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The Best Mistake

Nora Roberts

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  Chapter 1

  No one answered the door. Coop glanced at the scrawled note in his hand to make sure he had the right address. It checked out, and since the tidy two-story Tudor in the neat, tree-lined neighborhood was precisely what he was after, he knocked again. Loudly.

  There was a car in the drive, an aging station wagon that could use a good wash and a little bodywork. Somebody was in there, he thought, scowling up at the second-floor window, where music pumped out—high-volume rock with a thumping backbeat. He stuffed the note and his hands in his pockets and took a moment to survey the surroundings.

  The house was trim, set nicely off the road behind clipped bayberry hedges. The flower garden, in which spring blossoms were beginning to thrive, was both colorful and just wild enough not to look static.

  Not that he was a big flower lover, but there was something to be said for ambience.

  There was a shiny red tricycle beside the driveway, and that made him a little uneasy. He wasn’t particularly fond of kids. Not that he disliked them. It was just that they always seemed a kind of foreign entity to him, like aliens from an outlying planet: they spoke a different language, had a different culture. And, well, they were short, and usually sticky.

  Still, the ad had talked of quiet, privacy, and a convenient distance from Baltimore. That was exactly what he was looking for.

  He knocked again, only to have a thundering wave of music wash out the window over him. The rock didn’t bother him. At least he understood it. But he wasn’t a man to kick his heels outside a closed door for long, so he tried the knob.

  When it turned, he pushed the door open and walked in. In an old habit, he pushed back the dark hair that fell over his forehead and scanned the none-too-neat living room he’d entered.

  There was a lot of clutter, and he, a bachelor who’d spent a great deal of his thirty-two years living alone, wondered over it. He wasn’t fussy or obsessive, he often told himself. It was simply that everything had a place, and it was easier to find if it had been put there. Obviously his prospective landlord didn’t agree.

  There were toys that went along with the tricycle outside, piles of magazines and newspapers, a pint-sized fielder’s cap that declared for the O’s.

  At least the kid had taste, Coop decided, and moved on.

  There was a small powder room done in an amazing combination of purple and green, and a den that had been converted into a makeshift office. File drawers were open, papers spilling out. In the kitchen dishes waited in the sink to be washed, and lurid drawings, created by a child with a wild imagination, decorated the front of the refrigerator.

  Maybe, he thought, it was just as well no one had answered the door.

  He considered backtracking and wandering upstairs. As long as he was here, it made sense to check the rest of the place out. Instead, he stepped outside to get the lay of the land. He spotted open wooden steps leading to a short deck. The private entrance the ad had mentioned, he mused, and climbed.

  The glass door was open, and the music rolling through it was overwhelming. He caught the smell of fresh paint, one he’d always enjoyed, and stepped inside.

  The open area combined kitchen and living space cleverly enough. The appliances weren’t new, but they were gleaming. The tile floor had been scrubbed recently enough for him to identify pine cleaner beneath the scent of paint.

  Feeling more hopeful, he followed the music, snooping a bit as he went. The bathroom was as scrupulously clean as the kitchen, and, fortunately, a plain glossy white. Beside the sink was a book on home repair, open to the plumbing section. Wary, Coop turned on the tap. When the water flowed out fast and clear, he nodded, satisfied.

  A small room with definite office potential and a nice view of the yard was across the hall. The ad had claimed two bedrooms.

  The music led him to it, a fair-sized room that fronted the house, with space enough for his California king. The floor, which seemed to be a random-width oak in good condition, was covered with splattered drop cloths. There were paint cans, trays, brushes, extra rollers. A laborer in baggy overalls and bare feet completed the picture. Despite the hair-concealing cap and oversized denim, Coop recognized a woman when he saw one.

  She was tall, and the bare feet on the stepladder were long and narrow and decorated with paint splotches and hot-pink toenails. She sang, badly, along with the music.

  Coop rapped on the door jamb. “Excuse me.”

  She went on painting, her hips moving rhythmically as she started on the ceiling border. Stepping across the drop cloths, Coop tapped her on the back.

  She screamed, jumped and turned all at once. Though he was quick on his feet, he wasn’t fast enough to avoid the slap of the paintbrush across his cheek.

  He swore and jerked backward, then forward again to catch her before she tumbled off the ladder. He had a quick, and not unpleasant, impression of a slim body, a pale, triangular face dominated by huge, long-lashed brown eyes, and the scent of honeysuckle.

  Then he was grunting and stumbling backward, clutching the stomach her elbow had jammed into. She yelled something while he fought to get his breath back.

  “Are you crazy?” he managed, then shot up a hand as she hefted a can, slopping paint over the sides as she prepared to use it as a weapon. “Lady, if you throw that at me, I’m going to have to hurt you.”

  “What?” she shouted.

  “I said, don’t throw that. I’m here about the ad.”

  “What?” she shouted again. Her eyes were still wide and full of panic, and she looked capable of anything.

  “The ad, damn it.” Still rubbing his stomach, Coop marched to the portable stereo and shut it off. “I’m here about the ad,” he repeated, his voice loud in the sudden silence.

  The big brown eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What ad?”

  “The apartment.” He swiped a hand over his cheek, studied the smear of white on it, and swore again. “The apartment.”

  “Really?” She kept her eyes glued to his. He looked tough, she thought. Like a brawler with those broad shoulders, lean athletic build and long legs. His eyes, a light, almost translucent green, looked anything but friendly, and the faded Baltimore Orioles T-shirt and battered jeans didn’t contribute any sense of respectability. She figured she could outrun him, and she could certainly outscream him. “The ad doesn’t start to run until tomorrow.”

  “Tomorrow?” Nonplussed, he reached into his pocket for his scribbled note. “This is the right address. The ad was for this place.”

  She stood her ground. “It doesn’t run until tomorrow, so I don’t see how you could know about it.”

  “I work at the paper.” Moving cautiously, he held out the note. “Since I’ve been looking for a place, I asked one of the girls in Classifieds to keep an eye out.” He glanced down at his note again. “Two-bedroom apartment on second floor, private entrance, quiet neighborhood convenient for commuters.”

nbsp; She only continued to frown at him. “That’s right.”

  Realizing his inside track wasn’t strictly ethical, he winced. “Look, I guess she got a little overenthusiastic. I gave her a couple of tickets to a game, and she must’ve figured she’d do me a favor and pass the information along a little early.”

  When he saw that her grip on the can had relaxed, he tried a smile. “I knocked, then I came around back.” Probably best not to mention he’d wandered through the house first.

  “The ad didn’t run the address.”

  “I work at the paper,” he repeated. He was taking a good look at her now. There was something vaguely familiar about her face. And what a face it was. All slashing cheekbones and liquid eyes, that creamy porcelain skin women’s face cream ads always raved about. Her mouth was wide, with an alluringly full lower lip. At the moment, the face continued to frown.

  “They had the address for billing,” he continued. “Since I had a couple of hours, I thought I’d come by and check it out. Look, I can come back tomorrow, if you’d feel more comfortable. But I’m here now.” He shrugged. “I can show you my press pass.”

  He pulled it out for her, and was pleased when she narrowed her eyes to study it. “I do a column. J. Cooper McKinnon on sports. ‘All in the Game’?”

  “Oh.” It meant nothing to her. The sports page wasn’t her choice of reading material. But the smile had appeased her. He didn’t look so much like a thug when he smiled. And the smear of paint decorating the lean, tanned face added just enough comedy to soothe her. “I guess it’s all right, then. I wasn’t expecting to show the apartment for a couple of days yet. It’s not ready.” She held up the can, set it down again. “I’m still painting.”

  “I noticed.”

  She laughed at that. It was a full-throated, smoky sound that went with the natural huskiness of her voice. “Guess you did. I’m Zoe Fleming.” She crouched down to dampen a rag with paint remover.

  “Thanks.” He rubbed the rag over his cheek. “The ad said immediate occupancy.”

  “Well, I figured I’d be finished in here by tomorrow, when the ad was scheduled to run. Are you from the area?”

  “I’ve got a place downtown. I’m looking for something with a little more space, a little more atmosphere.”

  “This is a pretty good-sized apartment. It was converted about eight years ago. The guy who owned it had it done for his son, and when he died, the son sold it and moved to California. He wanted to write sitcoms.”

  Coop walked over to check out the view. He moved fluidly, Zoe thought, like a man who knew how to stay light and ready on his feet. She’d had the impression of wiry strength when her body tumbled into his. And good strong hands. Quick ones, too. She pursed her lips. It might be handy to have a man around.

  “Is it just you, Mr. McKinnon?” She thought wistfully how nice it would be if he had a family—another child for Keenan to play with.

  “Just me.” The place felt right, he decided. It would be good to get out of a box that was just one more box in a building of boxes, to smell grass now and then. Barbecue smoke. “I can move in over the weekend.”

  She hadn’t thought it would be so easy, and she nibbled her lip as she thought it through. She’d never been a landlady before, but she’d been a tenant, and she figured she knew the ropes. “I’ll need first and last months’ rent.”


  “And, ah, references.”

  “I’ll give you the number of the management company that handles my building. You can call Personnel at the paper. Have you got a lease for me to sign?”

  She didn’t. She’d checked out a book from the library, and she’d meant to type up a scaled-down copy of a lease from it the next morning. “I’ll have it tomorrow. Don’t you want to look at the rest of the apartment, ask any questions?” She’d been practicing her landlady routine for days.

  “I’ve seen it. It’s fine.”

  “Well.” That deflated her a bit. “I guess I can cancel the ad.”

  There was a sound like a herd of rampaging elephants. Zoe glanced toward the open door and crouched to intercept the missile that hurtled through.

  It was a boy, Coop saw when she scooped the child up. He had glossy golden hair, red sneakers and jeans that were streaked with some unidentifiable substance that looked like it would easily transfer to other surfaces. He carried a plastic lunch box with a picture of some apocalyptic space battle on it, and a sheet of drawing paper that was grimy at the edges.

  “I drew the ocean,” he announced. “And a million people got ate by sharks.”

  “Gruesome.” Zoe shuddered obligingly before accepting his sloppy kiss. She set him down to admire the drawing. “These are really big sharks,” she said, cagily distinguishing the shark blobs from the people blobs.

  “They’re monster sharks. Mutant monster sharks. They have teeth.”

  “So I see. Keenan, this is Mr. McKinnon. Our new tenant.”

  Keenan wrapped one arm around Zoe’s leg for security as he eyed the stranger. His eyes were working their way up to Coop’s face when they lit on the T-shirt. “That’s baseball. I’m gonna learn. Mama’s getting a book so she can teach me.”

  A book. Coop barely checked a snort. As if you could learn the greatest game invented by man from a book. What kind of nerd did the kid have for a father?

  “Great.” It was all Coop intended to say. He’d always thought it wise to avoid entangling himself in a conversation with anyone under sixteen.

  Keenan had other ideas. “If you’re going to live here, you have to pay rent. Then we can pay the mortgage and stuff and go to Disney World.”

  What was the kid? An accountant?

  “Okay, old man.” Zoe laughed and ruffled his hair. “I can handle it from here. Go on down and put your stuff away.”

  “Is Beth coming to play with me tonight?”

  “Yes, Beth’s coming. Now scoot. I’ll be down in a minute.”

  “’Kay.” He made a dash for the door, stopping when his mother called him. It only took one look, the raised brow for him to remember. He looked back at Coop, flashed a quick, sunny grin. “Bye, mister.”

  The herd of elephants rampaged again, then there was the crash of a door slamming. “He makes an entrance,” Zoe said as she turned back to Coop. “The dramatic flair comes from my mother. She’s an actress, off-off-Broadway.” Tilting her head, Zoe rested one bare foot on the bottom rung of the stepladder. “You look like you’re ready to change your mind. You have a problem with children?”

  “No.” The kid might have thrown him off, but Coop doubted it would be a problem. The boy would hardly be beating a path to his door. And if he did, Coop thought, he could send him off again quickly enough. “No, he’s, ah, cute.”

  “Yes, he is. I won’t claim he’s an angel, but he won’t make a nuisance of himself. If he gives you any trouble, just let me know.”

  “Sure. Look, I’ll come by tomorrow to sign the lease and give you a check. I’ll pick up the keys then.”

  “That’ll be fine.”

  “Any special time good for you?”

  She looked blank for a moment. “What’s tomorrow?”


  “Friday.” She closed her eyes and flipped through her messy internal calendar. “I’m working between ten and two. I think.” She opened her eyes again, smiled. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure. Anytime after two thirty?”

  “Fine. Nice meeting you, Mrs. Fleming.”

  She took his offered hand. “It’s Miss,” she said easily. “I’m not married. And since we’ll be living together, so to speak, you can make it Zoe.”

  Chapter 2

  No one answered the door. Again. Coop checked his watch and saw that it was a quarter to three. He didn’t like to think he was a man obsessed with time, but as his living centered around deadlines, he did respect it. There was no rusting station wagon in the driveway this time, but he walked around the back of the house, hoping. Before he could start up
the stairs to the apartment, he was hailed from across the chain-link fence.

  “Young man! Yoo-hoo, young man!” Across the yard next door came a flowered muumuu, topped with a curling thatch of brightly hennaed hair that crowned a wide face. The woman hurried to the fence in a whirl of color. It wasn’t just the dress and the improbable hair, Coop noted. The face itself was a rainbow of rich red lipstick, pink cheeks and lavender eye shadow.

  When she reached the fence, she pressed a many-ringed hand over the wide shelf of her breasts. “Not as young as I used to be,” she said. “I’m Mrs. Finkleman.”


  “You’re the young man who’s going to live upstairs.” Mrs. Finkleman, a born flirt, patted her curls. “Zoe didn’t tell me you were so handsome. Single, are you?”

  “Yeah,” Coop said cautiously. “Miss Fleming was supposed to meet me. She doesn’t seem to be home.”

  “Well, that’s Zoe, flying here, flying there.” Mrs. Finkleman beamed and leaned comfortably on the fence, as if she were settling in for a nice cozy gossip. “Got a dozen things on her plate at once, that girl does. Having to raise that sweet little boy all alone. Why, I don’t know what I’d have done without my Harry when our young ones were coming up.”

  Coop was a reporter, after all. That, added to the fact that he was curious about his landlady, put him in interview mode. “The kid’s father doesn’t help out any?”

  Mrs. Finkleman snorted. “Don’t see hide nor hair of him. From what I’m told, he lit out the minute he found out Zoe was expecting. Left her high and dry and her hardly more than a child herself. Far as I know, he’s never so much as seen the boy. The little sweetheart.”

  Coop assumed she was referring to Keenan. “Nice kid. What’s he, five, six?”

  “Just four. Bright as a button. They grow them smarter these days. Teach them faster, too. The little love’s in preschool now. He’ll be home any minute.”

  “His mother went to pick him up, then?”

  “Oh, no, not her week for car pool. Alice Miller—that’s the white house with blue trim, down the block—it’s her week. She has a boy and a girl. Little darlings. The youngest, Steffie, is Keenan’s age. Now her oldest, Brad, there’s a pistol for you.”