Heather of His Heart
Billy Laundry found himself holed up with a crazy woman because he loved his niece. In addition, his brother asked him to look in on the woman while he and his wife were away.
That was how he got there. That he had to stay, was just dumb luck — the act of some snow loving trickster god with a perverse sense of humor. If he were honest with himself, he could have braved the snow and got away, but from the moment he first saw her, there was something about her that compelled him to stay. He wanted to spend time alone with her under the same roof. Bonding with his niece was simply a nice bonus.
Unfortunately, he needed the time alone with her because a gentleman did not mess around with his sister-in-law’s best friend. Not if he wasn’t damn serious.
Her name was H.L. Mencken, and she was a witch.
Not the black-cone-hat wearing, eye of newt, and cauldron type of witch, but an honest-to-goodness white candle-making, spell-casting, organic farming type of witch, who ran around barefoot most of the time. When she wasn’t barefoot, she wore some kind of ethically produced footwear that looked as if it was designed for octogenarians with bad eyesight and bunions.
She was outspoken and generous with her opinions, which were wrong about seventy percent of the time. The other thirty percent, Billy Landry wryly thought, was more a product of luck than an aptitude for, or an appreciation of, reality. H.L. Mencken had inherited some sense, just not a great deal of it — which was oddly part of her charm. She trusted everyone she met, and generally saw the good in people — save him.
She was tough though. Billy had to give her that. Hardworking too, if that, in-and-of-itself, could be considered a virtue. He thought it was. He worked hard when he worked, and spent many of his thirty-plus years playing hard when he wasn’t working. He got the ethic part. What he didn’t understand, what he couldn’t relate to, was H.L.’s complete disregard for her own safety.
The woman was fearless. Dangerously so. He would have taken her more seriously when she brandished that rolling pin in his face, even spotted with baking flour and bits of pie crust. But dressed as she was, he couldn’t. He just couldn't get over her shoes.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me, Billy Landry,” she said, waving the rolling pin at him like a mad woman. H.L. was red in the face and perspiring from the effort of punching balls of dough into flat pieces. Maybe it took that much effort simply to hold her temper when she was dealing with him. Billy didn’t know why she got so worked up, but he was finding it entertaining to watch. Like an interactive live theater that you really don’t want to go to, but once you get there, you’re belting it out with the best of them.
“Don’t laugh?” Billy glanced down at her feet, then back up into her sparkling lavender-blue eyes. She was pissed. He didn’t hear most of what she mumbling about Neanderthals and men who carry guns (as if that was a huge sin for a witch). “That would be a whole lot easier to do if you weren’t wearing clown shoes.”
H.L. jerked back and set the rolling pin on the counter, next to the abandoned bits of pie crust. Billy took that to be a positive sign as she ran flour covered hands through her short blonde hair, causing it to stick straight out at the sides.
Billy grinned, leaned back against the opposite kitchen counter and waited for her head to explode. “Now you look like Phyllis Diller in clown shoes. Very hard to take seriously.”
H.L., clearly not as fast with the witticisms as her namesake, sputtered. She was looking down at her shoes when he teased her about her hair, and her head shot up so fast he thought she was bound to get a headache. “Who is Phyllis Diller?”
Billy made a point of rolling his eyes. He knew who the now-dead comedian was because his mother got a kick out of the fact that Mrs. Diller was a housewife who first took the stage at age thirty-seven. His mother taught him an appreciation for pioneering women of all kinds. “YouTube her.”
H.L., H to her friends, as he’d been told repeatedly, put her hands on her rounded hips. Billy preferred women with some curve to them, and he’d give the clown that too. She had very nice, ah...hips.
“You are a real pain-in-the-a...,” H started to say. She stopped abruptly and cast a stricken gaze toward the baby-prison set up in the corner of the kitchen. Billy’s niece, H’s goddaughter, was watching them with large sky-blue eyes — her mother’s eyes — as she gripped the bars of her portable crib.
“You know she can’t talk yet, right? She can’t repeat what you say.”
H sent him a blistering look. Hard to do when covered in flour, dressed in oversized clogs that looked like wet oil-slicks spotted with neon colored peace signs. “Maggie Mae can hear us. She takes in everything she hears. Who knows if she’s storing words in that big brain of hers for future use.”
Billy nodded and went over to pluck the little lady out of her crib. He reached down and Maggie gave him a big slobbery smile. The kid was just shy of a year old, and she had every expression known to man down pat. Billy was constantly amazed at Maggie Mae’s ability to squeeze his heart and make him feel like maybe, just maybe, there was hope for mankind.
Maggie held up her chubby arms and gave a peal of laughter as Billy lifted her high above his head. Then he tossed her up, not far, and caught her again. It was something he did frequently when H wasn’t around, much higher than he was doing now. He wouldn’t have done it at all, except he knew she’d be pissed at him about that too. Little girls, he’d found out through experimentation, loved to be tossed. Those old enough to be women, just didn’t understand. It was as if they’d forgotten they used to dream of being able to fly.
“You can hear us, can’t you imp? You just don’t give a bloody damn what we’re saying as long as we’re saying it sweetly. Isn’t that right? It’s scary Auntie H with her witchy tone that left you doe-eyed in your cell. Not your ass of an uncle,” Billy said, giving the baby a raspberry on her rounded belly.
Maggie squealed in response before settling into a fit of giggles as Billy brought her to his chest and nestled her head in the crook of his neck. Maggie rubbed her face into him, leaving a trail of cold slobber. Billy refused to wipe it off while H was looking at him.
H.L. Mencken smiled sweetly at him. That’s when Billy knew he was about to get smoked. She came right to his side and had to go up on tiptoes to kiss the baby’s head. H.L. smelled like vanilla and butter and something ineffable that made Billy want to lick the small sprinkling of sugar-in-the-raw mixed with cinnamon from her cheek.
She looked like a goddess. A clown goddess, but a goddess nonetheless. She smelled like heaven and home and wood smoke from the fire.
H took her time kissing Maggie Mae’s head and smoothing back the baby’s shock of red-gold curls. Maggie leaned toward her as she drew near. Billy wanted to as well, but he restrained himself. He doubted she’d try to hit him without the rolling pin. She’d thankfully left that weapon on the counter. He didn’t think she’d slap him either, not with a baby in his arms. Not that H was the slapping type. He didn’t peg her for a slapper. No, H was the kind of straight forward woman who would deck him if she wanted to do any real damage. Thankfully, she was all about organics and peace and other crazy far-out things.
Violence and good taste in attire weren’t in her nature.
She leaned in and whispered, “If Chance and Sam don’t make it home soon, I swear to the universe and all things holy, that I’ll offer you up hog-tied on a spit, with both of my clown shoes up your ass. The goddess doesn’t like poncy Englishmen, but as a human sacrifice, I think you’ll do.”
H stepped back with a twinkle in her amazing eyes that his grandmother would have called a look of the dickens. She pushed a lock of sun-blonde hair from her forehead, and it stuck up with the rest of it.
Billy smiled slow and long, taking in every inch of her flour-covered apron, flour-spotted jeans, and what he could see of her red and black buffalo-plaid flannel shirt. She really was adorably disheveled. When he finished, he noticed her blushing, an odd thing for a woman so forthright. Maybe she was just so mad at him it showed in the roses blooming on her cheeks. Chubby, round, sweet cheeks.
He’d seen far more beautiful women. Slept with those he found interesting. But there was something special about H that told him, with those forget-me-not colored eyes, she’d still be lovely at ninety. Billy was an eye man. Pretty face, honest smile, eyes sparkling with intelligence and his heart skipped a beat. Some men liked legs. For others, it was a shapely ass and a stomach you could bounce quarters off of. Billy liked passion and honest emotion and sass. He was a sucker for sass.
One thing H had in spades, was plenty of sass.
Billy winked at her and smiled inwardly as her eyes flared. “Feel free to tie me down anytime your desires get the best of you. I’m right here, stuck with you and my little imp for the duration, and she has to sleep sometime. Then it will just be you and me and that cotton ball you call a dog.”
Billy took a step closer to her and turned his voice down to a purr. “Kick off the granny shoes and I’ll let you do whatever you wish with my, how did you put it?...oh, yes...my...poncy ass.”
H got so still that Billy thought he might have pushed her toward using the rolling pin on his head after all. Then she took a deep breath and walked toward the kitchen door, stopping at the threshold.
“Take the pie out and set it on the rack when the timer goes off.” Her tone wasn’t exactly cold, more civil than anything else. Billy knew he’d gotten under her skin. He enjoyed it, but only because she’d firmly lodged herself under his the first time he’d laid eyes on her more than a year before. Every barb she’d sent his way was like scratching an itch. It led to the need to scratch more frequently and deeper.
She was making him crazy without even trying. He knew he needed to get laid badly when flour and the scent of vanilla turned him on. She was two steps out the door when he said to her retreating back, “Point of fact, love, I’m a Scot now, not an Englishman.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah,” she said without turning, “So where’s your kilt?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “You must have left it at home, right next to your charm and your wit.”
And then she was gone.
The wind howled across the meadow, whipping snow into tiny blinding white tornadoes. Late March in Wisconsin was not a place Billy Landry ever consciously set out to be. He much preferred being in Somerset in spring. He’d spent his childhood there. No doubt daffodils were blooming in the chapel grounds where his mother still lived. He could be enjoying the relative warmth there, yet here he was, stuck in his half-brother’s empty retreat with a baby, and a witch who drove him crazy and he badly wanted to fuck.
Billy looked down into Maggie Mae’s eyes. Such a serious little princess when she wasn’t giggling. Taking in everything around her, absorbing it all, and keeping it all to herself.
“Absent wit and charm. I must be losing my touch, sweetling.”
Maggie bobbed her head.
Billy took that as affirmation that indeed he had.