Talia came home to a cold, dark house. There was grease in her pores, and her feet ached, but she had a day’s pay in her purse and hope in her pocket.
She deposited a to-go cup of coffee from Hank’s and a bag of pantry staples from the market next door on the chipped formica table that came with the rental. Her phone chimed—a text from Eli—and Butter, their rescue mutt, padded in from the back of the house. He yawned, stretched, and moved to sit by the door, his brindled backside sliding a little on the faded welcome mat.
“Your boy’s on his way home from somewhere. He’ll take you for a proper walk later.” Talia jingled his leash. “This is just to pee.”
Butter, so named because his first act as a member of the family had been to eat a full stick of the stuff right off the counter—wrapper and all, tugged in the direction of the sidewalk, but Talia pulled him back toward the door. The wind was up, and the cold had teeth.
Inside, she started the water in the shower, cranking the water temperature up to scald away the smell of diner food. She nearly screamed when she tripped over a baby doll on the floor in front of the toilet. How the hell had that thing gotten in the house? When her stomach returned to it’s usual spot, she bent to retrieve the toy from the floor. Butter had definitely loved on it some. There were distinct canine teeth-marks on the doll’s chubby elbows, and one foot was shiny with dog drool.
She opened the bathroom door to find Butter waiting for her, tongue lolling and tail wagging. “Where’d you find this treasure, hmm?”
Butter sat, watching the doll with adoring eyes while Talia inspected it. Other than the initials G.S.C. Sharpied on the bottom of one foot, it was a small, unremarkable doll. Another text from Eli pinged. Lost track of time. Home soon.
She closed the bathroom door in Butter’s face. “I’ll see you after my shower, tough guy.”
Under the hot water, it was easy to dwell on the preacher’s expression when she shot him down. He defied every image of a cleric she’d ever considered, with his outdoorsy clothes, kind eyes, and scruffy, handsome face. She wondered how the preacher’s wife felt about the sparkle she’d caught in his eye when he first saw her. That admiration had warmed her right through, until he’d revealed that he wanted something from her.
They always wanted something from her.
The dog was nowhere to be seen when Talia got out of the shower, so she wrapped herself in a towel and went to find some clean clothes. The kitchen door slammed, followed by pounding feet and the flush of the toilet. Talia smiled to herself. Eli mostly favored her, long boned and broad featured, but he had his father’s coloring. She pictured his dark hair falling over one eye while he–hopefully–washed his hands, and hoped that coloring was all he’d taken from his paternal gene pool.
She wasn’t prepared for the second door slam.
When he didn’t answer, she swung though the bathroom to grab the doll, then knocked on his bedroom door. The house still felt like someone else’s, as though she were knocking on a stranger’s door, but they’d done this enough times that she knew they’d settle. A week wasn’t very long to make a house feel like home.
“Yeah.” She could hear the foul humor in his voice.
With a deep breath, she nudged open his door. Her thirteen your old son took one look at her, paused in his doorway in her yoga pants, oversized sweatshirt, and hair towel, holding the baby doll, and said quite succinctly, “Oh, shit.”
To be continued in Part Five.