Title: Gina Lee

Author: N.J. Nidiffer

Genre/Rating: Gen/PG

Word Count: 7,455

Fandom: Dark Shadows

Verse: Gina Lee (# 3)

Summary: Willie once helped out Gina Lee, now she wants to invite him home to lunch to repay him. But even that simple act is fraught with problems.

A/N: By this time, the Gina Lee verse was up and running, taking on a life of its own. When she wrote this installment, Nik admitted to me that she was leaving threads and breadcrumbs strewn about on the hopes that I would pick one of them up and make a story about it. Of course I did, because I was as much in love with these characters as she was.

 

***

 

He didn’t really jump six feet in the air when he felt a tug on the back of his jacket. He only felt like he did. Willie dropped his armload of caulking supplies into the bed of the truck and spun around on his heels, searching for the unexpected hand that had touched him. There was no one there.

 


A sneaky little giggle made him look down. And there, smiling up at him with a gap-toothed grin, was the culprit. Polly Logan, all three-foot nothing of her, in her flannel shirt and overalls and heavy denim coat.

 

“Hi, Mister Loomis!”

 

Willie’s heart was still lodged in his throat. He swallowed it quickly and stuck his hands in his pockets to hide the fact that they were shaking like an alcoholic’s on the wrong side of a bender.

 

“H-hi, Polly.”

 

“Did I scare you?” She was only five or six, still young enough to think that frightening the hell out of grown man was funny. But Willie didn’t hold it against her. She hadn’t meant him any harm.

 

“No. Just startled me is all.” He glanced around, looking for her mother. Gina Logan would never let one of her kids roam loose. She had to be around somewhere. But if she was, Willie couldn’t see her. “Hey, Polly, where’s your mom?”

 

“Over at the grocery, shopping for diapers,” the child announced guilelessly. “We need ’em for the day care. My ma says babies are nothing but little poopin’ machines.”

 

Willie felt an unfamiliar sensation tug at his face and put up a hand to see what it was. He was astonished to feel the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile. But he couldn’t help it, could he? Not with Polly Logan chirping her taciturn mother’s most private comments to a total stranger smack-dab in the middle of Main Street.

 

“If your mom’s at the grocery, what are you doing over here? You didn’t cross that street by yourself, did ya?”

 

“I know how to look both ways before I cross,” Polly said scornfully. “I’m six!”

 

“Okay, okay,” Willie soothed, reaching down to take her hand, “but maybe we better go back over there, huh? Your mom will be lookin’ for you.”

 

He was right about that. When he swung in through the grocery’s double glass door, Polly gleefully clinging to his work-callused fingers as if he were her best friend in the world, Gina Logan was in mid-flight down the aisle and headed for the street, her little boy chugging like a tugboat in her wake and the baby wiggling like a freshly-hooked mackerel in her arms.

 

She’d changed a bit since he saw her last. The coarse, straight black hair that spoke of Abenaki or maybe Portuguese ancestry was cut in a stylish bob instead of bound beneath a plain working woman’s kerchief. Her clothes were newer, less stodgy than they’d been earlier this winter. And there were no bruises on her. Not anywhere visible, and probably not anywhere covered, either, now that Ezra Logan wasn’t around to put ’em on her whenever she displeased him. That was the best part of the new Gina Logan, as far as Willie was concerned.

 

“Polly Marie Logan! You come here right this instant!”

 

“Hi, Mama! Look who I found.” The child held up Willie’s hand in hers as if showing off a prized treasure in kindergarten show-and-tell. Willie let her, his face feeling as crimson as the tomatoes in the produce display behind him.

 

“Polly,” Gina hissed, mortified, “you didn’t drag that poor man in off the street!” She grabbed her daughter by the shoulder and yanked her away from Willie, stopping only to give her a little one-handed shake. “And what were you doing outside? I told you to stay right there with the cart. You are in so much trouble, young lady!”

 

Willie started to back cautiously away. This was the time to make his big escape and get back to his truck. He had three stories worth of windows waiting to be caulked back at the Old House. But Gina caught a glimpse of him sidling away. She straightened up from chastising her totally unrepentant daughter and speared him with her gaze. Willie’s stomach did a flip-flop. If Gina Lee Logan thought he was messing with one of her kids she’d come after him like a biddy protecting her chicks. Under normal circumstances she seemed a quiet, withdrawn woman, but where her kids were concerned she was more than able to make a noise Barnabas was likely to hear.

 

“Um . . . Missus Logan. . . .” he began, but she didn’t give him a chance to finish.

 

“I’m very sorry, Mister Loomis,” Gina said softly, suddenly transformed into the painfully quiet woman he remembered from a few weeks before, when he’d stopped for her and the kids as they were hiking down the coastal road in the middle of a storm. “Polly knows better than this. Really she does. She didn’t mean any harm.”

 

“I know that, Missus Logan. I just brought her back ’cause I didn’t think she should be crossing the street by herself. . . .”

 

He knew right away by the astonished look on Gina’s face and the pained groan from Polly that he had let something slip that he should have left alone.

 

“You were in the street?”

 

“I had to, Mama. That’s where he was,” Polly explained with exaggerated patience, as if pointing out the perfectly obvious to someone too dim to see it.

 

Gina looked back up at Willie. The exasperation on her face made that unfamiliar sensation twitch at his mouth again.

 

“She was fine, Missus Logan,” Willie said. “She looked both ways before she crossed.” He hadn’t actually seen her do that, but what the hell, the kid was in enough trouble as it was. Though why she’d felt compelled to cross the street in the first place to talk to a man she’d seen maybe twice in her life was a mystery to him.

 

“Well, that’s something.” Gina had her hand on her daughter’s shoulder, and Polly had her tiny fingers wrapped around her mother’s wrist, as if they were two parts of the same person. The baby perched on Gina’s hip and the little tousled-haired boy holding onto her skirt completed the picture. Coastal Maine Family: 1968.

 

Willie had a feeling that no matter how much trouble Polly was in, it really wasn’t anything to worry about. Her mother would never hurt her. Never smack her or spank her or scare her into submission. Polly wasn’t one whit afraid of her mother’s anger. Not like he’d been of his old man’s when he was a kid. This family loved each other. Even he, unaccustomed to such things, could see that.

 

“Thank you for bringing her back, Mister Loomis,” Gina said, giving him a hesitant smile. “That was very nice of you.”

 

Willie shrugged. “‘S okay,” he said. “Wasn’t any trouble.” He started to turn away again, to get out of the store and away from this horribly embarrassing situation before it got any worse. But Polly, his personal infant tormentor, wasn’t about to let him go.

 

“Mama,” she stage-whispered, loud enough for half the store to hear, “ask him to lunch.”

 

Willie almost bolted. His own finely tuned sense of embarrassment was already off the meter. He couldn’t imagine what this must be like for a woman who appeared as proudly reticent as Gina Logan. But before he could take another step he felt a hand on his sleeve.

 

“Mister Loomis,” Gina said. “We’d be very happy if you would come home to lunch with us.”

 

Willie kept going. Or tried to. But Gina was almost as big as he was, and used to muscling her way through tough times, too. She brought him up short. She was quiet, not shy, he reminded himself. There was a big difference. “Really, Mister Loomis. Not to push you or anything. But we owe you.”

 

Oh god. She’d figured it out. He’d spent the last couple of weeks thinking he had stacked that cord of oak in her backyard woodshed in perfect secrecy, and here she’d known about it all the time. But no.

 

“You know,” she said. “For helping us out when the car left us stranded. We never did get to thank you for that.” Her matronly cheeks were flushed red now, as red as his must be. “And . . . and I know you had some trouble for that . . . after. I wanted to tell you . . . how sorry I was . . . about everything. Lunch seems the least I can do.”

 

Willie stopped trying to pull his arm away. He looked at Gina, this strong, homespun woman who had lived with the town drunk for more than nine years before the abusive son of a bitch inexplicably disappeared at sea one cold misty night, leaving his boat in perfect shape behind him. Willie knew something about that, something that Gina would never guess. She was better off because of it, maybe, but that didn’t matter. He had inadvertently cost this woman her husband. He owed her, too.

 

“Besides,” Polly added, as if this was the clincher, “it’s macaroni and cheese.”

 

Willie looked down at the beaming child, then back up at her frank, open-faced mother, both of whom were absolutely serious in their insistence on his company. Well, hell. What other decision could he make, under the circumstances? There were debts, and then there were debts. “Macaroni and cheese, huh?” he said seriously to Polly. “Well, what do ya know. That’s my favorite.”

 

*

 

Gina glanced up in the rearview mirror just in time to see Willie Loomis’ truck pull into the driveway behind her. Almost automatically, she put the station wagon in park, pulled up hard on the balky emergency brake to make sure it was engaged, and shut off the engine, all without taking her eyes off the battered vehicle edging hesitantly past her mailbox. Before the last greasy backfire choked out of the wagon’s sagging exhaust pipe, Polly was out of the car and running to meet Willie to escort him properly into the house. She didn’t even bother to slam the passenger side door behind her.

 

Oh my god! Gina lurched out of the driver’s seat to yell a warning, but she needn’t have worried. She was barely clear of the seatbelt when she saw Willie stomp hard on the brakes, bringing the truck to an immediate, quivering halt. He put his flannel-sleeved arm out the driver’s side window to warn the child away, waited until she was in the clear, then brought the truck into the driveway at an excruciating creep, just in case Polly decided to dart in front of him again. The moment he shut off the engine, Polly was at his window, jabbering at him a mile a minute, while he just gave her that faint, sweet smile that said I’m listening, I’m listening, even if I can’t get a word in edgewise.

 

Gina sighed. She hoped she was doing the right thing, inviting this virtual stranger to lunch. But he was kind to Polly in the grocery, and she did want to talk to him. It was morbid, maybe, but she wanted a better idea of what Ez and his drunken friends had done to him after he’d been good enough to stop and help her and the babies when they were stranded two miles from town with no way to call for help. Ez had come after her, too, when he’d found out about it. She had known that he would, even as she slipped Polly and Daniel up onto the frayed bench seat of Mister Loomis’ old truck, with a winter wind whipping up her sodden skirt and sharp little needles of ice stinging the back of her neck. She’d worried about it all the way home that cold, wretched afternoon, with sleet snapping off the windshield in front of her and three-month-old Carla curled, blue and shivering, against her chilled breast. Mister Loomis probably thought she was some kind tartar, refusing to speak to him as she had. She couldn’t even open her mouth enough to give him proper directions to the house. Polly had done that.

 

But it wasn’t that she didn’t want to talk to him. She did. She was only afraid. Afraid of what Ez

would do when he learned she’d let a strange man pick her up, even if she had the kids with her and had no choice. She was right to be afraid. She knew her husband. But she had never dreamed he would go after Willie Loomis as well.

 

Ez probably hadn’t planned it. He’d just happened to stumble over Gina’s benefactor while he was on a mean drunk, and had taken advantage of the opportunity. But that was no consolation to Gina, or probably to Mister Loomis either. She’d heard around town a week or so later that Ez had beaten the poor man to within an inch of his life in an antique store parking lot. Those drunken deadbeat friends of his, Ernie Nesmith and Mike Parnell, had helped him do it. Bragged about it later in the Whale, too, which meant everyone had heard about it before the week was out, even if Ez had never mentioned it to her himself. Gina didn’t doubt that snickering, small town gossip for a moment. Three to one odds were about right for that shiftless, cowardly gang. But she didn’t believe that a beating was all there was to it, either. Because she knew her husband, and understood almost instinctively that a few punches into the ribcage of a man who couldn’t fight back wouldn’t be nearly enough to satisfy him.

 

What had Ezra done that this quiet, sad-eyed man had never mentioned? The police had not come into it. Nor had Mister Loomis’ employer, Barnabas Collins. Gina was frankly surprised about that. She could understand Mister Loomis wanting to keep it quiet, but she couldn’t understand a Collins letting such an insult to their village-wide superiority go unremarked. It wasn’t like them. Roger Collins, at least, would have dragged Ez in front of the magistrate. But his courtly, old-world cousin had behaved as though nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. Strange.

 

Now, as she watched Willie Loomis walk up her driveway with her adoring little daughter clinging to his hand like a denim-clad limpet, Gina wondered how in the world she could bring up a topic she knew he wasn’t going to want to talk about. He was a man, wasn’t he? Men kept things like that to themselves. Maybe if she fed him first. Led up to it slowly. Surely he would realize she had to know what further blemish to her name Ez had left her to amend. But conversation—especially of the intense variety that this was likely to be—had never been her best thing.

 

She smiled warmly as he stopped in front of her. A thin, not overly tall man. Blond, blue eyed, with pale, sun-starved skin. Nervous, as she was. Shy. Soft-spoken. Plainly uncertain if he should be here at all. She could understand the feeling.

 

“Mister Loomis,” Gina said. “Welcome to our home.”

 

*

 

The house was fully as crowded as he expected it to be. Willie was reminded of the old nursery rhyme about the poor old woman who lived in a shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do. Not that three kids was a lot. But it sure made for close living quarters when you had a family of four squeezed into a three-room bungalow, not to mention a home-based day care that overflowed from the living room into the diminutive back yard. He was impressed with the ingenious way Gina had set it up, making the most of every precious inch of space.

 

There was the kitchen, kinda tight with a café style table and four chairs squished around it, in addition to the regular gear of stove and fridge and sink. And the living room, the biggest space in the house, that doubled as the kid’s bedroom. Willie could tell the couch was the kind that folded out into a bed the two oldest kids could share. The crib for the baby must be behind that closed door that he assumed was Gina’s bedroom. And that was it. Except for the bathroom and the storage area on the back porch, that was the Logan house, part and parcel. Willie didn’t see how they were going to stay it in when the kids started to grow into something bigger than munchkins, but for now they were making do.

 

The moment he came off the front porch into the living room he noticed the tidy stack of hardwood in the wrought iron rack beside the fireplace. More wood was laid pyramid-fashion in the fireplace, just waiting for a match to make it useful. He turned away from it quickly, before his hostess could notice the furtive smile on his face. The price for that wood had been inordinately high. He was still working out the limp that Barnabas had given him for accidentally cutting down Josette’s special tree. Some of the scars he had left from that awful night would never completely heal. He would bear them the rest of his life. But it was almost worth all the trouble that rotten old tree had caused if it meant he could make a secret gift of its firewood to Gina. A couple of sticks of it would heat this tiny house through the night with no problem at all. Thanks to Willie she had enough of it stored in the woodshed out back to see her through the winter and well into next spring. He’d delivered it in the dead of night, so no one would know.

 

Well, Barnabas knew. In fact, he had modestly and discretely accepted the credit for the small acts of charity Willie had done that night. Quietly, so that Gina Logan and Sam Evans, the recipients of his supposed largesse, wouldn’t be embarrassed. But still overtly enough that people in town kept commenting on what a true, old-fashioned gentleman he was, right down to his penchant for helping those less fortunate than himself. The whole thing made Willie want to gag.

 

But he supposed it didn’t matter who got the credit, as long as Gina and her kids were warm this winter. He paused in the middle of the room on a hand-braided rug, admiring the ship-shape way Gina Logan kept house in what was essentially a shoebox. Every inch of space that was not taken up by necessary furniture was stacked with plastic kiddie chairs, educational toys, stuffed animals, and Little Golden Books. The wall-to-wall carpet that had probably been there when Ezra ruled the house had been lifted in favor of plain, practical linoleum that could be mopped after the inevitable spills of Kool-Aid and finger paint that always came with a house full of rugrats.

 

It was crowded, all right, but it was clean. Cleaner than Willie ever managed to get the Old House, and he didn’t have three kids rampaging through it. Just one fastidious vampire who occasionally left bloodstains in odd places. Fresh blood. Kool-Aid. Probably had the same trouble getting the stains out, if you let it soak in and dry before you tried to clean it up.

 

Okay, boy, knock it off. Don’t bring those kinds of thoughts in here. Don’t jinx this place for them.

 

Throwing off a superstitious shiver, Willie walked deeper into the room and peeked discretely into the kitchen. There was a little paper cup garden on the windowsill, where beans and corn kernels were sprouting in moist beds of cotton. A sweet potato top skewered with toothpicks was flourishing in a sawed-off cola can full of water. The refrigerator was plastered with finger paintings and crayon drawings and snapshots of laughing children.

 

Man, Barnabas would hate this place.

 

Willie loved it. Everything about it said that this was no museum kept to display dead memories and ancient treasures. This was a home. Something Willie, growing up in slums and backwoods shacks as he did, had never really known, but had always longed for, from the time he was Polly’s age and beginning to understand what he was missing. Ah, well. There were some things that

weren’t worth wishing for. Especially when it was too late to have them.

 

Gina excused herself long enough to go into the room with the closed door. She came back without the baby, explaining that it was past time for Carla’s nap. The two older kids went into the back yard, Polly protesting all the way.

 

“You can talk to him over lunch, Sassy Miss,” Gina said firmly. “I can’t very well cook with the two of you underfoot. Now outside to play. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

 

Polly looked as if she were going to sulk. But after kicking the floor a couple of times to demonstrate her displeasure she flashed Willie that gapped-tooth grin again and dragged her little brother out the door. A moment later, Willie could see them through the kitchen window, happily building a metropolis of cast-off spools and oatmeal tins in the sandbox.

 

“My daughter has quite a crush on you, Mister Loomis,” Gina said, waving him to a seat at the kitchen table.

 

“Yeah, well.” He didn’t know what to say to that, so he only shrugged.

 

“You don’t have children of your own, do you?” She was reaching into the cabinet to find a saucepan. A moment later it was filled with water coming to a slow steam on an eye of the stove while she opened a one-pound package of dry macaroni and sliced chilled butter into rounds.

 

“No,” he said. Not that I know of, anyway. “Um . . . isn’t there anything I can do?” He was uncomfortable just sitting here, with nothing to do but glance around the house or watch her work. He was used to being the one up and doing, instead of sitting and waiting.

 

“Well, you can shred this cheese if you want.” She put a big white plastic bowl in front of him. There was a two-pound lump of cheddar cheese and a metal box shredder stacked inside it. “The rough edge will do.

 

“Wow. Real macaroni and cheese. Not the stuff that came in a box with powder that turned into gummy orange sauce, but real macaroni made with cheese and cream and butter and eggs. The ultimate comfort food. Willie couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten something like that, except maybe at the diner when the blue plate special sounded more appealing than a hamburger and fries. He sure didn’t have the time or the skill to attempt such a thing on the Old House’s cast iron stove.

 

Gina was whipping eggs and heavy cream in a bowl. When the macaroni was done she drained it and began layering the hot elbows in a casserole dish with the cheese Willie grated for her. She poured the egg mixture over the top and slid the whole into the pre-heated oven. While the casserole was baking she threw together a simple green salad. She put Willie to work again, slicing tomatoes and chopping onions, while she squeezed lemon juice into oil for the dressing. Willie watched her fill two small bowls with just lettuce and tomatoes for the kids. Apparently Polly and Daniel didn’t care for onions much. They didn’t talk beyond the simplest sentences.

 

Tea? Yes, please. Sugar? Yes.

 

They didn’t need to, really. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence that hung between them, but the single-mindedness of two efficient people who had a job underway. True, it was only lunch. But there would be time for chitchat later, while they were eating it. If, Willie thought, Gina Logan ever indulged in anything like chit-chat. Or gossip. Or idle conversation. For the most part, he couldn’t picture it. He was willing to bet that this was one woman who never sat in a hen party, drinking coffee and eating cherry Danish, while discussing the latest Collins family scandal. She might sit and listen, gathering bits of useful information, because that’s the way small town people got by. But she would never stick her two cents in. She seemed the strong, silent type, all right, used to relying on herself in all things. But in spite of this, the atmosphere in Gina’s kitchen never descended into rudeness, or impatience, or disapproval. It was just quiet. Friendly, warm and quiet, with just the faintest thread of nervousness underneath it—which, Willie assumed, was the result of having a strange man sitting at her table with a knife in his hands.

 

There was a bubble and hiss as a string of cheese from the casserole hit the bottom of the oven. Gina opened the oven door and let a cloud of fragrant steam swirl into the kitchen. Willie was never very hungry these days. Always thin, his time at the Old House had made him almost skinny. He was too busy to prepare substantial meals, and usually too nervous to eat them even if he did. But when he smelled Gina Logan’s macaroni casserole coming out of the oven, he had a feeling he could eat. And not just to be polite, either.

 

*

 

Gina watched him from the kitchen window as she finished up the dishes. He had tried to volunteer for cleanup duty, but she had pushed him out onto the porch with a fresh glass of tea and told him to relax a bit while she took care of the dirty plates and glasses. Now he was sitting in one of the cheap green plastic garden chairs near the steps, letting Polly introduce him to her stuffed animals and dolls. She was bringing them to him one by one and reciting their names and histories with all the solemnity of a mother introducing her eligible children at a grand cotillion. And Mister Loomis was playing along, as serious as she was, reaching out with thumb and forefinger to shake each toy’s grubby hand in a sober mock ceremony that only he and Polly understood.

 

Daniel was sitting at his feet, running a matchbox car over the toes of his shoes and around the chair leg and back again. Once, on maybe the hundredth pass, Gina saw Willie reach down to her son and she tensed, her hand clenching around the dishrag in its sink of soapy water. If that had been Ezra out there she would have known to run for the door, to pick Daniel up and comfort him after his daddy swatted him one for annoying him like that. But Mister Loomis only placed his hand ever so gently on her little boy’s head, so lightly that Daniel didn’t even notice the hesitant touch. He left his hand there, stroking the feathery tips of Daniel’s black hair with his palm, just for a moment. And then he clenched his fingers back in his lap again. The expression on his face was heartbreaking. If Gina didn’t know better, she would swear he did have children somewhere. Or had lost one, maybe.

 

But he was finally relaxing a little. She could tell. She hadn’t bothered to warn the kids to leave  him be. There was a gentle, almost playful patience about him that said he enjoyed their company almost as much as they did his. Like in the grocery store, when he accepted Polly’s invitation to lunch instead of hers. That was the right thing to do from a child’s point of view. Polly loved him for it. He was free and easy around the children. It was only when their mother appeared that his shoulders stiffened a bit and his stutter came back. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. Not straight on, anyway. Just a glance, before he looked away, as if he was embarrassed to talk to her, or ashamed about something.

 

If he were any other man, alarm bells would be shrieking in her head. A town character of his age and dubious reputation who behaved sweet with kids and nervous around adults might be one of those sick perverts who would take advantage of a child’s innocence. A pedophile. Gina Lee Logan was not a fool. If she ever heard one of those alarms in her head start to shrill, even once, she would toss her guest out on his ear. Minus his pecker.

 

But she didn’t think she would have to worry about sharpening her garden shears just yet. Willie Loomis wasn’t such a man as that. Her mother’s intuition told her so, even if her equally fervent mother’s caution wouldn’t let the children out of her sight while their guest was alone with them in the yard. Oh, she had heard the rumors that reviled him, who hadn’t? She knew he was a con man and a thief and probably not a very nice person before Barnabas Collins had straightened him out. That dusty old eccentric had politely ignored all the free advice everyone in town was so eager to give him when he offered Mister Loomis a steady job and a nice place to stay, and Gina was glad that he had. Look what came of it: a former barfly and huckster, reformed enough to be sitting in a winter-dead backyard playing with a couple of kids that weren’t even his.

 

It was more than their daddy had ever done.

 

The kids barely missed Ezra. Didn’t even want to go to his memorial service. He’d never done anything but shout at them anyway. Willie Loomis never raised his voice, even when Polly had run out in front of his truck like she had. And he was nice as pie to Gina, too. Yes ma’am and no ma’am and can I help you with anything, ma’am. Words she wasn’t used to hearing from a grown man. Not after living with Ezra for almost ten years.

 

Speaking of pie, Mister Loomis had finished the thick slab of apple crumble Gina gave him for dessert in three big bites. Hadn’t turned down a second helping, either, which was nice of him, since it gave the kids the excuse to have another bite, too. She would have to make him one later. Maybe take it up to the Old House and deliver it in person. Because it had suddenly occurred to Gina Logan where all that prime firewood stacked in her woodshed had come from. Willie had turned away from her in the living room to glance into the kitchen, but not before Gina’s sharp, motherly eyes saw a satisfied smile flit across his face. A smile that only ignited when his eyes lit on the heavy oak logs stacked in the fireplace. Barnabas Collins might have given the go ahead. But it was Willie Loomis who had brought that expensive load of hardwood here, like a midnight thief working in reverse. She was certain of it.

 

*

 

This was nice. Really nice. Willie could sit here all day, basking in the warm winter sun with a full belly and a peaceful mind, listening to a couple of well-behaved kids playing in the dead grass beside him. He was stuffed. If he’d been alone he might have undone the top button of his pants to give himself a little breathing room, but since he wasn’t he was just going to have to suffer it out. That second piece of apple crumble was really too much, but it was so good to have a meal that didn’t come out of can he couldn’t help himself when Gina slid another double slice on his plate.

 

He needed to get out of here. It was only one o’clock in the afternoon, but time was slipping away from him. There was work waiting for him at the Old House—wasn’t there always?—and he needed to make a decent start on it before dusk, before Barnabas came to see what he’d been up to all day. Mentioning that he’d spent the afternoon loafing at Gina Logan’s wouldn’t be something that Barnabas would want to hear, so Willie had no intention of telling him.

 

He’d get going in a minute, but for now he just wanted to relax a moment longer. Listen to Polly telling her little brother about the dangers of sitting in ant hills even in winter, when the stingy ones were supposed to be sleeping underground but sometimes made a surprise appearance on unseasonably warm days like this one.

 

“You ever been stung by ants, Mister Loomis?” Polly wanted to know.

 

“Oh yeah. Lotsa times. Fire ants, once. Really mean little red ones you get down in Texas.”

 

“You’ve been to Texas?” Polly was impressed.

 

Daniel wasn’t. He probably didn’t know what Texas was, much less anything interesting that might be happening in it. He was only three, after all.

 

“Sure. And I’ll tell you something else. In Australia they have ants so big that they’re almost as fat as jelly beans. They taste sweet, too. Like candy.”

 

“Eeeeew! Gross!”

 

Now that impressed Daniel. He started searching through the grass, undoubtedly looking for an ant he could sample.

 

“No, Danny,” Willie said gently, pulling him back up and giving him his matchcar to distract him. “The ones around here don’t taste so good.”

 

The little boy smiled up at him, traces of apple crumble still sticking to his warm, red lips. He was the strong, silent type like his ma. Never had anything to say, did Danny. Not like Polly, who could talk the ears off a stalk of corn if she had a mind to. She must take after her daddy that way. And, I sincerely hope, not in any other, Willie thought, absently rubbing his right hand where the fingers had begun to ache whenever snow was coming in. Ezra had dislocated those fingers, a scant two weeks after Willie had given Gina and her kids a ride home. It was the final, cruel assault in a beating that had left him incapacitated for days afterwards. Ez Logan was not the kind of man to tolerate another guy spending time with his woman, no matter how innocent the occasion might be. He and a couple of his pals caught Willie out and reminded him of that fact with far more enthusiasm than was necessary, when a simple ‘stay away from my wife’ would have sufficed.

 

Coulda been worse. If it wasn’t for Mike Parnell, it woulda been.

 

True. Ez had been hunting for a knife when Parnell pointed out that maiming Willie permanently was likely to be more trouble than it was worth. Thank god. Willie made it back to the Old House— barely. Back to the rough care of his incensed employer, who had quite painfully and efficiently extracted the names of Ezra Logan, Ernie Nesmith and Mike Parnell from Willie’s bruised, reluctant lips before morning.

 

Two of them had disappeared at sea shortly afterwards. The third packed his bags and ran for Texas. Willie assumed Mike Parnell was still down there somewhere, drinking Mexican beer instead of Budweiser and bitching about sand bass season instead of lobstering. But maybe not. Maybe Barnabas got him, too. Who knew how far a vengeful vampire could travel in one night? Ezra’s body had never washed up. That was something, anyway. Gina didn’t have to put five hundred dollars worth of casket in the ground because there was nothing to bury. Gave her that much more money from the sale of Ezra’s boat to start up the day care. She and the kids had probably never had it so good, without Ez around to drag them down.

 

Then why do I feel so guilty, sitting here with a dead man’s family, wishing they were mine?

 

The unexpected thought startled him enough to make him sit up sharply, almost fast enough to tip over his chair. The Logans‘ back yard dipped and spun. Gina’s macaroni casserole was suddenly a cold, hard stone lodged in his stomach.

 

Where the hell did that come from? Willie, you get out of here. You get out of here NOW!

 

“Mister Loomis, what’s the matter?”

 

He came back to himself with Polly tugging worriedly on his fingers. Willie flinched from the familiar touch, pulling away from her and standing up all in a rush.

 

The little girl scatted backwards, putting three feet of space between them in the blink of an eye.

 

Too late, Willie remembered her late father had possessed a temper that made him lash out at whatever was bugging him at the moment. Judging from Polly’s reaction, his favorite targets had likely included his kids.

 

But Polly wasn’t cowed, just cautious. As Willie quickly discovered, when she raised her voice into a shout designed to bring the cavalry on the double.

 

“Mama! C’mout here, something’s wrong with Mister Loomis!”

 

“No!” Willie hushed, “be quiet, Polly, it’s okay, I’m okay. Really I am, see? I just thought of something I forgot.”

 

Yeah, that you aren’t like other people no more, and you can’t ever be again. You can’t ever have something like this, a home and family and kids of your own, not ever, so let’s get the hell out of here before you make it worse, you goddamn fool….

 

Gina was striding off the porch, wiping her hands on her apron, anxious to see what the fuss was about.

 

Willie turned to her nervously. “It’s all right, Missus Logan. I just remembered a job I’ve got to do before. . . .” before my boss the vampire rises for the evening, “before Mister Collins gets home tonight. I’ve got to get back to Collinwood right away.”

 

“Oh.” Gina looked disappointed. Willie didn’t stop to wonder why. He just started for the back door, trying very hard not to be unforgivably rude while he was at it. Talk about eat and run. “I’m really sorry, Missus Logan. Lunch was wonderful, I really appreciate it, I do, but I’ve gotta get going.”

 

“All right, Mister Loomis, we didn’t mean to keep you so long.” Gina sounded regretful, not angry or harsh. “I’ll walk you out to your truck.”

 

“Miiiister Looooomis!” Polly, at least, was not going to take this well. “You forgot to say goodbye.”

 

Willie stopped. He turned around on the porch, his hand already touching the cheap fiberboard door, and saw the indignant little girl still standing on the grass, her hands on her hips in an attitude of reproach. Her little brother sat, oblivious, beside her.

 

He walked back down the steps and crouched down in front of her, so they were eye to eye. Her cherub’s face was set in an angry scowl. She wasn’t going to make it easy for him for almost walking out on her like that. Willie sighed internally.

 

What the hell can I say that a kid will understand?

 

Well, how about the simple truth?

 

“I’m sorry, Polly. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

 

One sentence, honestly said. That’s all it took. He watched the displeasure melt from her face, to be replaced with that cock-eyed grin.

 

That smile made Willie’s heart clench painfully within him. It was the same grin he’d worn as a kid, before the world had worn it off him.

 

“Thank you very much for lunch,” he said. “It was the best macaroni and cheese ever. It really was.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Polly said politely, glancing to the side to see if her mother had noticed her good manners.

 

Willie looked, too. Gina was smiling approvingly at them, her hands tucked into her apron pockets, her coarse black hair whisping across her face in the chill winter breeze like an island pony’s unruly mane.

 

Good. Peace all around. That’s what he wanted, before he left here for good, and tossed any remnants of his daydream about home and family out the window of his truck on the way back to the Old House.

 

That’s all that was waiting for him now.

 

That’s all that ever would be.

 

“All right, then,” he said, struggling to keep this light in spite of the awful black-water sadness welling in his throat. “Good-bye, Polly.”

 

“Good-bye, Mister Loomis. You come back anytime. Right, Mama?”

 

Gina put her hand down to help Willie back to his feet. He was glad to take her up on it, because he hadn’t realized when he crouched down how hard it was going to be to get back up again. His leg was healing, but it was still stiff and sore.

 

“Right, honey,” she said, taking her time about letting go of his hand. “Mister Loomis is welcome here any time. Any time at all.”

 

*

 

She followed him out of the house and into the driveway in silence.

 

She had hoped to have a minute or two alone with him, out of earshot of the kids, so she could find some tactful way to ask him about what her late husband had done that cold, drizzly afternoon in the antique store parking lot. But it looked like she wasn’t going to get her chance. Not today, anyway. She handed him a paper bag through the window of his truck. “Macaroni and cheese,” she said, “and some of that apple crumble. Enough for dinner.”

 

“Thanks, Missus Logan.” She was touched by the genuine pleasure on his face, especially after he’d turned so upset and nervous in the yard. She wondered if Polly had maybe said something that she shouldn’t have. But that was one more thing she wasn’t going to get to ask him.

 

“I meant what I said, Mister Loomis,” Gina told him seriously as the truck engine grumbled to life. “You come back anytime. There’s always a place at our table for you, as long as you like macaroni and cheese.”

 

“I appreciate that, Missus Logan.” He looked nervous again, kind of pale and sick to his stomach. He was staring hard at the center of the steering wheel, as if purposefully refusing to look her in the eye. What in the world had he forgotten, that would make him so anxious to be away?

 

“Missus Logan. . . ?”

 

She looked back up at him. He was sitting stiffly upright in his truck, his pale, anxious face barely two feet from hers. His blue-gray eyes were still locked in front of him, and she saw that his knuckles were turning white with the ferocious grip he had on the steering wheel. As if he was nerving himself up to say something.

 

“Yes?” Would he tell her on his own? Had he somehow realized her ulterior motive in asking him into her home—that she wanted painful, embarrassing details that he wouldn’t want to divulge? Especially to her, of all people.

 

But what he said caught her entirely off guard.

 

“I’m sorry,” he almost whispered. “I’m really, really sorry.”

 

Gina realized with a shock that there were tears standing in his eyes. In a moment he would blink and they would fall, and then what was she going to say?

 

“Sorry?” she said, astonished. “For what?”

 

“For. . . .” He almost said it. Said the truth.

 

Whatever awful thing was ripping at him, he almost let it go. But he didn’t. The moment the words left his mouth, Gina knew he had changed his mind, and turned his truth into simple polite platitudes meant to appease her. “For leaving so sudden this way. But I’ve really gotta get back.”

 

“I understand, Mister Loomis. It can’t be easy, working for an eccentric family like that Collins clan tends to be.”

 

He nodded, as if agreeing with her. He had himself under control again.

 

Under his politeness was a certain unfathomable grimness, but the tears in his eyes were gone. His hands were relaxed and sure again as they lifted the parking brake and put the truck into reverse.

 

“Thanks again,” he said. “And thanks for the extra. I’ll sure enjoy it.”

 

“You’re welcome,” she said.

 

But she was talking to the air, because he was already pulling out of the driveway, and into the maze of streets that led out of Collinsport to the barren coastal road beyond.