crumpled in apology.
“I’m sorry, Garret. I didn’t think.”
He shrugged and gave her a wry grin. “It’s true. I’m mom and dad both now, whether I want to be or not.”
Emily placed a kiss on top of each kid’s head. “Goodbye, Cody. See you tomorrow, Chloe, bright and early.”
After Emily left, Garret fixed the grilled sandwiches for himself and the kids and steamed a package of frozen peas and carrots. He set aside his doubts about his work and spent the rest of the evening focused on his kids. For some reason, he didn’t feel as lonely tonight as he usually did. Talking about his job with someone had felt cathartic.
He was afraid he was getting too used to having Emily to talk to. When she left after this weekend, then the kids were going to miss her. He was afraid he was, too.
Garret worked two more days and then turned in the project to his boss on Friday. “Why don’t we go out and have a drink to celebrate?” Court asked.
“I don’t know. I should get home so my babysitter can leave.” Garret hated to tell his boss no, but he didn’t go to the bars and drink.
“Come on. Just one drink, then you can head home. A little bird told me it’s your birthday today.”
Garret’s face flushed. He’d tried not to think about it being his birthday. Julie had always made a big fuss over it, inviting his parents and hers for a dinner and baking him some ridiculous cake. He’d planned to ignore it this year and not think too hard about the memories.
Court was his boss, though. Garret nodded. “You got it. One drink.”
In the bar on the ground floor of their building, Garret settled into the booth across from Court. He ordered a cola, but Court changed his order and told the waitress to bring Garret a beer.
Court knew why Garret didn’t drink. When Garret tried to protest, he held up his hand dismissively.
“You need a shot of alcohol to relax you. You’ve been far too uptight over this project.”
“I wanted to get it done right.”
“And I’m sure you did. We’ll know next week if it satisfied the clients.”
Court sat back. “That’s the last I want to talk about work tonight. What’s going on at home?”
“Same as always. I go home, take care of the kids, get up and do it all over again.”
Court’s eyes narrowed. “I thought your mother-in-law helped out.”
Garret laughed, but without any humor. “She leaves when I get home, thankfully.”
“Still not getting along with her?”
“I never have, and it’s been worse without Julie there as a buffer.”
“Maybe it’s time to find someone else to babysit, get rid of that tension.”
Garret accepted the mug from the waitress and took a sip. He winced at the flavor and set it aside.
“Actually, someone else is watching them temporarily.” He told Court about Dan’s accident and Emily coming to help.
“Interesting,” Court said when he’d finished talking about Emily.
“The way you talk about Emily. I haven’t heard you express interest in anyone since Julie.”
“I’m not interested in her, not in the way you’re thinking.” Garret reflected on his relationship with Emily. “She and I were adversaries at first. She was jealous when Julie and I started dating, and tried to tell Julie that I was too controlling for her.”
Court laughed. “I can’t believe she thought you were controlling. Julie controlled you.”
Garret’s face filled with heat. “I’d take offense at that, but she had me wrapped around her little finger, and she knew it.”
The laughter in Court’s eyes died. “There’s nothing wrong with that. If I’d treated my wife better, then maybe I wouldn’t be seeing my kids every other weekend and paying through the nose for child support.”
Court had been a workaholic when Garret started working for him fresh out of college. Garret hadn’t minded all the overtime back then, because he and Julie had been saving to buy a house, but after a few years of it, she’d wanted him to cut back. Court hadn’t understood at first, until his wife announced she was leaving him because he never spent any time at home with her and the kids.
It had been too late for Court to save his own marriage, but he’d changed his style of management. He’d encouraged Garret and the other people who worked on his team to put their families first unless it was absolutely necessary due to tight deadlines.
A couple of the guys from Garret’s department joined them in the bar. “Heard it was your birthday,” Kyle said.
Garret glared at Court. “Did you have to tell everyone?”
“Come on, you need something to celebrate.” Court made no apologies.
“We’re going to take this party someplace else,” Ky said.
“No, we’re not. I’m going home to my kids.”
Garret’s determination went unheard as the conversation continued around him.
Before he knew it, he was headed down the street to a bar known for good food and dancing. He was going to call Emily to let her know he was going to be late, but he didn’t have a quiet minute to do that.
End of Chapter 6.