Teach Your Heart
Owen stared at the silver-haired woman filling the doorway of his house. Her face displayed a you can’t pay me enough to put up with this shit grimace. From behind her shell-shocked stare came a blast of upbeat music—Charlie, watching a DVD in the living room.
“You can’t quit,” he blurted. Because, damn, he’d just arrived home after back-to-back meetings and a hysterical mother in the emergency department after her only boy-child had nearly severed a finger in a school metalwork class. Now he needed to find another babysitter before 7:00 a.m. tomorrow?
No-no-no-no. Hell, no.
He gripped the doorframe on either side, as if it would prevent his two-doors-down neighbor from fleeing. “Please. The kids need you.”
He didn’t dare take his eyes off Mrs. Collinss in case the elderly woman got a sudden burst of energy and ducked under his arms to freedom. Not that he’d blame her. In fact, envy consumed him over the fact that in less than fifteen minutes, Mrs. Collins would be alone in her house with a glass of something stronger than chocolate milk—another of Charlie’s favorites—with only the hiss of waves rolling onto Bounty Bay beach in her ears. Unlike what Owen had to look forward to over the next three hours.
“Please.” Guardianship of three mini-gangsters over the past eleven days had eviscerated his pride. He’d no qualms about groveling at the level of Mrs. Collins’s sensible brown Hush Puppies.
She cleared her throat with a sound resembling a V-8 motor starting up, then folded her arms over her floral apron. “Today, while I was trying to help Morgan with her impossible math problems, Charlotte got into my handbag and used up my expensive body lotion.”
“I’ll replace it. No problem,” Owen said quickly.
“By used up, I mean she covered every available inch of bare skin with it. She’d changed into a swimsuit, so there was a fair bit of skin to cover—not to mention, she thought the lotion would be good for her hair.”
“Forty minutes she was in the bathtub while I wrestled with the slippery little madam, rinsing it all out. Then another hour removing the lipstick prints from the bathroom, bedroom, and hallway walls. You owe me a Revlon Hot Carnation, too, by the way.”
Owen groaned. Lipstick prints? “Of course—”
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Mrs. Collins’s eyebrows drew together in a thunderous V. “William doesn’t want to do anything remotely like schoolwork unless it involves sharks or Harry Potter, and Morgan drags her feet doing her worksheets since it’s time away from her phone.” She clucked her tongue. “Those two should be in school. They’ve only missed a week since the kids started back at the beginning of February. It’s not too late to enroll them now, you know.”
“It’s not up to me.” Owen scrubbed a hand down his face, wincing at the scruff on his chin. Had he even shaved this morning before leaving for the hospital? “Their mother wanted…”
Ali had wanted many things for her kids. Joy in the simple things, the freedom to learn, a close and loving relationship between the three siblings. She’d just never expected that she and Shaun wouldn’t be around to witness those desires coming to fruition.
Owen cleared his throat. “She wanted this lifestyle for them.”
The wrinkles in Mrs. Collins’s brow smoothed, and her gaze softened. “Yes, dear. A terrible tragedy for the poor babes to recover from.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry about your sister and brother-in-law; I truly am. But I can only give you tomorrow. You’ll have to find someone else over the weekend to take over Monday morning.”
Music cut off from the living room, and Charlie skidded into the kitchen behind Mrs. Collins. “Uncle Owen! You’re finally home!”
Everything out of his niece’s mouth was punctuated by invisible exclamation points. Cute. But loud.
She streaked toward him in a blur of red polka dot tee shirt, green shorts, and pink glittery fairy wings, latching onto his legs like a limpet. Big puppy-dog eyes looked up at him as she tugged on his chinos.
“Mrs. Collins is mad at me,” she whispered—which, at Charlie volume, was slightly lower than a shout. “I was trying to make my skin look pretty like the lady next door.”
His mid-forty-something neighbor whose backyard deck was visible from the right side of his house. This summer, he’d avoided the windows overlooking Lucy Gordon’s property, since topless sunbathing regularly took place there five minutes after he arrived home. Since the kids had arrived, Lucy had luckily restricted her evening exhibitionism to applying lotion while wrapped in a bath towel.
Owen sighed. “You’re already pretty, honey.”
Charlie nodded, her cherublike lips pursed. “I know. And I looked more prettier wearing the pink lipstick. But Mrs. Collins made me wipe it off.” Her gaze zipped accusingly sideways.
Morgan wandered into the kitchen, probably the first time in hours she’d been out of the bedroom she and Charlie shared. “That’s because you stole it and then you kissed it all over the walls.”
“It’s my sing-ga-ture until I can write my whole name. Charlotte has too many letters,” Charlie said.
William’s head popped over the couch in the open-plan living room. “It’s got the same amount of letters as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
Charlie’s little nose crinkled. “No it doesn’t; my name’s not that long.”
“He means Voldemort,” Morgan said with big-sister vicious glee.
William clapped his hands over his ears and hissed, flinging himself back onto the couch.
“See what I mean?” Mrs. Collins said.
She gave Owen a glance that made his inner child shrivel and prepare to write I will be a good boy a hundred times in cursive.
“One more day,” she added.
Charlie tugged on his pants again, trying to leverage herself upward. Owen dumped his briefcase and scooped her up into his arms. She clung to him, rubbing her face against his shirt. She smelled of shampoo, popcorn, and an under note of old-lady lavender.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done for the kids.” He’d appreciate it a helluva lot more if she wasn’t leaving him holding the baby. Literally.
“My advice”—the wrinkled corner of Mrs. Collins’s mouth kicked up—“would be to find yourself a nice girl and settle down. Then you’d have a contingency plan when the unexpected crops up.” She nodded a meaningful double chin at his chest and strode past him. “I’ll see you all in the morning at seven.”
Owen closed his eyes for a moment, Charlie’s head a warm bowling ball against his shoulder, his shirt front suspiciously damp.
“Who’s gonna be stuck with babysitting duties now?” Morgan leaned against the dining table in his kitchen, her voice full of ’tude, but beneath it lurked the tightly woven threads of insecurity. A lot of weight had fallen onto Morgan’s shoulders since her parents’ death three years ago. Weight no teenager should ever have to carry.
“I don’t know. I’ll find someone.”
Owen kept his eyes shut. Wondered if any childhood imagination remained inside him so that upon opening his eyes, he’d see Mary Poppins parachuting down with her umbrella, or Nanny McPhee with her bad-ass walking stick. He blinked. Nope, just Charlie, staring up at him with her thumb lodged securely in her mouth.
Owen gently pulled out her thumb. “I’ll find someone,” he repeated.
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend, Uncle Owen?” Charlie asked.
“I don’t have time for one in my life right now.” Which was only part of the reason he came home to an empty house every night. Part of the reason he put his hand up for the extra shifts and didn’t bitch about on-call weekends like the rest of the doctors.
“Like he doesn’t have time in his life for us.” Morgan’s dark eyes—from her dad’s Mediterranean heritage, since Ali’s had been like Owen’s, a boring hazel—were full of hurt and accusation.
Charlie twisted in Owen’s arms to face her big sister. “Morgan, that’s not kind! Nana says we should always be kind to each other ’cause we’re family.”
Another stink-eye from his teenage niece, and then Owen got the ear-buds treatment as she stalked from the room.
“She’s just being a meanie, isn’t she?” Charlie asked. “You do have time for us.”
Time for his monthly uncle duties, which consisted of an afternoon at the movies, or playground visit, or ice cream binge? Sure. He had those Sunday afternoons blocked out in his calendar. Full-time, uncle-slash-dad duties to three kids who unintentionally demanded what remained of his physical and emotional energy? Not so much.
He forced his stiff lips into a smile. “I’ve time now to see what those Minions are up to before dinner.” Thank God for the smell of Mrs. Collins’s heat-and-eat casserole, warming in the oven. “How about it, Charlie-chimp?”
“Yay!” She giggled, squeezing her little knees tight against his hips.
He strode into the living room, which boasted huge picture windows overlooking Bounty Bay. Designed by a local architect, who’d positioned the house to highlight the unspoiled beach curving into the distance, the three-bedroom property stated this guy’s successful to anyone who visited. Including his parents, a few months before Ali and Shaun’s accident. They’d been impressed with the large, airy rooms, the modern kitchen, and even the bed-and-bath guest room adjoined to his garage where they’d slept.
“You could fit the whole Bennett and Heath clan in this place if we all bunked down on the living room floor,” his dad had joked as they’d stood on the wide deck above a twisting, narrow driveway. “Old Gypsy wouldn’t make it up here, though.”
Nope. Not a chance the gigantic, ugly house bus would fit—a positive factor that had weighed in when he’d decided to purchase the house.
Owen peeled off his niece and lowered her giggling, squirmy body to the couch next to William, who was rereading, of course, one of his Harry Potter books. Once Owen’s couch had been a plush, leather paradise where a guy could relax after a day of broken bodies and administrative nightmares. Now it was covered in popcorn crumbs and a fluffy pink blanket.
Bright yellow blobs burst onto his sixty-inch screen, jarring his eyeballs. He slumped onto the couch, sandwiched between Charlie and a naked, big-breasted doll with wide-spread legs and a come-hither smile. He wordlessly handed it to his niece, trying not to be bloody depressed that the only woman who’d spread her legs for him in the last few months was made of plastic.
One night under the same roof as her father, and Gracie had a choice to make. Borrow a car and drive to Bounty Bay right now. Or, option two, smother her father with a pillow and spend a lifetime looking pasty in prison orange. If they even wore orange in New Zealand. Possibly, she’d binged on one too many Netflix shows.
She opted for the car and a rebel yell of freedom. By rebel yell, she meant texting her father after he’d left for an important, mustn’t-be-disturbed meeting.
Heading north to spend time with Glen and Savannah.
Call her a chicken, but she couldn’t cope with another lecture.
The taxi dropped her and her trusty backpack at Savannah’s house in Devonport. Glen and Sav had established a home together in Bounty Bay but often spent a weekend in the 1930s-era villa to catch up with friends and family in Auckland. Sav’s yellow VW Beetle remained garaged there as city transport, while she used a racy 4four-wheel drive on the rough roads leading to the Bounty Bay property. Last year, Sav and Glen had flown to London so Savannah could introduce him to her father and his new family. Gracie had taken a couple of days off work to meet her big brother’s new fiancée, and somehow, though they couldn’t be more different, they’d clicked. So when Gracie called this morning, Sav squealed, told her where the Beetle’s spare key was hidden, and ordered her to drive her butt north.
Backpack in the trunk, windows open, and a classic hard-rock station thumping on the stereo, Gracie merged with the steady flow of traffic headed north. Since the UK also drove on the left-hand side of the road, she navigated the Beetle through the morning commute just fine. Not that she could afford a car while living overseas. Still, it felt good to have the wind rushing through her hair and the big city disappearing in her rearview mirror.
Following Sav’s directions, Gracie arrived in Bounty Bay in the early afternoon. Unlike her older brother, she hadn’t traveled to this area before. Back when her brother was a university student, he and his mates—including Nate Fraser, who now lived a short distance from Glen and Savannah—had surfed and fished in the bay.
She drove through the small town of Bounty Bay. One department store, one supermarket, lots of little tourist stores and cafés, no traffic lights because there was barely any traffic, and out toward the beach. The road curved through rolling hills of lush green native bush that were a frame to the cloudless blue skies stretched above. Spotting a few people licking ice cream cones outside the corner store opposite the beach, she pulled into a parking spot.
So sue her, she was kinda on vacation. At least for a couple of weeks. And vacation meant sunny days, beaches, and ice cream cones.
She bought a single, hokey pokey ice cream and walked down the side of the corner store to a picnic table positioned under the spreading branches of a pohutukawa tree. Smiling, squinting behind her sunglasses, she sat with the whispery rustle of leaves at her back and the Tasman Sea sparkling in front of her as it stretched toward the horizon. The vanilla ice cream was silky and sweet on her tongue, the hokey pokey chunks irresistible not to crunch—
A soft whimper sounded behind her.
Gracie spun around and caught a flash of bright yellow disappearing behind the pohutukawa’s thick trunk.
“Hey,” she said and stood up.
Birds twittered in the cabbage trees surrounding the old pohutukawa. From the direction of the beach, a dog barked excitedly. Another whimper then a louder shushing.
“Be quiet. She’ll hear us and call the police,” the shusher warned the shushee.
Kids, by the sound of it.
Gracie’s curiosity piqued, and she chose her steps carefully across the hard-packed dirt, avoiding any potential snapping twigs or scuffing of her shoes. She peeked around the trunk.
From the bottom of the tree, two pairs of dark-brown eyes stared up at her. The pair shiny with tears belonged to a little girl of about four or five, wearing a yellow pinafore with torn purple tights and gumboots. The second pair of eyes were filled with pain and set into the face of a nine-or-ten-year-old boy obviously struggling to appear brave. He sat hunched next to his sister—no way could these two be anything but brother and sister—holding his left wrist to his chest. His swollen left wrist.
Gracie stepped around the base of the tree. “Stick ’em up, kids. It’s the cops.”
The little girl’s eyes bugged wide for a moment then slitted, her nose crinkling. “P’lice officers wear a uniform, and they don’t eat ice cream.”
Her brother continued to silently clutch his forearm. Dirt covered the boy’s jeans, and his jaw bunched as his gaze dropped to the ground. Guess he hadn’t bought the cops line either.
“Observant and smart.” Gracie licked her melting ice cream, at the same time casting an eye around the corner store’s yard. Two cars were parked out front along with hers, but no adults appeared to be mounting a search party for these two. “Saw right through my ruse, huh?”
“Kangaroos?” The girl’s eyes brightened, her cherubic mouth pulling wide into a smile that could slay dragons. “Did you hear that, Will? There are kangaroos.”
Having some experience with normal big-brother-little-sister dynamics from her own childhood and her stint as an au pair, Gracie expected the boy’s response to be snarky, impatient, or sullen—or a combination of all three.
“Not kangaroos, Charlie. Ruse—it means the lady is tricking us. She’s not a police officer.” He turned his liquid, cocoa-colored eyes on her, and proven oh-so-wrong, Gracie melted. Just a little.
“Your brother’s right. I’m teasing.” She glanced between them. “You are brother and sister?”
“Yes. He’s William,” Charlie said. “And you have to call him William or Will but never Willie because some people say that instead of penis.”
Gracie nearly inhaled a chunk of hokey pokey. She coughed onto the back of her hand. “Always William or Will, got it. And you are?”
“Charlie not Charlotte,” Charlie said. “And I’m nearly, almost five.”
“William, why aren’t you in school?” Gracie asked. “It doesn’t let out for another hour.”
“We’re home-schooled,” he said.
The complete lack of guile on the boy’s face convinced her he wasn’t, at least, a preteen delinquent bunking for the day and corrupting his baby sister. She didn’t know much about home-schooled kids, other than the two sisters who used to be in her ballet classes growing up, but according to the name, it was pretty obvious these two should be home, being schooled by their parents.
“And where are your parents?”
The second she’d finished saying the word parents, Gracie knew she’d put her foot in it. William’s face closed down like a store front dropping iron security bars.
“They went to heaven,” Charlie said with a matter-of-fact shrug. “We live with Nana and Gramps in a bus.”
Oh shit. Both parents…dead? Gracie licked again at the ice cream, now dribbling down the cone and over her fingers. The sweetness suddenly sickly on her tongue, she tossed the remains of the ice cream into the bushes surrounding the tree.
“Are Nana and Gramps here?” She hadn’t noticed a house bus parked outside the corner store, guessing that’s what the girl meant by bus.
“They’re in Whangarei,” William said stiffly. “We’re staying here while Nana is sick.”
Ah. So no parents, sick Nana… “So who is taking care of you?”
“Uncle Owen,” Charlie said. “But he’s at work, so Mrs. Collins is, and she’s a big ol’ meanie, so Will and I runned away—”
The girl stopped chattering and slanted a glance at her brother.
“We don’t tell Muggles our secrets,” he said.
Muggles, right. Super cute, but the kid wasn’t getting away with running off from his babysitter. “Where’s your uncle’s place? I’ll drive you back there.”
Both kids slammed their lips shut, Charlie making a zipping motion in front of hers.
“You can’t make us tell,” she somehow muttered through her clamped mouth.
A toughie, eh? Gracie held back a smile. Change of tactics. “How did you hurt your arm, William?”
The boy gave the pohutukawa above him a filthy look. “I fell out of the tree. But I’m okay.”
Charlie shook her head, which must’ve loosened her lips. “No, you’re not! You said your arm was really, really sore. Uncle Owen needs to fix it in his hospital.”
Aha! There was a clue. “Does Uncle Owen work at the hospital?” Gracie asked.
She’d driven past the Bounty Bay hospital on the way out of the little township. Nowhere near as big as a city center, it still should have an emergency department. And regardless of Uncle Owen’s job—doctor, nurse, administrator, or even janitor—he’d get William seen quickly.
“Yep.” Charlie beamed up at her. “He’s Doctor O-for-Awesome.”
Gracie snorted. She just bet he was—possibly along with the ego to match. “How about I drive you both to the hospital, and we find your Uncle Owen?”
The alternative really was calling the local cops, but she wouldn’t do that if she didn’t have to. Charlie and William exchanged looks.
“We’re not allowed to get into cars with strangers,” William said. “And I’m the eldest, so I have to look after Charlie. She doesn’t know any better.”
“Fair enough.” Good to hear the boy had some street smarts. Not that it helped her dilemma. “Am I still a stranger if I tell you my name is Gracie Cooper, and my brother Glen lives in Bounty Bay, too?”
William cocked his head. “Does your brother have brown hair and glasses?”
“Yes. Like a grown-up Harry Potter but without the scar,” Gracie said.
“Uncle Owen knows him, I think. Does he write books?”
“He does. Ones you’ll be able to read when you get a bit older. So what do you say, William-or-Will? Will you trust me?” And somehow, in the few minutes she’d known the dynamic duo, it had become important that they would.
William’s gaze scanned Gracie like an airport security X-ray. Supposedly satisfied—maybe that she wasn’t Voldemort in feminine disguise—he struggled to his feet with a grimace.
“All right,” he said. “C’mon, Charlie.”
Without hesitation, Charlie stood and slipped her hand into Gracie’s. “I trust you,” she said. “You have smiley eyes.”
Gracie laughed. Not the start to her mini-vacation that she’d planned, but for the first time in weeks, her heart was light enough for her eyes to smile.
Maybe Glen was right. Maybe Bounty Bay was magical.