Key-Key wiped her hands on the apron her friend Rose had sewn for her. Her friend? It was such an odd concept. When she had first met the woman the day they arrived, she had assumed that the obviously middle-class white woman could never understand her struggles. And while their lives had begun markedly different, Rose and she shared many of the same challenges. Motherhood chief among them.
She did not know what she would have done with the whole home education thing if not for Rose. Being responsible for Bree’s education was very different from making certain she completed the school’s assignments for her. At least, having Bree home all day was not that unusual. Even before this virus had made it unsafe for her to attend school, her daughter’s medical condition had meant she missed school often, sometimes for days or weeks at a time.
Still, waking the next morning to try and figure out what they should be doing had been a daunting task. Travis had suggested that she call the woman, but she had been reluctant to bother a virtual stranger. Then, Rose and Chad had just shown up with a full Thanksgiving dinner. In the stress of the move, Keisha had forgotten the holiday entirely. So, the bags of food they left on the front porch had been timely.
Again, they had kept well back as they chatted. With a little prodding from Trav, she had come clean about her lack of direction. The two of them had stood out in the cold for close to an hour discussing various options from workbooks and online courses that approximated those take-home studies that Keisha was accustomed to supervising, all the way to the downright crazy-sounding self-directed education.
Somewhere in the process, the men had slipped away to walk the farm, which Keisha had learned was something called permaculture. By the time they returned and weighed in on the education debate, her fingers were numb, and she could no longer feel her toes. Rose had insisted that she phone or message after lunch, and they could talk more.
Over the past few weeks, Keisha had learned more about the woman, including why she looked so familiar that first day. She would have never thought she’d have anything in common with the likes of socialite Cassie McBride. Then again, as Rose said, she had never been that person. It was all just a mask and façade she wore.
Along the way, Keisha had learned more of the woman’s story. It seemed that crap fathers were not the exclusive domain of poor black girls. That and their devotion to their daughters had been the first of their shared bonds.
Key-Key had become a massive fan of her friend’s vlog, Downhome Debutant, especially the whole sewing thing, a skill she had always wanted to learn. When her friend’s story had finally broken, Rose had been thrust from the comforts of her hiding place with Chad back into the spotlight. Every news channel in the state, and several national and international ones, had wanted the story of the down-on-her-luck rich girl. But Rose had not trusted any of them with the truth.
So, with her daughter Grace’s help, she had taken her story to the internet. And made quite a name for herself. From her recipe for buttermilk biscuits to her signature home-sewn aprons, the vlog had been a success. Heck, the soft cotton that Key-Key wiped her hands on cost more than she made in a day back home.
Back home? No, that was not right. Atlanta was never anything more than a place she lived. Even that was not accurate. A place she barely survived? This place had felt like home from the moment she stepped out of Travis’s truck. She and Rose had that in common, too.
Key-Key swiped her cheek with the back of her hand. One thing they did not have in common was the love of their husbands. While she knew that Travis respected her and they shared a similar bond of friendship that she had once had with Brian, it was a far cry from Rose and Chad’s fairytale love story.
Yes, she admitted it. She was jealous of the woman. Though, why she was not sure. Love had not been part of their deal. Stability for her and Bree. A safe and secure home. Her help with Mr. Bill. And all that was working out fine. Better than fine, pretty much perfectly, in fact. So what was her problem? Love and romance just did not come into it. She and Travis were too different. It would only complicate things. No, she just needed to put those silly thoughts behind her.
Except that got harder to do every day. Whether it was the way the man genuinely cared for and loved his father, or the compassion, understanding, and interest he showed in her daughter, or the way he was always willing to help out around the house. Trav had gotten under her skin.
Okay, maybe she should try reading something other than those trashy romances. It had always been her one self-indulgence since Dr. Maywood had given Keisha an old tablet after an upgrade. For a few dollars a month, she had tens of thousands of books at her fingertips. But it was romances that were her favorite.
But look where that was getting her. Falling for a guy, her husband, who was not interested in anything more than friendship and convenience.
“Hey, let me help you.”
Key-Key jumped and almost dropped the plate she was drying.
“You keep rubbing it, and those painted roses are gonna come right off.”
She barely bit back a moan. Why did Travis have to use those words? Rubbing it and coming was not what she wanted to hear in that sexy deep Texas twang. At least not in terms of a plate.
Keisha forced a smile and passed the dish to her husband in silence. His smile appeared almost as fake.
“While Bree isn’t around, I wanted to talk with you about Christmas. I know she always says she doesn’t need anything, and with this virus spreading, now isn’t a good time for the horse thing. Maybe in the spring or summer, if things die down. Rose tell you about their friend Jaycee who used to run an Equine Therapy center for special needs children?”
Key-Key bit her bottom lip and nodded her head. She fought back the giggles. Travis was rambling. Was he as nervous around her as she got with him? He stared at the tiles as he tucked the plate away in the cabinet. Maybe.
He wiped his hands on the front of his jeans. “Anyway, I was thinking about getting her a tablet but wanted your opinion first.”
Keisha smiled at the memories as she shook her head. “The one that she got that Christmas still works okay.”
“Yeah, I know, but it can’t do all the fancy stuff that Grace’s can. I figure between home ed and being stuck inside for who knows how long, it might be time for an upgrade. They could even play games together if Bree had one like hers.”
“No, that’s too much. Grace has one of those expensive iPad things. I can’t let you spend so much on her present.”
His eyes met hers. Their green depths did a number on her tummy – and lower. “Why not? I can afford it, and I think she’d like it.”
“But you’ve done so much for us already. I mean, the trip to Atlanta was not cheap. Then the wedding paperwork, you paid for that too. And all the bills around here. I was thinking maybe a few new clothes, a coat, or something?”
“Clothes and a new coat don’t sound like much of a Christmas.”
“I know, but really, Bree will be fine. She understands.”
“I know she ‘understands.’ But she shouldn’t have to, Key-Key. It’s Christmas. Would it be so bad if just once she got something that she wanted? Something she did not dare even imagine? If anyone deserves a special Christmas, it’s that girl.”
Keisha nodded as she fought back her warring emotions. Memories of all those other Christmases that she could not afford to get presents for her child. Did he blame her the way other people did? It was sad that it had come to that, but it seemed to be poor in this country meant that you were lazy or stupid or both.
Especially if you were a young, black, single parent. Key-Key knew that many people questioned her choice to have her baby, especially when Bree was born with cerebral palsy. It was always the assumption; she must have done something wrong while she was pregnant – drugs, alcohol, something. She had lived with those unspoken accusations for thirteen years. She opened her mouth about to give him some smart mouth retort or a piece of her mind. She was not entirely sure which. But the look in those green depths stayed her sharp tongue.
“Please, Key-Key. I was never much of a father to my son. I was away more Christmases than I spent with them. And I know I’m not her father, that I can never take Brian’s place in her life or yours. But I’d really like to get her something special this year. Please.”
She smiled as she nodded. She did not dare try to speak. The sincerity of his plea had her on the verge of tears. What could it hurt? She realized then. It was too late for her to protect her heart. She had done the unthinkable. She had fallen in love with her husband.
Unfortunately, as she had told her daughter all those years ago, those silly Christmas movies did not come true. Santa did not leave sexy Marines under your Christmas tree. Especially not when you were a poor single Mom.