Treat me, p.12
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       Treat Me, p.12

         Part #8 of One Night with Sole Regret series by Olivia Cunning
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  A loud train whistle sounded, its playful tone carrying across the clearing. “Can we ride the train now?” Julie asked.

  “Do you want to look at the snakes first?” he asked, pointing at the small building across the way that was labeled as the reptile house.

  Julie’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “No, thank you,” she said in a squeaky voice.

  He didn’t care much for snakes either. “Let’s go find that train.”

  He beckoned Amanda with a wave and found her staring at them while Brown-goat nibbled on the empty bag she was still clutching in one hand. She relinquished the bag to the goat and hurried to catch up.

  “Ready for a train ride?” he asked, and Amanda nodded, tripping over her feet as she slowed to walk beside him. He took her hand—an automatic reflex on his part—and was surprised when she didn’t yank it away.

  At the ticket booth, Jacob peered into his empty wallet. Well, shit, Julie had completely cleaned out his cash supply with her donations.

  “Do you take credit cards?” he asked the clerk in the tiny booth.

  “I’ve got this,” Amanda said, shifting in front of him and handing bills to the cashier. “It’s my treat.”

  “Amanda . . .” he tried to protest.

  “How many hundreds of dollars did you donate to this place today?”

  “Julie donated it,” he reminded her.

  “You donated it.” She peeked at Julie around Jacob’s shoulder. Julie was engrossed in talking to the green parrot in a nearby cage—pretty bird, pretty bird they echoed each other. Her eyes shifting to Jacob’s, Amanda slid a hand up his neck and rose up on tiptoes to kiss him. “Julie didn’t get her compassion from me. She got it from you,” she whispered against his lips before turning to the cashier to get her change.

  From him? From Jacob “Shade” Silverton? He was a badass metal singer with only sex, partying, and rock ’n’ roll on his mind. Didn’t she get that? The rest of the world understood him perfectly.

  Honestly, the train ride was entirely underwhelming.

  Wooden cutouts of dinosaurs and forest elves stood scattered in the mesquite forest that the train wound through. Or maybe the colorful mystical creatures were gnomes. They definitely weren’t the wild animals he’d expected. Julie got overly excited when she spotted a small shaggy pony housed behind a chain-link fence. What excited Jacob was the ability to casually place an arm on the back of the bench and run the silky strands of Amanda’s hair between his fingertips. And with Julie squashed between them, with one of her hands on Amanda’s knee and the other on Jacob’s thigh, they felt—the three of them—like a family. He had to admit it was exactly what his heart desired—a good woman to love him and his daughter. Someone special to him who could also serve as Julie’s role model as well as her mother.

  It was a wonderful dream, but just that: a dream.

  A dream he wanted to keep close to him. He pulled out his cell phone and held it at arms-length in front of them. When he had all three of their faces lined up in the shot, he said, “Say cheese!”

  “Pickles!” Julie said and laughed at her naughtiness.

  As he smiled down at the perfect picture he’d captured he decided they looked good together. And happy. He tucked his phone back into his pocket and gave Amanda’s shoulder a squeeze. She peeked at him over Julie’s head and offered him a flirty wink.

  After the short train ride, they checked out a famous goose and some ordinary deer before winding their way to the interior of the zoo where a bunch of small monkeys were housed.

  “There you are,” said a middle-aged woman in khaki shorts and an Austin Zoo polo shirt. Her dark hair was streaked with gray, her lean body sinewy and tanned, likely from spending her days working outside. She had a friendly face and gentle brown eyes. Jacob was pretty sure he’d never seen her before, but a lot of people he didn’t know recognized him.

  “Excuse me?” Jacob asked.

  “Hello, Margie,” Amanda said, offering the woman a brief hug. “This is my niece, Julie, and my . . .” She glanced Jacob. “Uh . . . Julie’s father, Jacob.”

  “Nice to meet you both,” Margie said, nodding at them in turn.

  “Margie’s one of the head zookeepers here,” Amanda said.

  “Do you get to play with the animals?” Julie asked.

  “Sometimes,” Margie said. “Most of the time I take care of them.”

  “And clean up their poop?”

  It was an honest question, but it gave the adults a chuckle.

  “Unless Amanda’s here. Then I make her do it,” Margie said with an ornery grin.

  Julie gave Amanda a look of pity.

  “Do you think Jojo would like a young guest today?” Amanda asked.

  “I’m sure she’d love one,” Margie said with a smile at Julie.

  They followed the zookeeper through a tall gate marked Employees Only and down a narrow path and then stopped behind one of the monkey cages. Margie took out a set of keys and fit one into a lock. The small dark brown monkey in the cage scurried up a faux tree to a platform and sat watching them with her thumb in her mouth.

  Jacob’s heart thudded when he realized they were about to stick his daughter in a cage with a wild animal.

  “Amanda,” Jacob said, taking Julie’s hand and keeping her at his side. “Are you sure this is safe?”

  Amanda smiled at him. “Would I ever put Julie in danger?”

  He didn’t think she would, but then he’d heard stories of apes going crazy and ripping off people’s faces, so while Amanda wouldn’t intentionally harm Julie, he wasn’t so sure the monkey had gotten the memo.

  “Jojo has been with us for about a year. I assure you she’s very gentle,” Margie said. “Especially with children.”

  “I’m sure you feel that way about all wild animals,” Jacob said.

  “Jojo’s not really wild,” Amanda said. “She was a service monkey for a disabled woman and when her owner passed away, they brought her here to live out the rest of her life. She loves people. Her owner had several grandchildren she adored. She gets lonely without a lot of human contact. But if you’re afraid—”

  “I’m not scared, Daddy,” Julie said, her eyes locked with the monkey’s. “Can I please hug Jojo?”

  She turned her gaze to Jacob’s, and his resolve crumbled. He didn’t know why he had such a hard time telling his daughter no.

  “You’re sure it’s safe?” he asked Amanda.

  She nodded. “I’ll go in with her. Jojo knows me.”

  “Jojo loves visitors,” Margie said. “She’s a little more leery of men. If you weren’t here, she’d already be reaching through the cage for Amanda.”

  “Should I leave?” Jacob said, not wanting to upset the creature. Especially since these animal-lover types seemed determined to lock his daughter in a cage with it.

  “You can stay out here and observe,” Margie said. “It’s not that Jojo is upset by men. She’s just a little shy around them.”

  Jacob squatted down and captured Julie’s shoulders between his palms. “You mind your aunt and do whatever she tells you to do.”

  Julie backed away and lifted a hand to Amanda, eager to start her adventure.

  “Promise you’ll mind her, Julie,” Jacob said firmly, “or you won’t be allowed to see the monkey.”

  “I promise I’ll do whatever Aunt Mander says,” Julie said, her gaze locked on Jacob’s. “Even clean the poop.”

  Jacob chuckled and gave Julie’s slight form a hearty squeeze. Even though he trusted Amanda to keep her safe, he still found it difficult to let Julie go.

  Margie opened the cage, and Amanda stepped inside, ducking her head through the small door. “Wait there for a minute, Julie,” Amanda said to the eager child.

  Julie wrapped her fingers around the cage door, but did as she was told and didn’t enter the enclosure.

  “Come, Jojo,” Amanda said to the monkey.

  “What kind of a monkey is that?” Jacob asked M
argie as the small dark brown animal climbed down from her perch and settled at Amanda’s feet. Jojo curled her long tail around her body. She looked up at Amanda and then glanced at Julie before finding the tip of her tail uncommonly interesting. The monkey began to pick at her fur with tiny black fingers.

  “She’s a capuchin. They’re very intelligent.” Margie patted his back. “And friendly.”

  Amanda sat on a cement step inside the cage and Jojo climbed into her lap, immediately settling into Amanda’s arms and snuggling into her chest for a hug. Amanda stroked her thick fur and murmured to her in soothing tones. “Do you want to meet Julie?” Amanda asked the monkey.

  As if the animal could understand her, she lifted her head and peered at the child waiting just outside her cage. She reached toward Julie with a paw that looked remarkably human and vocalized softly. Julie smiled and mimicked the sound. “Ooo.”

  “You can come in now, Julie,” Amanda said.

  Margie helped Julie through the cage door and shut her inside.

  Chapter Eight

  Amanda kept a soothing hand on the back of Jojo’s shoulder as Julie took timid steps in her direction. She didn’t fear that the monkey would bite or scratch, but she might get excited enough to jump in Julie’s arms and accidentally knock her over.

  “Come sit beside me,” Amanda instructed as she patted the patch of bare cement next to her hip. She glanced at Jacob, who’d stepped forward to stand just outside the cage, watching his daughter walk closer to where Amanda sat with Jojo on her lap. She could sense his anxiety even though she couldn’t see his eyes through his sunglasses, but it meant a lot to her that he trusted her with Julie. She knew how much Julie meant to him and how important it was that she was safe and happy. If not for his desire to make Julie happy, Amanda wasn’t sure Jacob would have allowed her into a cage with a baby bunny.

  Julie sat on the cement step, her blue eyes wide and fixed on Jojo, who had shifted away from Amanda so she could examine the newest intruder in her dwelling. Julie lifted a trembling hand toward Jojo, and the monkey scurried onto her lap. Julie’s eyes widened when Jojo wrapped both arms around her narrow chest and hugged her. Jojo’s fluffy cream-colored eyebrows rose expressively, as if to ask Amanda, “Am I doing this right?”

  “You can hug her back,” Amanda said. “She likes you.”

  After a lengthy embrace from Julie, Jojo scurried up her tree and grabbed something from her platform. In an instant she was back on the ground and dropping a slice of apple on Julie’s lap.

  “She’s giving you a gift,” Amanda explained.

  “Don’t eat it,” Jacob warned as Julie picked up the slice of apple and eyed the browning piece of fruit with disgust.

  “Jojo, get your ball,” Amanda said.

  Jojo had been trained to retrieve lots of objects while caring for her human in her former role. She ignored all the other objects in her enclosure and picked up a small red ball, racing back toward Amanda on her hind legs as she carried it between her front paws.

  “Give it to Julie,” Amanda said. Jojo paused and glanced at the child who was watching intently. “Yes, that’s Julie.”

  The monkey vocalized a soft ooo ooo, and deposited the ball in Julie’s lap.

  “Good girl!” Julie said.

  Jojo moved to stand behind Julie and began grooming her pale-blond hair. Julie giggled and scrunched up her neck. “What is she doing?”

  “She thinks you have bugs in your hair,” Jacob said from outside the cage.

  The sound of his voice danced along Amanda’s nerve-endings. God, the man had an amazing voice. She couldn’t wait to get him alone later.

  “She’s picking them out.”

  “I don’t have bugs in my hair, silly.” Julie lifted her face to Amanda’s, the corners of her mouth drawn down. “I don’t, do I?”

  Amanda tugged one of her silky curls. “I don’t think so. Jojo’s just checking to make sure.”

  Julie giggled, melting her Aunt Mander into a pile of sappy goo. “Monkeys are silly.”

  Julie certainly enjoyed Jojo’s silly antics as she retrieved the items Amanda and Julie requested. The capuchin watched them put objects inside different compartments of a small box. Amanda closed all the doors of the box, and Jojo had no problem opening the correct door to reveal whichever item she requested.

  “She’s so smart,” Julie said. “I want to take her home.” She turned to her father. “Please, Daddy!”

  Before Jacob could deny his daughter her request, Margie spoke up. “She has to stay here with us, sweetheart. But you can come with your aunt and visit her again. How does that sound?”

  Julie’s lower lip quivered, but she pressed it against her upper lip and nodded. “We have to come here to be with Jojo all the time, Aunt Mander. She wants me as her best friend.” Julie reached her little hands out to the monkey, and Jojo dashed into her arms to give her another hug, picking imaginary nits out of Julie’s hair over her shoulder.

  “We’ll come visit when we can. School will be starting soon.”

  “I love school,” Julie said.

  Amanda glanced over her shoulder at Jacob. She had yet to bring up Leah’s class to him. She wasn’t sure if he’d be grateful or annoyed that she’d weaseled him onto the roster. He looked kind of lonely outside the enclosure without them. Or maybe he was just interested in what they were doing. How could she tell with his eyes hidden behind his shades? Those things needed to go.

  “Jojo,” Amanda said, “go get glasses.”

  Jojo knew this command well since her previous owner had often requested her glasses. Jojo hopped off Julie’s lap and looked around for the requested object. Amanda pointed at Jacob, who was standing against the fence, clinging to the wires with both hands. He was so close that the tip of his nose was actually inside the cage. Jojo dashed toward him, climbed the cage, and before he could stop her, reached through the fence and pulled the sunglasses off his face.

  “Hey,” Jacob protested.

  Jojo offered a sheepish grin and raced off holding his sunglasses over her head. She promptly dropped them in Amanda’s lap.

  “Good girl, Jojo!” Amanda said, stroking her head. “He looks much better without them.”

  Julie laughed. “She took Daddy’s glasses.”

  “Little thief,” Jacob accused, but he was smiling.

  It took them a long while to coax Julie out of the cage. She didn’t want to say goodbye to her new friend. “I will miss her so much,” Julie said.

  Jacob swung her into his arms and tugged her against his broad chest, one strong, masculine hand gently cradling the back of her head. Amanda tripped over her feet as she watched them. What was it about daddies protecting their little girls that Amanda found so irresistibly sexy? When Julie had been an infant, Amanda’s ovaries had practically exploded every time she’d seen the man with his baby in his arms.

  Suddenly, music declaring life in plastic as fantastic blared from Amanda’s cellphone and she scowled at the sound of her sister’s ringtone. It was as if Tina knew Amanda was coveting her family and needed to put a stop to such thoughts at once.

  “What’s up?” Amanda answered.

  “Brenda can’t make it to lunch, so I thought maybe you’d like to join me. Get out of the house for a while.”

  Tina was under the impression that Amanda left her house only to jump at Tina’s whims or, during the school year, to go to work.

  “I can’t make it. I’m busy today.”

  “Is that Mommy?” Julie asked. She must have recognized the “Barbie World” ringtone. Crap!

  Amanda grimaced and cupped her hand around the bottom of her phone to muffle sound.

  “I want to tell her about Jojo!” Julie squealed excitedly.

  And when Julie did tell told her about Jojo, she’d undoubtedly mention she’d been with Amanda. And that Jacob was with them both.

  “Is that Julie?” Tina asked.

  Amanda’s grimace deepened. She wondered if it would be
better to come clean now or to convince Julie to keep a secret. Amanda was sure the child would try, but Julie was much too excited about the monkey to keep her trip to the zoo from her mother for long.

  “Yeah. I was volunteering at the zoo today.” Amanda decided on the fly that a partial lie would be best. “And Jacob just happened to bring Julie by. I think she wants to talk to you about the monkey she saw. I’ll put her on.”

  She handed the phone to Julie, who told her mother all about her adventure with Jojo, but didn’t—thank God—mention that Jacob and Amanda had arrived at the zoo together. Or that her aunt had a strange way of getting dirt in her eye whenever her daddy was near.

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