Hopping up, I followed after him. “Thanks again, Thomas,” I said, opening the door for him. “I owe you a solid.”
He paused in the doorway and looked back to where LJ was tossing his ball to Holly. “No, you don’t. I haven’t had this much fun since karaoke night, when you sang a drunken version of ‘Hey Jude’ before falling off the stage.”
I scowled at him. That was a night I didn’t like to remember. Jude had been in town that weekend, and the bartender had been a bit heavy-handed with my drinks that night. The result wasn’t pretty.
Thomas still couldn’t take his eyes off Holly, so I began to hatch a plan. “How about you let me make you dinner Friday night, then? As a way to express my undying thanks.”
I waited while he worked out something in his head.
“Come on. You can stay the night here, so you won’t have to worry about driving late at night.”
His eyes widened at that. “Are you sure?”
“Hol,” I called over my shoulder, “are we sure we want Thomas over for dinner Friday night?”
After launching the ball into LJ’s arms, she glanced over at us. I swore I heard an uptick in Thomas’s heart. “Seven o’clock,” she said. “Don’t be late.”
I grinned victoriously at Thomas and waited.
“It’s a date,” he said at last, before his face reddened. “I mean, it’s a dinner. A dinner date . . .” Another shade redder. “I mean Friday’s the date, and dinner’s the event.” Wincing, he turned around. “I’m going to go die now.”
“Thanks for everything!” Holly shouted as he headed into the hall. “It was nice meeting you, Thomas.”
He stuck his head back into the apartment. “It was nice meeting you, Holly.”
She shot him a smile that made the poor guy go another shade darker. Giving me a wave, Thomas hurried down the hall. He didn’t make it two doors down before he tripped over . . . his own two feet.
“You all right down there, Grace?” I called out as he caught himself before he bit it.
“I’m not exactly feeling like myself tonight,” he replied, glaring at his feet like they’d betrayed him.
“I wonder why.” I gave him a wry smile.
His shook his head. “Good night, Lucy.”
“Good night, Grace.”
He gave me a thumbs-up before making it down the rest of the hall in one piece. I’d never seen Thomas trip like that, not once in our three years of performing together.
“What did you do to that boy?” I asked as soon as I closed the door.
“Made him think twice about having kids,” Holly said, getting back to work on unpacking her suitcase.
“No, he has the Holly bug so bad—”
“Jude!” Holly shouted, rushing over to where LJ stood in front of my potted fern. His pants were around his ankles. “Please, please, please don’t tell me you just peed on Aunt Lucy’s plant.”
LJ pulled up his pants and shrugged. “It looked thirsty.”
I burst out in laughter, but was silenced almost as quickly when Holly turned her power glare on me.
Giving me a look that said, Just laugh one more time, I dare ya, she marched over to LJ. “Where are you supposed to go potty?”
“The bathroom,” LJ said, like it was obvious.
“The toilet.” He sighed.
“So why did you just pee in Aunt Lucy’s plant?”
“I told you. It was thirsty.”
Auntie intervention in order. Grabbing the watering can from the counter, I headed over to where Holly towered over LJ. “You’re right; it was thirsty. But I know for a fact my little fern is allergic to little-boy pee”—I elbowed Holly before she elbowed me right back—“so next time it’s thirsty, you can use this to give it some water.” I handed the can to LJ. “This will be your job here. To keep the plant happy and healthy. Think you can handle that?”
LJ inspected the can, turning it over a few times before nodding. “Yeah. I’ll take care of the plant, Aunt Luce,” he said, sounding as solemn as an almost four-year-old boy could. Then his eyes shifted to the TV in front of the sofa and they lit up. “Mom? Can I watch Yo Gabba Gabba?”
Holly checked the clock on the kitchen wall. “Go for it.”
After carefully placing the watering can beside the plant, LJ skipped over to the TV and grabbed the remote.
“Does he need help with that?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? He’s known what time and what channel Yo Gabba Gabba! is on since he was two,” she said, looking from the plant to me. “Sorry about that. Like I said, a little caveman.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “and if it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the first time it was peed on. I’m almost certain Jude had that honor after we burned through a couple bottles of champagne New Year’s Eve and the bathroom was just too far to go when he had to go.”
“Men,” Holly said, curling her nose at the plant. “They look for any excuse they can to whip that thing out. Age isn’t a factor. Obviously.” Her eyes landed on LJ, who was enraptured by a show that looked like it was conceived during an acid trip.
“Come on. Let’s get your stuff moved into the bedroom so you guys can get some sleep,” I said, grabbing another suitcase of theirs. “I’m sure you’re beat.”
“Like a punching bag,” she said, grabbing another suitcase and following me. “Aunt Lucy and I are going to finish unpacking. Let me know if you need anything, LJ.”
“Are the brownies done yet?” LJ asked, his eyes glued to the TV.
Holly glanced at the timer on the microwave. “Another twenty minutes.”
“Okay,” he said, sounding like twenty minutes was an eternity. “I love you, Mom.”
All the stress lines on Holly’s face ironed out. “I love you, Jude.”
“It’s LJ,” he said, looking away just long enough to meet Holly’s gaze.
“Sorry, I forgot,” she said. “I love you, LJ.”
Damn. The kid could pee on any and every surface in the apartment if he kept saying stuff like that. The apartment felt full again. I felt full again.
I knew no matter how many bodies I packed into the place, it would never be enough to fill the void Jude had left behind. No one could fill that empty place except for him.
Heaving the suitcase on top of the bed, I unzipped it and got to work. I’d already put on fresh sheets and emptied out the closet and drawers to make room for Holly and LJ.
“Lucy, I still don’t feel right taking your room,” Holly said, tossing her bag onto the bed as well. “I mean, it’s your place. You should get the bedroom.”
“Would you stop already?” I said, opening the top dresser drawer before layering LJ’s pants into it. “It’s done. My decision’s final. End of subject.”
“I love it when you talk bitch to me,” Holly said, snagging a few hangers from the closet. “It gets me all excited.”
I laughed and tossed her LJ’s coat to hang up. “How’s the job search going? Any luck so far?”
I loved that I was friends with a woman who believed in creating her own destiny.
“I start tomorrow night,” she said proudly, sliding a teeny-weeny dress onto a hanger.
“Amazing. You can find a job in this town from across the country in a weekend’s time. It took me weeks, and even then, I had to have a friend’s older brother throw me a job bone.”
Holly shrugged. “I had to have a friend’s help, too.” She smiled at me before situating a few hangers back into the closet.
“What salon did you get on with?”
“Les Cheveux Chic,” she said. “And it’s only, like, a half mile away, so I can walk to work.”
“Wow. That’s one of the best salons in town, Holly,” I said, impressed. “Way to go.”
“Yeah, well, I guess they were desperate for someone, with all the new business they’ve been getting, so when the owner heard I’d been clipping and dyeing my share of heads for five years, she pretty much hired me right then over the phone.” Holly scooped an armload of bras and panties from her suitcase. I think every color of the rainbow was represented, as well as every pattern and fabric. Not a bad collection for a girl who claimed to go sans underwear half the time. “However, my schedule sucks balls. I’m working nights and weekends and have a grand total of one day off.” Sliding open a dresser drawer in the closet that had been Jude’s, she dropped her racy unmentionables inside.
“What hours at night?”
“Six to ten Monday through Thursday,” she answered. “Apparently the salon’s trying to be friendlier to working women.”
“And here I’d been under the impression working women worked nights,” I teased, pulling out the next drawer.
“Who’s been telling on me?” Holly threw back, slingshotting a bright yellow thong at my face.
I dodged it before it landed on me. “I bet working those night shifts when you have all those professionals coming in, you’ll make a ton in tips.”
“Probably,” she said with a shrug, “but I’m having a hell of a time finding child care for Jude. It seems every day care in this town closes by six o’clock, and if I can’t find day care, then I can’t take the job.”
I smiled. It was nice to be able to help out. “I happen to know of a certain auntie’s child care that’s got an opening and is available twenty-four-seven.”
Holly froze, right before her face wrinkled. “No way, Lucy. No, no, no way,” she said. “You’ve done about ten times too much already. There’s no way I could let you babysit my little man four nights a week plus the entire weekend. No. Way.”
I rolled my eyes. Holly didn’t understand that I wasn’t doing this strictly out of the goodness of my heart. I wanted someone to fill my time so I wouldn’t mope around pining for Jude. I couldn’t imagine anyone who was more up to the task of distracting me than LJ.
“Yes way,” I replied, sliding the drawer closed.
“Don’t you even think about arguing with me on this, Lucy Larson,” Holly warned, wagging a finger at me. “Because I will win.”
I wasn’t planning on arguing. I was planning on being victorious.
“Holly, you and LJ are like family. I love you both. Let me do this.”
My pleas were working. A little.
“Come on. This solves both of our problems. You need someone to watch LJ and I need someone to keep me company.” Holding up a little shirt of his that read, LADIES’ MAN, I continued. “It’s a win-win.”
Holly’s mouth had fallen open about midway through my last spiel. Shaking her head, she looked at me like I was certifiable. “Are you serious, Lucy?” she asked. “You do realize what you just witnessed isn’t just a sugar high, right? That’s the way he is all day, every day. It’s nonstop, on-the-top-of-your-game supervision.”