Price of a Kiss(10)

By: Linda Kage

She lived less than ten minutes away from the Mercers, which would help a lot during the winter in case the weather got nasty and road conditions were—

Wait. What was I saying? This was Florida. I was no longer in the Midwest. A nasty winter here was probably a bracing forty degrees with a slight breeze.

Okay, so scratch that last part.

The short drive would…help me save a lot on gas money. Yeah.

The neighborhood was nice, with professionally tended lawns and huge, beautiful houses lining wide, well-paved streets. I began to get excited, thinking I’d get to chill on extra-long leather sofas and watch late-night shows on large-screen televisions while I snacked on gourmet popcorn after my ward went to sleep. But then I parked in front of the correct address, and my hopes crashed. Kaput. Suddenly, I remembered Dawn was a single mother who had to work a second job to support her family. No extra-long leather sofas for her. Or me.

Her place was obviously owned by her neighbor to the right because the style of architecture plus the blue and white color schemes of both places matched. I deduced that her house must be an old guest cottage the owner had turned into a rental.

Hooking the strap of my knock-off Prada purse over my shoulder, I locked my car and trudged up the sidewalk to the front door. Mr. Landlord to the right was a total ass. His own house was freshly painted, while the worn siding on his guest cottage had begun to peel in places, and the lawn sported brown patches of dead grass.

I’d just leaped over a deep chasm a giant might consider a small crack in the sidewalk when the front door opened. A thirty-eight-year-old woman—if my internal age radar was reading her correctly—peered out at me. Willow slim, she’d tied her dark hair up into a perky ponytail.

I know, I know. My own hair was bawling with jealousy to do the same. Someday, I swore, I’d get to wear my hair up again.

Despite the youthful locks, her eyes looked tired and were double ringed with fatigue, while her shoulders stooped as if taking on the weight of the world. But she had a friendly smile, so I instantly liked her and felt bad for her in equal measures. She just looked so exhausted and worn down.

“Reese?” she asked.

I nodded and made my own guess. “Mrs. Arnosta?”

“Oh, it’s just Dawn.” Hearing my address made her wince with a pained expression, but she stepped aside and opened the door wide to let me in.

Her last name must give her fits or maybe memories of a bad spouse. This was the second time she’d asked me to use her first name…a little too forcefully.

“Right.” I cringed. “Sorry.” I definitely wouldn’t make that mistake again.

With a forgiving nod, she graciously ushered me into the house. For some reason, I instantly smelled sickness. I breathed it in deeply, reminded of one of my childhood friends from home who’d had a little brother with leukemia. There had always been this sterile scent of medicine in the air whenever I had visited. That same pharmaceutical bouquet hung heavy in Dawn’s front room, telling me someone living here was not one hundred percent healthy.

Glancing at her, I checked her over, wondering if she was okay. Did she have cancer? That would definitely account for the weary, threadbare look about her.

“Sarah’s back here,” she said, sending me an almost guilty glance before motioning me to follow as she started down a long, dark, narrow hall.

As we approached the lighted room at the end, I heard a voice saying, “Hey, I know you wanted to go to that slumber party your classmates didn’t invite you to tonight, but don’t sweat it, okay. I bet you’re not missing anything fun at all. I mean, what kind of—”

“Mason!” Dawn interrupted the speaker, sounding surprised as she entered the kitchen just ahead of me. “There you are. I didn’t realize you were still home. But since you’re here, the new evening sitter just arrived, and I’d like you to meet her.”

Hearing that name, I stumbled and tripped over my own feet before bumping into the wall and jostling a hanging framed portrait of a young Mason.

Yes, a young Mason, as in Hotness from Waterford County Community College, Mason Lowe.

I gawked at the face in that photograph—though, aww, he’d even been a cutie patootie when he’d been missing his two front teeth—and suddenly, I didn’t want to enter the kitchen. Thinking quickly, I tried to concoct a plan to not exit the hallway. But honestly, there was no way to avoid it, unless I wanted to abandon this babysitting gig altogether. Which just seemed totally irresponsible and not at all like me.

“Reese?” Dawn asked, her voice full of concern as she appeared in the opening of the hallway. “Are you okay?”

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