Friday, December 15, 2017

Rattling Around: The Baxter Boys #7 (The Baxter Boys ~ Rattled)


Noelle Dubois had the perfect life. She’d studied in Paris, became a pastry chef at a vineyard, and had the love and support of both parents.

In an instant, all that changed and now she’s back home in New York, without a job, taking care of her eight-year-old brother and living with her aging grandparents while waiting for her mother’s murderer to stand trial.

Six months of limbo.

Six months of waiting.

Six months to learn that all she ever dreamed about has gone up in smoke.

Sean Vines has dealt with his past and moved on.

He has goals and dreams, and only time and hard work will see them accomplished.

Things are good until a pastry chef and an eight-year-old boy churn up the memories from his childhood, and he learns that some things don’t stay buried permanently, no matter how much he may want them too.

Except this time it isn’t Sean who is facing horrific circumstances, but a child, and it’s his turn to step up and be that adult to help get him through this special kind of hell.  And just maybe, he’ll find a lot more than he dreamed possible.

The funny thing about dreams, they can be altered by the people you meet, and that’s when you realize that maybe you just hadn’t dreamed big enough.

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Can I afford to go a week without pay? No.
Do I need a week off of work to get the basement done? Yes.
Those stars aligned this morning by way of jury duty. I was all prepared to do my civic duty. I showed up early, hoping there would be tables in the jury room so I could sketch comfortably. I was able to do that, and calculate the amount of lumber and drywall I’ll need, before my group was called to the courtroom for voir dire. All it took was one question before I was dismissed: “Has anyone in your family died as the result of another, whether by intention or accident.” As I raised my hand, I looked over at the defense table to a clean-cut gentleman in an expensive suit and wondered who he’d killed. We were in criminal court, not civil, so the charge was murder.
As soon as I got back home, I headed to the basement but so far I’ve not succeeded in escaping my memories.
All it took was being back in the courtroom and that one question to bring the memories that I thought I’d buried, from the scariest time in my life, to the surface. In an instant, the anxiety and terror I experienced at the age of twelve clutched at my heart and gut, just like it did when I had to testify against the person who killed Mom—my dad.
Damn, I thought all of those emotions were dealt with and buried but right now they are front and center, and I need to get a grip and push them back where they belong. I’m not that kid anymore and I did what was necessary. I got through it, so why is it back haunting me?
Physical labor always helps and I’m hoping that working on the basement to get it ready so I can move down here will help purge my mind of the past and bury those emotions again. My radio station of choice is helping too—NPR, and I’m reminded that there are shittier things going on in the world and some people don’t survive like I did.
Heavy feet stomp down the stairs and I know instantly that it’s Zach, one of my roommates. I’ve never understood how he can tromp around, sounding like an elephant half of the time when in regular shoes, yet practically glide on four inch heels.
“Hey, the Dempseys need you to open vents,” Zach says as he jumps off the bottom step.  “Their granddaughter is going to be staying with them and is complaining about it being sweltering upstairs.”
“I’m sure it is.” Fixing it to not heat the upper level also keeps the rooms from getting air, and it’s been really warm lately. “Give me a sec and I’ll head over.”
“Okay. I’m going to head back. Mrs. Dempsey is kind of confused and Mr. Dempsey’s hip is bothering him.”
Zach heads back up the wooden stairs, taking them two at a time as I gather the few tools I’m going to need.
The Dempseys live across the street and five houses down. Zach is the one who always goes over because Mrs. Dempsey took a liking to him. The two play Gin every Sunday afternoon, and he stops in to check on them, a lot, because they remind him of his grandparents. Unfortunately, his are dead. If they were still alive, maybe we would have never met.
Dylan, another roommate, sends over cakes, pies and cookies when he’s baking and trying to get his head on straight or working through a novel he’s writing. He also sends dinner at least one night a week because the only means the Dempseys have for cooking is with a microwave. I think Dylan has an arrangement with some of the neighbors to send meals on different nights of the week, but he’s never really talked about it. I just know that on Tuesdays he makes extra food.
I’ve been over more times than I can count, not that I mind. It’s an old house, like ours, and Mr. Dempsey is pushing eighty and can’t keep up on the place like he once could. I’ve done everything from change a light bulb to renovate the bathroom to add a shower. The couple pretty much lives on the main level with their bed in the dining room. It’s a five-story brownstone like ours with the living room, then dining room and last the kitchen on the main level. They just don’t need that big of a house anymore and Mr. Dempsey once thought about selling it because all they did was rattle around inside. Last winter he finally had me seal off the upper floor and shut off the vents so they weren’t heating rooms they weren’t using.
They do have a son, but Mr. Dempsey doesn’t like to bother him because his son’s work is too important—Russell. I’ve never met the guy. Hell, I don’t even know what he looks like because all of the pictures in the house are from when the Dempseys’ two kids were babies, or maybe grade school. It’s like they never grew up.  There are three grandkids too, but the only pictures they have are from when they were babies too. It’s like they didn’t want the kids and grandkids to grow up or maybe they wanted to keep them forever young or something like that.
Of course, Russell could be there a lot more, which by my estimation is never, because nobody goes in the front door of the Dempseys, only the back because the front is locked and blocked.
My steps slow as I start to cross the street and see two motorcycles parked outside of the Dempseys’ house. They aren’t just any bikers either. These guys belong to a specific chapter. One I’m all too familiar with, or was a long time ago, and as soon as I see the emblem on the back of the black leather jackets, I’m that kid again.
What the hell? Is this let’s go down an ugly memory path day? First the courtroom, murder and now these particular bikers?
What I don’t understand is why they are here. The Dempseys don’t have any kids and these particular bikers only help kids.
The biggest one turns and I catch the tattoo on his forearm. I can’t fucking believe it.  Am I being punked? There are too many fucking coincidences happening today and if this is a joke, it is a fucking terrible one.
“Tink?” I finally ask, still unable to believe I’m looking at that all-too-familiar tattoo.
The biker with him gives me a side-eye, but Tink slowly turns and his brows draw together in confusion. “Do I know you?”
So, not a joke, or he wouldn’t be confused. “Once upon a time you did.”
There is no recognition in his eyes, but I get that. It has been twelve years. Tink was the first positive male influence in my life. He taught me how to mold clay and swing a hammer. He may have only been in my life for a short time but he left the biggest impact. I wanted to be like him when I grew up but I haven’t even come close. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but you were there when I needed you.” I hold out my hand to shake his. “You and Bull. I just want to say thanks.”
“Bull?” He cocks a brow and thinks back. “Over ten years ago,” he finally says. “That’s when we lost Bull in an accident.”
My heart squeezes. Bull was a great guy. About half the size of Tink but I still wouldn’t want to tangle with him.
“Sean Vines,” I say, just in case the name rings a bell. He’s probably helped so many kids since then that he’s not going to remember me after twelve years.
His eyes widen and he starts to grin. “Damn, you’ve really grown into yourself. Told you that would happen.”
I was really small for my age back then. All arms, legs, knees and elbows, shorter than everyone else in my class, which didn’t earn any points with my dad.  “I always wanted to find you one day and tell you thanks. You guys got me through the worst days of my life.”
“That’s our goal, though I wish it wasn’t a need to be filled.”
 “Why are you here?”
“Kid’s afraid his dad will find him.”
Maybe he’s got the wrong place. “What kid?”
“Nephew,” he answers. “He and my niece are moving in.” Then he sees my tool box and his eyebrows shoot up. “What are you doing here?”
“Just need to fix the vents.” I shrug, but my mind is kind of racing to try and catch up. The Dempseys are going to have a niece and nephew with them. The niece must be the one that was in Paris because Tink’s kid wouldn’t need to move in here. So, the Dempseys’ daughter that was killed, by her husband, had a son? And, she was Tink’s sister?
Then it hits me and my jaw drops. I literally feel it go. “You’re Russell?” The useless son who never comes around? Not that I say that part, of course.
“Not that anybody calls me that except Mom and Dad.” He shakes his head then stops and narrows his eyes on me.  “You’re the Sean who fixes shit?”
Apparently Mr. Dempsey has told Tink about us. “I do what I can. We all do. It’s no big deal.”
“Hey, thanks man.” Tink holds out his hand. “I’ve told my dad time and time again not to bug you guys but to call me when something needs fixed but he never does.”
Because what you do is a hell of a lot more important than what I do and I’m just across the street anyway. Not that I know where Tink lives, but now that I know why Mr. Dempsey doesn’t like to call his son, I sure as hell don’t mind doing my bit to help out. 
“It’s not that big of a deal. I am just across the street.” I glance at the other biker. “I take it that the guy is out on bail or you wouldn’t be here.”
“Trial started today. They’re still picking the jury.”
“Hopefully it will be over soon.” I know nothing about Tink’s nephew, but this part is almost as hard as the death and funeral. You just want to get through it and have it be over.
“That son-of-a-bitch should begin his rot in prison before the week is over, hopefully. Kaden is really afraid of testifying.”
Again my stomach tightens. “He was there?”
He looks me in the eye. “Just like you were.”
That surprises me. “You remember that?”
“We remember them all.”
That’s a hell of a lot to carry. It’s hard enough being one of those kids, but I can’t imagine carrying the stories of dozens, if not hundreds. For me it was twelve years ago and Tink was helping kids before me. I wonder how many he’s helped since.
Do I really want to know?
“You know, all this time when your parents mentioned Destiny, I never knew they were talking about your little girl.” Of course, it’s not like there is only one girl named Destiny in the world.
“My little girl is seventeen, can you believe that?” He’s shaking his head again. “It’s just not right.”
“In my mind she’s still a smart-mouthed five-year-old.”
“Oh, she’s still smart-mouthed.” He laughs then tilts his head. “Did my dad call you to fix something while I’m fucking sitting right outside.”
“Just to open vents,” I laugh.
“Need help?” he asks.
“I got it. You just do what you need to do.”


Sweat is dripping down my neck, back and between my boobs. I’m pretty sure my shirt is soaked, but there is no point in taking a shower since I’ll just sweat all over again. Instead, I open up all the windows on the third floor of the brownstone and pray for a breeze, which doesn’t come. I would have just settled on the second floor, but of the two bedrooms, only one has furniture and I don’t want Kaden on a separate floor. He doesn’t want to be that far from me either. I’m still not certain he won’t crawl into my bed tonight.
This is the same floor I lived on with my mom until she met and married the asswipe who murdered her. I’ve given Kaden my old room and took my mom’s. There’s not much of her in here anymore, just the furniture, but the memories still linger of lazy Saturday mornings when I’d cuddle up between her and Dad to watch cartoons while they complained about trying to sleep.
This was Mom’s room when she was a kid, with the same four-poster bed with the lavender canopy, white bedspread, and pale yellow walls. The bedspread is in the washer and I don’t want to think about how much dust is sitting on top of that canopy. If I had the energy, I’d tear it down and throw it in the wash too, but then there’d be dust everywhere that I’d have to clean up and I just don’t want to deal with it right now. I figure that as long as I don’t disturb it, the dust won’t bother me.
Flopping down on the bed, I stare up, remembering how I used to feel like a princess when I got to stay in this bed, because only princesses had canopies. My parents were the king and queen and one day I’d be ruler of all of their kingdom, which happened to be the third floor of the brownstone, but it was still a kingdom to a four-year-old.
Why couldn’t my parents have stayed together? That was my biggest complaint when the jerk showed up in Mom’s life, but my parents explained that they weren’t meant to be married. I refused to believe them because even after the divorce, they still got along. I don’t remember my parents ever fighting and they sat together at all my recitals, plays and soccer games, with never a negative word between them.
They were friends and one time best friends, then lovers and then pregnant at seventeen. Way too young to marry, but they thought it would work. It did, until I was about five. I guess trying to go to college, work and raise a kid on a limited budget took its toll. They even lived here, with my grandparents. We had this floor, their kingdom, all to ourselves. Then one day, without warning, at least to me, the king moved, leaving the queen to rule alone.  
I hated my step-dad from the moment I met him. It had been just me and Mom since I was five with weekend visitations, school breaks, and one week in the summer with Dad. As I got older I saw Dad more. When Mom married that asshole, I saw Dad a hell of a lot more. Everyone tried to tell me that my hatred for Gary was because of my age since I was in my bitchy teen years, and that I’d grow out of it. I never did. I recognized evil the moment Mom brought him home and then they married.
Two years later, Kaden was born and two and a half years after that, I went off to college and only came home that first summer and then I moved to Paris.  
I should have come home sooner, but it was so easy to stay.
Mom made it easy for me to stay. But if I had come home, maybe she’d be alive today.
She’d been keeping secrets. I just don’t know for how long. How far back did the abuse go? Did it start when I went off to college? After Kaden was born? Did Uncle Tink know?
No, he couldn’t have because he would have gotten Mom and Kaden away. Mom worked him just as she worked me.
My mom, dead at age 41. That age used to seem so old, but it’s not. It’s young. Too young to die and I’m going to make sure that bastard pays!
Sitting up, I glance around the pale yellow room that probably hasn’t had a fresh coat of paint in twenty-five years. Cobwebs fill the corners and the windows need washed. Boxes surround me but I can’t bring myself to clean or unpack anything. I should clean before anything else, but I just don’t have that kind of energy. I feel lucky to have gotten Kaden’s bed made and mine will be set after the bedspread comes out of the dryer.
It’s just too damn hot to do anything and I’m drained from the first day of the trial. Not that it’s actually started since they’re still picking a jury. God, I hope this doesn’t drag on for weeks. I need it done and over. Kaden needs it done and over.
With a sigh, I push boxes to the other side of the room and stack them all on top of each other. Some are from the small apartment Kaden and I shared and hid in for six months and the others are shipments from Paris. I didn’t exactly pack much when I left because I was in a hurry and now Moira, my best friend is slowly shipping my stuff to me since I won’t be returning to my old life.
“I’ll get everything opened up and they’ll have cool air soon, Mr. Dempsey.” Heavy footsteps climb the stairs.
In the blink of an eye, Kaden rushes into my bedroom and hides behind me.
He’s not the only one who’s afraid. My heart is pounding and I glance out the window. Uncle Tink and Frog are still there. If they let the guy pass, then he should have checked out. At least I hope. What if Tink doesn’t even know he’s here since the only way to get into the house is through the back door?
The footsteps near and I hold my breath. He barely glances into the room as he heads down the hall but I recognize him immediately. Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Is that the same guy who was dismissed from the jury? A lot of guys were dismissed for various reasons, but he is the only one who raised his hand when asked if a family member had been killed.  
He slows and turns into the room. “I’ll get these vents open and you should have cool air soon.”
“Juror 6?”
He grimaces. “Only for a short time. Sean,” he says as he holds out his hand. Recognition sparks in his light brown eyes. “You were in the back of the courtroom today.”
All I can do is nod, not sure if this is a good or bad coincidence.
“Your uncle explained,” he says.
“Noelle Dubois.” I finally say. His grip is strong, but not crushing, and heat rushes up my arm. Is it possible to feel comfort from such a simple gesture? There is such warmth in his brown eyes that I immediately feel safe.
How’s that even possible? I don’t know him. I know nothing about him.
“Thank you,” I finally say.
He tilts his head and looks around me. I can feel my brother shift, but he doesn’t come out. Sean sinks down so that he’s balanced on the balls of his feet.
“Hey, Kaden, right?” he asks.
My brother leans around but stays firmly behind me.
“I’m Sean.” He holds out his hand. “A friend of Tinks and I help your grandparents when they need something fixed around the house.”
My brother trusts very few people. It took him days to warm up to the other bikers, and I have no idea how he’s going to react to Sean.
Slowly Kaden extends his arm and shakes Sean’s hand, then yanks it back.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Sean says before he stands back up and looks at me. “Will you be in the rooms on the upper floors or just this floor?”
“Just this one.”
“Then I won’t open the upper vents.” He smiles. “It shouldn’t take long and I’ll be out of here shortly.”
“Thanks,” I say again as he heads out of my room.
There is something about Sean that’s almost comforting. It’s not that he’s big, which right now I equate with safety, or that he’s cute with the soft beard and bald head. Maybe it’s his eyes…warm and comforting just like melted chocolate.
What the hell? My mind must be really slipping. This is not the time to notice a handsome guy or his nice eyes. My step-dad is about to stand trial for murder of my mother and it’s going to take everything I have to get my half-brother through this.
Maybe it’s because I’m tired of being alone and would give anything to have someone that is there for me, that I can curl up next to for a short time for comfort or regain some energy and strength. Selfish, I know, but I’ve been going for months, almost on empty, trying to take care of my brother. It’s not his fault and I love him and I’d never leave his care to anyone else, but sometimes, it would be nice to have someone for me. I’ve got Uncle Tink, Destiny and my grandparents, but it’s not the same. They are all dealing with the fallout of this. While we are there for each other, we are still dealing with everything personally, and we’ve also been so focused on the trial that we haven’t really been much help to each other.
I am tired. Exhausted! There is no place in my life now for guys, but maybe I should make room for some chocolate. Molten lava cake, or a chocolate soufflé. Yes, that is what I really need. A few hours in the kitchen cooking and then after dinner is done, I’ll bake. Nothing releases tension better than time in the kitchen and with any luck, maybe I’ll be able to finally sleep. I don’t think I’ve slept since my plane landed six months ago.
Kaden slips his hand into mine when I glance down at him.
“Is it going to be over tomorrow?”
I know he’s worried about testifying. Hell, not just worried, but scared to death. “If they get a jury, you’ll be the first to testify and then you won’t have to go back.” I pray they get a jury. Once Kaden testifies he’ll be able to stay at home with Grams and Gramps until the trial is over. However, I’ll be there every moment of every day to make sure Gary pays. That ass killed my mother and I won’t rest until he’s sentenced, and hopefully to life in prison.
“I wish it was over,” he whispers.
My heart constricts a bit. “Me too.” Though, it won’t be over for a long time. Even with my step-dad in prison, my brother is still going to need help. Help that I’m not sure I can give. If I could shield him I would. But, I can’t protect him from what he already saw.  
“What if they don’t believe me and they let him go?” my brother asks.
“They will believe you, I promise.” An eight-year-old boy should not have to be afraid like this. He should be worrying about making a baseball team or something like that. Except, my brother doesn’t like sports, other than soccer, but Gary had him on every team he could as soon as Kaden was old enough. My step-dad just couldn’t accept that his son would rather play the piano and he made Kaden’s life hell.
I sink down to my knees so that I can look Kaden directly in the eye. He needs to know that he is safe and will stay that way. “Your father will go to jail. But, if for some reason he doesn’t, I am still your guardian and he can’t get you back.”
“He can still find me.”
“Not if I take you back to Paris with me.” Not that I’ll be returning to Paris, but I don’t tell Kaden that. My life in Paris ended when I got the call telling me that my mom had been murdered. I hopped the first plane home and found a mess bigger than I imagined. A mess I’ve inherited. A mess I can’t abandon to return to my other life. A mess my Uncle Tink and Mom shielded me from. I can’t talk to her about it, but as soon as this is over, Uncle Tink has a lot to answer for.
 “How about we head down and see what I can make for dinner?” I stand up. “We’ll tackle our rooms once it’s cool up here.”
He just gives me a nod. Kaden says very little and it worries me. Before Mom was killed, he talked non-stop when we connected on Facetime or Skype. At least he did when Gary wasn’t home. When his dad was in the house, Kaden’s conversations were limited to a few syllables, as if he were afraid to say the wrong thing.
Grams glances at me and Kaden as we come down the stairs and frowns. “Where’s Caroline?”
Pain slices across Gramps features. “She’s dead, Doris,” he says.
I know that Gramps has explained to Grams several times over the last six months but her brain won’t accept that her daughter is gone.
Grams frowns, light eyes clouded in confusion. “No. I don’t think so.”
“Remember, we lost her,” I say without reminding her of the real horror of Mom’s death.
At that, Grams brightens. “Oh, well I’m sure we’ll find her soon.”
It’s the same conversation we’ve had since I came home. Grams even chastised Mom at the funeral for being asleep when so many people had come to see her. That’s the first time that I realized just how far Grams had slipped. Mom used to tell me she was just having memory problems and it was to be expected at that age.
She sugarcoated and made light of Gram’s condition, just like she hid a lot of things.
“There you go, Mr. Dempsey.” Zach hands over the remote to my grandfather. “Just don’t hit that button and all will be good.”
I don’t know what Zach is pointing to, but at least the television is working again.
Grams slaps the flat of her hand on the small table by the window. “Sit!” she practically barks and picks her cards back up.
I hadn’t met Zach until today, when we got here from the courthouse, but Grams seems to love him. “He has the prettiest dresses,” she told me.
I’ve stopped questioning many of the things she says since most of the time it doesn’t make sense.
“We’re going to fix dinner while Sean gets air up to the rooms.” I walk through the living room and then their bedroom, former dining room. Kaden curls up at the corner of the couch and pulls an afghan up around him and stares at the television. It’s not cold in here. Not even close, but my brother cocoons himself whenever possible, as if he can protect himself somehow.
This kitchen is so old and has hardly any counter space, mainly because of clutter everywhere, just like the entire lower portion of the house, but Grams won’t let me straighten anything up.
Crossing to the opposite wall, I open the fridge to see what is available to cook, but it’s essentially empty. There is some fruit, cheese slices, milk, butter, orange juice, cream, eggs and bacon. All of it fitting on two shelves.
Inside the freezer is nothing but microwaveable meals. I’ll suffer through one tonight, if I have to, but I’m going to the grocery store the first chance I get. In the door of the freezer are three cartons of ice cream. Is this how my grandparents live and eat? If so, their daily diet is going to improve greatly now that I’m living here.
There is absolutely no meat in the freezer. Not even a pound of hamburger.
Had my grandparents gone vegetarian?
No, they have bacon, so why no other meat?
There has to be something to cook, but all the cupboards contain is cans of soup, tuna and spaghetti.
I close it and look around, mentally creating a shopping list. At least they have bread. I’ll just make up some breakfast. Tomorrow, I’ll make a real dinner.
Grabbing a skillet, I flip on the stove, but it doesn’t come on. It’s a gas stove, but there’s no pilot light and I quickly turn everything off and go to the doorway. “Gramps, what’s wrong with the stove?”
“Doesn’t work,” he answers.
“Why didn’t you get it fixed?”
“Nobody knows how.”
“Buy a new one.” How can anyone live with a broken stove?
“Too expensive.”
“I want to cook too.” Grams pushes herself out of her chair.
“It’s broken, remember,” Gramps says.
“Get it fixed,” she orders then sits back down.
Did Mom know how bad it was here, or did this all happen since she died?
Doing a slow turn I notice a microwave. Besides the toaster, it’s the only thing in here that can heat up food.
Returning to the freezer I open it and groan, then shut it again. I can’t eat one of those. Not today. Not ever.
Grabbing a discarded notebook, I lean against the counter and begin making a list. Not of groceries, but of all the things that need to be done around here. If I’m going to be living in this house, the stove needs to be fixed and if it can’t be, I’ll purchase a new one, along with an updated microwave. Hell, I’d love to renovate the entire kitchen but until I’m making more money, that isn’t going to happen.
Ha! Making more money. I’m not making any money. Kaden has taken up all of my time since I returned and I haven’t been able to leave him long enough to look for a job, let alone work at one, but I can’t continue to live on my meager savings since it’s almost gone.

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