Jeff liked to think he was diligent in his attorney-client relations, house calls to Mrs. Hammacker not withstanding. He nurtured his business relations carefully, often at the expense of anything resembling a private life. His focus on family law tended to put him in awkward positions. So he was used to acting as an amateur psychologist. He liked to think he handled it well.
This he wasn’t handling well at all.
In the middle of dinner, Mrs. Hammacker lost all her animation. No longer the consummate hostess, she stared at the head of the table as if seeing a ghost. First the kids finished eating and slipped away. Then the female border, went to talk to Mrs. Hammacker in a quiet voice before giving the boarding house owner’s shoulder a squeeze and leaving. Only Jeff and Marvin Sutter remained at the table.
Mr. Sutter probably felt guilty, since it was something he said that made Mrs. Hammacker act like this.
“Mrs. Hammacker?” Mr. Sutter shook her shoulder gently.
She didn’t budge.
“This is worse than I thought,” Mr. Sutter muttered. He took her hands in his. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you until now. I’ve done everything I can to find him, but he said he was going to take his time coming back because he had some things to think about.”
Mr. Sutter was one of Mrs. Hammacker’s borders, so Jeff thought he should probably leave Mrs. Hammacker in his hands. Jeff moved toward the door, but Mrs. Hammacker slapped Mr. Sutter’s hand away.
“How do you know he’s coming back? Maybe they’ll assign him somewhere else. If he wouldn’t make any promises to me before, why would he now?”
“Because he loves you. He’s coming back, Suzie. It’ll just take a while.”
She didn’t respond, merely stared angrily at the head of the table. On an uncomfortable shrug, Mr. Sutter left the dinning room.
“Um… Mrs. Hammacker,” Jeff approached cautiously. “Who is ‘he’?”
“Drew? Andrew Banks.” Mrs. Hammacker gave him an odd look. “Oh! I guess you never met him. He was… one of my borders. He’s an FBI agent who was here to handle a case involving a couple of men who were attacking taxi drivers. He was re-assigned to a narcotics case in New Mexico last Spring.”
“Oh.” Clearly that wasn’t the whole story. “And you love him.”
“It doesn’t matter.” With a pained smile, Suzie got up. “Even if he comes back, he won’t stay. He’ll just rip my heart out again.”
Jeff flinched at the intensity of her last sentence. Showing no sign she’d noticed, she took his arm and guided him into the hall.
“It’s not your problem anyway.” She handed him his coat.
“No, but, I’d like to help however I can.”
She was starting to get back some of the spitfire that made her such an admirable woman, but a vulnerability that made her thin shoulders seem all the more fragile under her bulky sweater still lurked. He followed her out onto the porch, thinking this Drew fellow did not deserve her in the least.
“You are the sweetest, kindest man I know.” She smiled at him, one hand on his shoulder. “Thanks.”
She kissed him on the cheek. On impulse, he turned his head, meeting her lips with his. He regretted it instantly. It felt like he was kissing his sister.
The two of them blinked at each other. She frowned a little as she looked away, clearly as uncomfortable as he was.
“Sorry. I won’t ever do that again.” Kicking himself for his unprofessional behavior he started down the front steps.
“Yeah. That was a bad idea. But you will still trade dinner for advice, won’t you?”
Jeff pivoted at the bottom step and offered up a half smile. “Sure. Your food belongs in a four star restaurant. I’ll consider it an even trade.”
Her smile was relieved, which made Jeff feel a lot better, though he’d probably still be kicking himself for this for years to come. Especially since Gene, the boy Jeff was supposed to be here to help, watched from the window.
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