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The Best Mistake, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  As she began to fill Coop in on the neighborhood rascal, he decided it was time to draw the interview to a close. “Maybe you could tell Miss Fleming I was by? I can leave a number where she can reach me when—”

  “Oh, goodness.” Mrs. Finkleman waved a hand. “I do run on. Nearly forgot why I came out here in the first place. Zoe called and asked me to look out for you. Got held up at the flower shop. She works there three days a week. That’s Floral Bouquet, down in Ellicott City? Nice place, but expensive. Why, it’s a crime to charge so much for a daisy.”

  “She got held up,” Coop prompted.

  “Her relief had car trouble, so Zoe’s going to be a little late. Said you could go right on into the kitchen there, where she left the lease and the keys.”

  “That’s fine. Thanks.”

  “No problem at all. This is a friendly neighborhood. Always somebody to lend a helping hand. I don’t think Zoe mentioned what you did for a living.”

  “I’m a sportswriter for the Dispatch.”

  “You don’t say? Why, my Harry’s just wild for sports. Can’t budge him from in front of the TV when a game’s on.”

  “That’s what makes this country great.”

  Mrs. Finkleman laughed and gave Coop’s arm an affectionate bat that might have felled a lesser man. “You men are all the same. You can come over and talk sports with Harry anytime. Me, if it’s not baseball, it isn’t worth talking about.”

  Coop, who’d been about to retreat, brightened. “You like baseball?”

  “Son, I’m a Baltimore native.” As if that said it all. “Our boys are going to go all the way this year. Mark my word.”

  “They could do it, if they heat those bats up. The pitching rotation’s gold this year, and the infield’s tight as a drum. What they need—”

  Coop was interrupted by a cheerful toot. He glanced over to see Keenan burst out of a red sedan and rocket across the side yard.

  “Hi, mister. Hi, Mrs. Finkleman. Carly Myers fell down, and there was blood.” The big brown eyes gleamed wickedly. “Lots and lots of it, and she screamed and cried.” He demonstrated, letting go with a piercing yell that had Coop’s ears ringing. “Then she got a Band-Aid with stars on it.” Keenan thought it would have been worth losing some blood for such a neat badge of honor. “Where’s Mama?”

  “Little lamb.” Mrs. Finkleman leaned over the fence to pinch Keenan’s cheek. “She’s working a little late. She said you could come stay with me until she gets home.”

  “Okay.” Keenan liked his visits next door, since they always included cookies and a rock on Mrs. Finkleman’s wonderfully soft lap. “I gotta put my lunch box away.”

  “Such a good boy,” Mrs. Finkleman cooed. “You come on over when you’re done. Why don’t you show the nice man inside so he can wait for your mother?”


  Before Coop could take evasive action, his hand was clutched by Keenan’s. He’d been right, he thought with a wince. It was sticky.

  “We’ve got cookies,” Keenan told him, cannily deducing that he could have double his afternoon’s treat if he played his cards right.


  “We baked them ourselves, on our night off.” Keenan sent Coop a hopeful look. “They’re really good.”

  “I bet.” Coop caught the back door before it could slam shut.

  “There.” Keenan pointed to a ceramic cookie jar in the shape of a big yellow bird on the counter. “In Big Bird.”

  “Okay, okay.” Since it seemed like the best way to appease the kid, Coop reached in and pulled out a handful of cookies. When he dumped them on the table, Keenan’s eyes went as wide as saucers. He could hardly believe his luck.

  “You can have one, too.” He stuffed an entire chocolate chip deluxe in his mouth and grinned.

  “That good, huh?” With a shrug, Coop sampled one himself. The kid, Coop decided after the first bite, knew his cookies. “You’d better get next door.”

  Keenan devoured another cookie, stalling. “I gotta wash out my thermos, ’cause if you don’t, it smells.”

  “Right.” Cooper sat at the table to read through the lease while the boy dragged a stool in front of the sink.

  Keenan squirted dishwashing liquid in the thermos, and then, when he noticed Coop wasn’t paying any attention, he squirted some more. And more. He turned the water up high and giggled when soap began to bubble and spew. With his tongue caught between his teeth, he jiggled the stopper into the sink and began to play dishwasher.

  Coop forgot about him, reading quickly. The lease seemed standard enough, he decided. Zoe had already signed both copies. He dashed his signature across from hers, folded his copy, then set the check he’d already written on the table. He’d picked up the keys and rose to tuck his copy in his pocket when he spotted Keenan.

  “Oh, God.”

  The boy was drenched, head to foot. Soap bubbles dotted his face and hair. A good-sized puddle was forming on the tile at the base of the stool.

  “What are you doing?”

  Keenan looked over his shoulder, smiled innocently. “Nothing.”

  “Look, you’ve got water everywhere.” Coop looked around for a towel.

  “Everywhere,” Keenan agreed, and, testing the opposition, he slapped his hands in the sink. Water and suds geysered.

  “Cut it out! Jeez! Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere else?” He grabbed a dish towel and advanced, only to be slapped in the face by the next geyser. His eyes narrowed. “Look, kid—”

  He heard the front door slam. Like mother, like son, he thought.

  “Keenan?” Zoe called out. “I hope you haven’t been into those cookies.”

  Coop looked at the crumbs on the table, on the floor, floating in the soapy water.

  “Oh, hell,” he muttered.

  “Oh, hell,” Keenan echoed, beaming at him. He giggled and danced on his stool. “Hi, Mom.”

  Zoe, her arms full of day-old irises, took in the scene with one glance. Her son was as wet as a drowned dog and her kitchen looked as though a small hurricane had blown through. Hurricane Keenan, she thought. And her new tenant looked damp, frazzled, and charmingly sheepish.

  Like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, she noted, glancing at the telltale crumbs.

  “Been playing dishwasher again?” With a calm that baffled Coop, she set the flowers down. “I’m just not sure it’s the right career choice, Keen-man.”

  Keenan fluttered his long, wet lashes. “He wanted cookies.”

  Coop started to defend himself, then simply scowled at the boy.

  “I’m sure he did. Go on into the laundry room and get out of those wet clothes.”

  “Okay.” He jumped from the stool, splashing more water before he zoomed away. He stopped only long enough to give his mother a wet kiss before he disappeared into an adjoining room.

  “Sorry I’m late,” Zoe said easily, yanking the stopper out of the sink then walking to a cupboard to get a vase.

  Coop opened his mouth. He started to explain what had gone on in the past ten minutes, but realized he wasn’t at all sure. “I signed the lease.”

  “I see that. Would you mind putting some water in this?” She held out the vase. “I need to get a mop.”


  She was probably going to wallop the kid with it, Coop thought, and felt a quick tug of regret and guilt. But the sounds from the laundry room where she’d disappeared weren’t those he associated with corporal punishment. They were a young boy’s giggles, a woman’s lusty laugh. Coop stood, a vase of water in his hands, and wondered at it.

  “You’re standing in a puddle,” Zoe commented when she came back with a mop and pail.

  “Oh, right.” Coop glanced down at his wet high-tops, shifted. “Here’s your vase.”

  “Thanks.” She tended to her flowers first. “You met Mrs. Finkleman, I hear.”

  “News travels fast.”

  “Around here it does.” When she handed him a dishcloth to
dry his face with, he caught her scent—much more potent, much more colorful, than the flowers. She was wearing jeans and a baggy T-shirt with Floral Bouquet across the chest. Her hair, he noted, was some elusive shade between brown and blond. She wore it tied back in a jaunty ponytail.

  When she lifted her brows, he realized he’d been staring. “Sorry. I mean—I’m sorry about the mess.”

  “Were you playing dishwasher, too?”

  “Not exactly.” It was impossible not to smile back, to ignore the quick pull of attraction.

  It wouldn’t be so bad, he mused, having a pretty landlady, sharing the house with her, maybe an occasional meal. Or an occasional—

  “Mama!” Keenan stood in the doorway, wearing nothing but skin. “I can’t find my pants.”

  “In the basket by the washing machine,” she told him, without taking her eyes from Coop’s.

  He’d forgotten about the kid; let himself fantasize a little before remembering she didn’t come as a single. He took a long mental step backward and jingled the keys to his new apartment.

  “I’ve got some boxes out in the car,” he told her. “I’m going to move some things in this afternoon.”

  “That’s fine.” It was silly to feel disappointed, Zoe thought. Foolish to have felt that fast feminine flutter when she recognized interest in his eyes. More foolish to feel let down because the interest had blanked out when her child called her. “Do you need any help?”

  “No, I can handle it. I’ve got a game to cover tonight, so I’m going to move the rest in tomorrow.” He backed toward the door. “Thanks.”

  “Welcome aboard, Mr. McKinnon.”

  “Coop,” he said as he stepped outside. “It’s Coop.”

  Coop, she thought, leaning on the mop handle. It had seemed like such a good idea to make use of the apartment upstairs. The extra income would take some of the pressure off, and maybe add a few bonuses. Like that trip to Disney World that Keenan wanted so badly.

  It had been a risk to buy the house, but she’d wanted her son to grow up in a nice neighborhood, with a yard, maybe a dog when he was a little older. The rental income would take away some of the risk.

  But she hadn’t realized it could add another, more personal risk. She hadn’t realized how awkward it might be to have a tenant who was male, single and absolutely gorgeous.

  She laughed at herself. Dream on, Zoe, she thought. J. Cooper McKinnon was just like the rest, who ran like a hound when they heard the patter of little feet.

  Something crashed in the laundry room. She just shook her head.

  “Come on, sailor,” she called to Keenan. “It’s time to swab the deck.”

  Chapter 3

  “Pretty good digs, Coop. Really, pretty good.” Ben Robbins, a staff reporter for the Dispatch, sipped a cold one while surveying Coop’s apartment. “I didn’t think much of it when we hauled all your junk up here, but it ain’t half-bad.”

  It was a lot better than not half-bad, and Coop knew it. He had everything exactly where he wanted it. The living room was dominated by his long, low-slung sofa of burgundy leather and his big-screen television, so perfect for viewing games. A couple of brass lamps, a nicely worn coffee table scuffed from the heels of the dozens of shoes that had rested on it and a single generous chair completed the formal section of the room.

  There was an indoor basketball hoop, small-scaled, for practice—and because shooting a little round ball helped him think. A used pinball machine called Home Run, a stand that held two baseball bats, his tennis racket and a hockey stick, a pair of old boxing gloves hanging on the wall and a scarred Foosball table made up the recreation area.

  Coop wouldn’t have called them toys. They were tools.

  He’d chosen blinds, rather than curtains, for the windows. Blinds, he thought, that would close out the light if a man decided to treat himself to an afternoon nap.

  The bedroom held little other than his bed, a nightstand and another TV. The room was for sleeping—or, if he got lucky, another type of sport.

  But it was his office that pleased him most. He could already imagine himself spending hours there at his computer, a game playing on his desktop TV. He’d outfitted it with a big swivel chair, a desk that had just the right number of scars and burns, a fax, a dual-line phone and a VCR—to play back those controversial calls or heart-stopping plays.

  With all the plaques and photos and sports memorabilia scattered about, it was home.

  His home.

  “Looks like the neighborhood bar,” Ben said, and stretched out his short, hairy legs. “Where the jocks hang out.”

  Coop considered that the highest of compliments. “It suits me.”

  “To the ground,” Ben agreed, and toasted Coop with his bottle of beer. “A place where a man can relax, be himself. You know, since I started living with Sheila, I’ve got little china things all over, and underwear hanging in the bathroom. The other day she comes home with a new bedspread. It’s got flowers all over. Pink flowers.” He winced as he drank. “It’s like sleeping in a meadow.”

  “Hey.” With all the smug righteousness of the unencumbered, Coop propped his feet on the coffee table. “Your choice, pal.”

  “Yeah, yeah. Too bad I’m nuts about her. And she’s an Oakland fan, too.”

  “Takes all kinds. Talk is the A’s are trading Remirez.”

  Ben snorted. “Yeah, yeah, pull the other one, champ.”

  “That’s the buzz.” Coop shrugged, took a pull on his own beer. “Sending him to K.C. for Dunbar, and that rookie fielder, Jackson.”

  “They got to be crazy. Remirez hit .280 last season.”

  “.285,” Coop told him. “With twenty-four baggers. Led the team in errors, too.”

  “Yeah, but with a bat like that . . . And Dunbar, what’s he? Maybe he hit .220?”

  “It was .218, but he’s like a vacuum cleaner at second. Nothing gets by him. And the kid’s got potential. Big strapping farm boy with an arm like a bullet. They need new blood. Most of the starting lineup’s over thirty.”

  They argued baseball and finished their beers in complete male harmony.

  “I’ve got a game to cover.”

  “Tonight? I thought the O’s were in Chicago until tomorrow.”

  “They are.” Coop pocketed his tape recorder, his pad, a pencil. “I’m covering the college game. There’s a hot third baseman who’s got the scouts drooling. Thought I’d take a look, cop an interview.”

  “What a job.” Ben hauled himself to his feet. “Going to games, hanging around locker rooms.”

  “Yeah, it’s a rough life.” He slung an arm over Ben’s shoulders as they headed out. “So, how’s the story on neutering pets going?”

  “Stuff it, Coop.”

  “Hey, some of us hang around the pound, some of us hang around the ballpark.”

  And a hell of a day it was for it, too, Coop thought. Balmy and clear-skied. He could almost smell roasting peanuts and hot dogs.

  “While you’re hanging around a bunch of sweaty college boys in jockstraps, I’ll be snuggled up with a woman.”

  “Under a flowered bedspread.”

  “Yeah, but she says flowers make her feel sexy. And I’m here to tell you— My, oh, my . . .”

  When Ben’s small, square face went lax, Coop turned. He felt his own jaw drop. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, his tongue landed on his shoes.

  She was wearing what had to be the shortest skirt ever devised by man. Beneath it was a pair of endless legs that were molded into black fishnet hose. She swayed when she walked. How could she help it, when she stood in black skyscraper heels?

  A tiny white bustier exposed a delicious amount of cleavage. Around her neck was a shiny black bow tie that, for reasons utterly inexplicable to Coop, made every male cell in his body sizzle.

  Her hair was down, falling straight as a pin to her shoulders in a melding of tones that made him think of wild deer leaping through a sunlit forest.

  She stopped, smiled, said some
thing, but his mind had checked out the moment his eyes landed on her legs.

  “. . . if you’ve settled in okay.”

  “Ah . . .” He blinked like a man coming out of a coma. “What?”

  “I said I haven’t had a chance to check and see if you’ve settled in okay.”

  “Fine.” He folded his tongue back in his mouth and got a grip on himself. “Just fine.”

  “Good. Keenan came down with a cold, so things have been hectic. I caught a glimpse of you hauling things up the steps a couple of days ago.”

  “Hauling,” he repeated. “Yeah. Ben,” he said when his friend jabbed him. “This is Ben. He’s been giving me a hand moving.”

  “Hi, Ben. I’m Zoe.”

  “Hi, Zoe,” Ben said stupidly. “I’m Ben.”

  She just smiled. It was the outfit, she knew. As much as she hated it, she couldn’t help but be amused by how it affected certain members of the species. “Do you work at the paper, too?”

  “Yeah, I’m, ah, doing a story on neutering pets.”

  “Really?” She almost felt sorry for him, the way his Adam’s apple was bobbing. “I’ll be sure to look for it. I’m glad you’re settling in okay. I’ve got to get to work.”

  “You’re going out?” Coop said. “In that?”

  Her lips twitched. “Well, this is my usual outfit when I’m carpooling, but I thought I’d wear it to work tonight. At Shadows—I’m a waitress. Nice meeting you, Ben.”

  She walked to her car. No, Coop thought, swayed to it, in those long, lazy strides. They were both still staring when she pulled out of the drive and cruised down the street.

  “Your landlady,” Ben said in a reverential whisper. “That was your landlady.”

  “I think it was.” She hadn’t looked like that when he signed the lease. Beautiful, yes—she’d been beautiful, but in a wholesome, unthreatening sort of way. She hadn’t looked so . . . so . . . Words failed him. She was a mother, for God’s sake, he reminded himself. She wasn’t supposed to look like that. “She’s got a kid.”