To celebrate the birthday of Mel Morganstern, heroine of my contemporary “cougar” romance, here’s a snippet from Old Enough to Know Better.
After supper, the boys perched on the sofa, allowed to watch a few innings of baseball before bedtime. Mel sat in front of her computer at the dining table—Jamie hoped she was writing, but reckoned she was more likely catching up on email…again. He’d had to march her out of the kitchen so she’d let him do the washing up.
A loud knock at the door startled them. Jamie looked at Mel with the question Pete asked aloud. “Who’s that?”
Mel looked as baffled as the rest. She shut her laptop and headed toward the door, but not before one more impatient knock.
“Happy birthday!” several women’s voices pealed out.
“Oh my God,” Mel gasped.
Jamie’s jaw went slack. It’s Mel’s birthday today!? What the hell?
“We figured you’d need some cheering up, having just said goodbye to your mid-thirties,” one of them teased.
Pete and Joe crept toward the group of four women who pushed their way inside the house past a gobsmacked Mel. “Did you bring Noah and Aiden?” Pete asked a woman holding two pizza boxes.
“We left all the boys at home, honey,” she replied. “This is a Mom party, not a playdate. But we’d love to have you come over tomorrow, if you want.”
Pete nodded, accepting both the explanation and the invitation.
“Is it really your happy birthday, Mom?” Joe wrapped his arms around her leg. The women cooed in unison, appreciating the adorable gesture.
“It’s June twenty-sixth,” Pete cried. “I forgot!” He ran toward the kitchen. “Jamie, I forgot it’s Mom’s birthday today.”
A moment of silence followed as four heads turned and four pairs of glittering eyes looked him up and down. Jamie was well used to such invasive stares and stood his ground.
“New babysitter, Mel?” a smiling woman asked.
Mel’s wry smile indicated she perhaps thought this wasn’t far from the truth. “Jamie, this is Dani, Michelle, Nicky, and Joanna. Our boys all go to school together. Girls, this is Jamie Swain. He’s staying with us.”
“We’re the Momtourage,” the one with the pizzas proclaimed.
“Nobody but old ladies thinks that phrase is remotely cool, Michelle,” the one carrying two large bottles of liquor scolded.
“Pleasure to meet you all,” Jamie said with a nod and a polite smile.
Eight eyebrows shot upward.
“An exchange student? How long are you here for, honey?” the one carrying a cooler asked.
“Indefinitely,” Jamie replied before Mel could say anything to the contrary.
“He’s not an exchange student, Joanna.” Mel shot Jamie a warning look—You’re not helping, dammit!
“Wait a minute… Did you say his name was Jamie Swain?” the empty-handed one asked. “Like, as in James… Swain?” She wasn’t the only one who suddenly connected the name with the familiar face. Eyes went wide and jaws dropped.
“Loo-see, you got some ‘splainin’ to do,” the one with the liquor bottles sang in an exaggerated Spanish accent, then giggled.
“March it, birthday girl,” the empty-handed one ordered, taking Mel by the arms and driving her toward the back garden.
“This ought to be interesting,” the last one out murmured as she shut the door behind her.
Jamie watched out the window as the women arranged themselves around the table under the shade trees, heard one of them cackle with glee. He turned back to check on the boys just in time to see Pete’s shoulders sag. “What’s wrong, mate?”
“I can’t believe I forgot her birthday,” he moaned.
Poor little fella. He had no idea if this was typical behavior for a six-year-old, but suspected the family’s recent trauma heightened Pete’s already sensitive nature.
“It’s not too late, you know,” Jamie assured, his brain shifting into high gear. “We could make her something.”
“Like… a picture?” Joe asked.
“Sure, if you like,” Jamie replied. Sounds easy enough.
“Lame,” Pete chided with a roll of his eyes.
“No, it’s not,” Joe argued.
“Joe, she’d love a picture from you,” Jamie insisted. “And Pete, you can do something different, like…” He paused, trying to think of something.
“A cake?” Pete asked.
“Yeah! A cake. Let’s do it,” Jamie replied with forced enthusiasm, wondering how the bloody hell he was gonna pull this off. But he swallowed his self-doubt—people made cakes all over the world every goddamn day—even though he’d never made anything more complicated than a microwave dinner. He knew his way around Mel’s kitchen, and she kept the pantry well-stocked. He pulled out a recipe book, flipped to the index for cake, and prayed the ingredients weren’t too exotic.
Pete dashed to the pantry and withdrew a box and a small plastic tub. “She likes chocolate.”
Jamie decided to defer to the obvious expert and tossed the cookbook aside. The cake mix’s simplistic directions appeared to be idiot-proof. He reckoned he could stir together some water, oil, and eggs.
“Have you done this before?” Jamie asked as Pete pushed a dining chair into the kitchen and climbed on.
“I always help Mom when she bakes stuff.” The little boy reached into a cupboard and fished out a bowl, measuring cups, and a machine that looked rather intimidating, setting everything on the counter.
Pete was a brilliant help, directing Jamie through the process. He measured and poured, then showed how to assemble and operate the electric mixer. He’d just fetched two round cake tins and explained what was meant by “grease and flour” when Joe sounded off from his post as sentinel.
“Someone’s coming,” he cried in the same moment the back door opened.
Jamie and Pete spun around like thieves caught bang to rights, guilty looks on their faces. A second later, they heaved sighs of relief when they saw it wasn’t Mel.
Michelle walked forward, her eyes grazing over the counter, widening as they took in the sight. Jamie followed her gaze, realizing the kitchen looked like a hurricane had hit. “What on earth?” she said, a look of mild disgusted shock on her face.
“We’re making a birthday cake for Mom,” Pete declared.
Michelle met Jamie’s eyes. A spark of mischief accompanied cautious approval there. She spoke to Pete, but continued looking at Jamie. “Are you now, honey? Well, isn’t that sweet.”
“It’s a surprise, though. Please don’t tell Mom,” Pete begged.
Michelle winked. “Your secret’s safe with me, honey. I’ll even make sure she doesn’t come back in here for a good while, ‘kay?”
“Good idea,” Pete exclaimed. “Thanks!”
Michelle made her way to the guest loo. By the time she came back through, the cake tins were in the oven, and Jamie had begun washing up for the second time that evening. The boys were busy at the dining table, creating masterpieces of birthday cards.
Michelle cleared her throat as she leaned against the counter. “I think we’ve spoken before,” she said so the boys wouldn’t hear. “You called the day of the funeral, didn’t you?”
The memory clicked into place: the day he’d read the email message about Shaun’s death and feared Mel might have been injured in the accident. He must have sounded like a panicked lunatic. “You were the one who answered her phone?”
Michelle nodded. “Nicky sent the email. She got a ration of shit for it from Mel.” After another intent stare that lasted several moments, she smiled and patted his shoulder. “Good luck,” she said, then left to return to the garden party.
According to Pete, and confirmed by the frosting tub, the cakes had to be cooled before the icing could go on. Pete suggested they put them in the icebox, and Jamie couldn’t think of a logical reason to object. Afterward, the boys glued the two layers together with a jar of strawberry jam. Once the top was affixed to the bottom, although a bit lopsided, Jamie reckoned it still recognizably passed as a cake.
“What’s ‘indefinitely’ mean?” Pete asked as they smeared chocolate frosting onto it, Jamie pretending not to notice the boys licked their fingers often.
Jamie tried to gauge the little boy’s angle, hoping it was just a question of vocabulary. “It means nobody knows for sure how long something will last.”
“So you might leave soon?” Both boys looked disappointed.
This was not a subject Jamie enjoyed dwelling upon, either. “Well, I have to go back home to England at the end of the summer for my job. But I don’t want to. I really like being here with you.”
Several silent moments passed. The brothers exchanged a look.
“You like my mom,” Pete declared.
“You think she’s pretty,” Joe added.
Both boys stared boldly at Jamie, daring him to deny it.
Jamie feared he might just be on thin ice at the moment. But he decided a lie was not only unconscionable, it was surely the quickest way to shoot himself in the foot. Mel and her boys were a package deal—not that he minded the bargain. Still, the situation was complicated, and he didn’t relish the thought of launching into a lengthy explanation.
He cleared his throat. “I like all of you very much. And yes, I think your mum is beautiful.”
They seemed to accept this and redirected their focus back to frosting the cake. Jamie breathed a sigh of relief, considering the bullet dodged for the time being.
“Where is England?” Joe asked. “Is it in Phoenix?”
“It’s not even in America. It’s a different country,” Pete said.
“Shall I show you?” Jamie picked up Joe and led Pete over to the world map on the wall in the playroom. “Here is Arizona,” he said, resting his finger on the pink trapezoid. Then he ran his finger a foot’s distance to the right. “And here is England. I had to fly over the Atlantic Ocean and all across America to meet you.”
“That’s really far away,” Pete said.
Jamie nodded, his heart sinking like a lead balloon at the thought of ever leaving them. Too bloody far away.
Want to read more? Old Enough to Know Better is available in digital and paperback formats on Amazon.