accepted her responsibility to take care of us. Instead, she took off without warning whenever she felt like it. I remember waking up one morning and going in my parents’ room and asking my father where she was. He wiped a tear, didn’t look at me and said, ‘I don’t know, Son. I don’t know where she went.’ That was the day before I started first grade. She came back, and she left again. When Dad died, she came back and stayed, but I didn’t give a damn. I was eight.”
“I know. It affected you more than it did Telford and Drake. Since Mr. Josh died, your brothers and me are the only people you let get close to you. Best thing that could have happened to you, Son, was finding out how much Alexis loves her child. She come here that day, she told me later, with a total of thirty-eight dollars to her name right after she signed away twelve million in exchange for full custody of Tara.”
He released a sharp whistle. “I didn’t know it was that much. Jack Stevenson is a jerk. I don’t see how any human being could fail to love Tara. Well, if I’m going to stay home, I’d better get to work.” And he’d have to find a way to avoid Velma except at breakfast and supper when it wouldbe impossible. As it was, thoughts of her interfered with his concentration, and that was a first.
His mind made up, he told Henry, “I think I’ll work in the office at the warehouse. Less distraction.”
“Yeah,” Henry said. “She ain’t likely to go down there. If I need you for anything, I’ll call you on your cell phone.”
He didn’t bother to answer. As long as Henry could breathe, he’d say whatever came to his mind. “See you at supper. I’ll get a sandwich out of the vending machine in the basement at the warehouse.”
“Won’t taste like nothing.”
“Right, but it will serve the purpose.”
At the same time, Velma was considering ways to avoid encountering Russ. She knew that it was mandatory that they all eat supper together, for Alexis had made that a house rule. However, nothing prevented her from leaving before breakfast. That evening after supper, she laid out Tara’s clothes for school, read stories to her niece and went to her room early. She heard Russ’s steps as he mounted the stairs and her breathing stopped until she heard his bedroom door close. She had known that he wouldn’t knock on her door, and she hadn’t wanted him to, but in her heart she longed for him to come to her.
She slept fitfully, rose early and got Tara ready for school. She’d never been efficient at braiding hair, and Tara didn’t like the result. “Aunt Velma, I’m going to learn how to braid my hair,” she said after looking in the mirror.
“I don’t blame you. The school bus will be here in ten minutes, so let’s hurry.” At the front door, to her surprise, Russ was waiting for them.
“Hi,” he said. “I’ll walk with her out to the bus. It stops almost directly in front of the house, but the walkway may be a little slippery.”
She stood in the foyer beside the big oval window watching as Russ lifted Tara, hugged and kissed her and set her on the bus. She hadn’t known him to be so affectionate with the child and wondered again at the reason. He seemed surprised to find her still standing there when he returned.
“I had planned to work in Philadelphia for a few days, but with both Telford and Drake away, I think I’d better stay close to home.” He told her about Jack’s visit the previous afternoon. “I wouldn’t put it past him to do something to upset Telford, who he detests. I told the bus driver not to release her to any man but me, and I’ve just this second decided to go to the school and warn the principal.”
“Surely, he wouldn’t—”
“A principled man wouldn’t treat his daughter as Jack treats Tara. He didn’t want Alexis when she was his wife, but as soon as she divorced him for philandering, he wanted her back. Telford got in his way. I’d better get