Of all the stupid, idiotic, and just dumb things to do, this topped Pepper’s list of all-time greatest failures. Clearly, Brett thought so too because when he saw her hands were tied also, he said a word so foul she hoped his boys hadn’t heard it. He knelt in front of her and started working on the knots at her ankles while muttering, “I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to this. Melanie never would have let them tie her up.”
Pepper stared down at the treehouse’s floor, blinking furiously as he untied her.
“Did you even think about how dangerous it was to let them tie you up? What if one of them had wandered off? What if it had been Tyson? What then? Hell, Pepper, you’re supposed to be in charge.”
Pepper started counting down from twenty. Yes, she shouldn’t have agreed to play “captive” with the boys, but it had seemed innocent enough.
Nineteen. Yes, she’d been terrified when she’d realized that the game included leaving her captive up in the treehouse while they ran off.
Eighteen. Did he honestly think she hadn’t been terrified just thinking about what might happen with the boys? Her initial panic had even tightened the knots worse before she’d calmed down. She’d been seriously freaked out.
Seventeen. Especially when she’d heard them go into the house by themselves and shut the door so she couldn’t hear them.
Sixteen. She’d actually already delivered this exact lecture to herself at least a dozen times and cursed herself for being seven times the fool. She had pieces of rope in her teeth from trying to untie the ropes on her hands with her mouth, and she was hoarse from screaming for the neighbors.
“Do you have any idea what they did do? They flooded the kitchen to make it into an ocean.” Brett yanked on the knot, and it finally loosened, but there was another knot right underneath it.
This was really not the way she’d been intending on getting reacquainted with her best friend’s older brother.
Fourteen. The one she’d had a crush on since she was…thirteen.
Thirteen. Who’d have ever guessed a couple of four year old boys could tie knots like this, though?
Brett moved to her wrists, and the blood was flooding back into her feet making them tingle and sting. If they hadn’t tied her wrists up around the support beams of the treehouse, she might have been able to get her legs free, but it wouldn’t have done much good without her hands free. As it was, she hadn’t seen the knot they’d tied around her wrists until it was too late. Who’d have ever guessed four year olds could tie real knots, though? She couldn’t tie knots this good.
“There is an inch of water in my kitchen. You have younger brothers. You should know what they’re capable of. I can’t believe this. I should have cancelled the appointment when Mel backed out.”
Eleven. She should apologize. She should apologize for that. Not for volunteering to watch his sons when Melanie had come down with a stomach bug, but for letting things getting out of hand. She should apologize. Clearly—handling a pair of four year olds was beyond her capabilities even though she was twenty-three years old.
Ten. She’d be damned if she was going to apologize, though. Hopefully, he’d spend the night swimming in his kitchen.
Nine. Every word he said just killed her teenage crush a little more.
Eight. So, she’d screwed up.
Seven. Severely screwed up.
Six. She didn’t need to be lectured to know that.
Five. The knot came loose and sensation rushed back to her hands. Ow. Just ow. So much ow. She deserved it, though. She should have asked more questions about this game of theirs, but they were so cute.
“The knots cut your skin pretty bad. If you come inside, I can put something on them…bandage them.” Brett’s voice was softer, but it was about six sentences too late. Maybe if he’d caught her at like number fifteen with that tone…. By…what number was she on? Oh. By four, this wasn’t salvageable. It was only the counting that was keeping her from breaking down and crying.
Pepper shook the ropes off her and climbed down the ladder out of the treehouse. The two boys stood at the bottom. She dropped off the ladder and surveyed their appearance. Their matching overalls were soaked, and the feather on Tommy’s pirate hat was broken in half and dangling. Tyson still had his eye patch on. They both looked mutinous—even for pirates—obviously they’d already been lectured too. She was too mature to kick their father, but hopefully they’d do it on her behalf.
Leaning over, Pepper said to Tommy, “Next time you play captive, you need to leave their hands free.” Turning to Tyson, she smiled and patted his head, “Thank you for the seashell, Tyson. I’ve never received a gift from an actual pirate.” She heard Brett’s feet touch the ground behind her. Without turning around, she said, “Don’t punish them. It was my mistake.”
Three, she walked through the house, wincing at the flooded kitchen. So that was what a pair of four year olds could accomplish when they’d left their babysitter tied up for nearly an hour. She grabbed her purse and keys from the counter, but didn’t break stride.
Two, she heard Brett call her name as she slammed through the front door.
One, her car peeled out from in front of the house and, for the first time ever, Pepper thought she might have a clue why his wife had left him.
“Dammit,” Brett muttered, hearing the tires, and then spun and said to Tommy, “Don’t say that word. That was a very bad word that Daddy should not have said.”
Tommy frowned and asked, “What about Tyson? Can Tyson say that word?”
Brett smiled and sighed. “Tyson can say whatever he wants. Come on, Terrible Two. We have a kitchen to clean up.”
They all shuffled into the house—reluctant on all parts.
“We shouldn’t have tied her up,” Tommy said, always the spokesman for the two.
Tyson nodded furiously.
“You think?” Brett muttered. Truth be told, his frustration with his sons was nowhere near the frustration he felt with himself. Why had he tore into her like that? Of all people—why Pepper? “You two go find every towel in the house, and I’ll get going on mopping.” The sooner they could clean this up…the sooner he could apologize for what had possibly been the dumbest thing he’d ever done—and that was including marrying Trisha. At least that disaster had gotten him the boys. His rant just now was an unmitigated plummet into stupidity.
As he was mopping and wringing the mop out into the sink, he called Mel. She’d be furious with him after Pepper called her.
Mel answered, sounding like death on a stick. Pepper had called it a stomach flu, but it sounded like the plague from the sound of her voice.
“Hey, I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Pepper. Actually, I know you haven’t because you’ve answered the phone.”
Mel groaned. “What did you do, Brett?” Her tone implied that he constantly screwed-up. He didn’t This was rare and rather spectacular.
“Well, she…uhh…look, never mind what happened. I just sort of yelled at her, and I need to apologize.”
“You’re going to apologize?” Mel repeated as if the heavens had opened and an angelic choir had flown out.
“Yes. So, I need her cell phone number. Wait. No, there is no way she’ll answer the phone, so I’ll need her address too.”
This was met with stunned silence.
Tommy and Tyson ran in and threw handfuls of towels on the floor. They landed in a folded clump like an island in their ocean. He gave them thumbs up when they looked at him for approval.
“Okay, now spread them out so they can suck up the water,” he said, covering the mouthpiece on the phone.
They waded into the kitchen.
“How could you have offended Pepper that badly? She’s always really liked you,” Mel said. Then, she gasped. “I probably shouldn’t have told you that. Pretend I didn’t say that.”
“It’s fine, I knew,” he said, wringing out the mop again. The ocean was only half an inch deep now. “She’s changed since the last time I saw her.” He’d known she had a crush on him, but he was four years older than her, and his mother would have tanned his hide if he’d even looked at her twice. Now that he was back in town, though, and they were both consenting adults, things might have been different if he hadn’t just ripped her head off.
“Changed like…how?” his sister asked.
Changed like her body looked soft and warm, and he wanted to touch every inch of it. Brett wanted to run his hands through her short, blonde hair and stare into her green eyes from real close. He wanted to have his body on hers and to have those pink-painted nails on his back. He wanted Pepper good…in all the bad ways.
“She’s…you know…grown up,” he said to Mel.
“Well, it’s been four or five years since you’ve been home for more than just the holidays,” Mel said. “Of course she has grown up.”
“Is Mom home? I need her to watch the Terrible Two so I can go apologize.”
“Is it six yet? Probably.”
He hung up with a promise not to hurt her friend’s feelings any more than he already had.
Brett stepped sideways just as a sopping wet towel flew by. He pointed at Tyson with a stern look. “Don’t you think you’re in enough trouble?”
“Pepper said you weren’t allowed to punish us,” Tommy said, jumping on top of a towel to hear the squish.
“Pepper valiantly took the blame for you cretins,” Brett said.
“What does valiantly mean?” Tommy asked.
“Bravely…and a cretin is what you two trouble-causers are. Just because Pepper took the blame— doesn’t mean we’ll let her. Was it her fault that she was tied up?”
Tommy looked at Tyson—who shrugged. “She said it was okay,” Tommy said.
“Did she ask to be untied?” Brett asked, wringing out one of the wet towels in the sink. Even though he’d rolled up the sleeves on the dress shirt, it was soaked. At least he’d made a good impression with the school board even if he’d failed miserably with Pepper.
Tommy and Tyson exchanged another look. Their twin mind-reading skills were amazing. It really did seem like Tommy could read Tyson’s mind. “She did ask, but that’s what a captive would do,” Tommy said.
If only their moral compass was as well determined….
“You should have untied her. Your knots were so tight that her wrists have cuts on them,” he said.
“That’s because she was trying to escape,” Tommy pointed out.
Brett leaned his head against the mop handle. Why had he yelled at Pepper? Clearly she’d been dealing with both evil genius and a supreme lack of conscience. He glanced at Tyson. “Tyson, did you agree with Tommy about tying her up?”
Tyson glanced at his twin, before nodding.
“Did you also agree with not untying her?”
Tyson nodded again.
“Okay. You’re both grounded from TV for two weeks and that includes while you’re at grandma’s.”
Tyson kicked a cabinet.
“That is not the way we treat someone else…and especially not a girl,” Brett said, ignoring them.
“I heard you tell Aunt Mel that you need to apologize,” Tommy said.
Brett frowned but then agreed, “Okay, I’m grounded too. I shouldn’t have yelled at Pepper when it was clearly the work of Captain Silent and his First Mate Tommy the Terrible.”
His twins grinned identical smiles.
“Now, we’ll finish up here, I’ll throw you on the mercy of Grandma the Great…well, after you help me catch your apology to Pepper.”
“I like Pepper,” Tommy said.
Brett looked up in time to see Tyson nod.
“I do too,” Brett said. A lot. He’d been thinking of her specifically when he’d decided to move home. His mother had kept him apprised of her dating life ever since his divorce had been final three years ago. It was too soon then but, hopefully, it wouldn’t be too late now.
Pepper looked down at her phone. Brett Michaels could call as many times as he wanted. It would be a cold day in Hades before she answered. This was his sixth time. Mel had called twice, and she hadn’t answered then either. As far as she was concerned, the entire Michaels clan didn’t exist tonight.
When she dropped down on her couch, the dam broke, and she cried and cried.
It wasn’t completely anyone’s fault that this afternoon had been shot to hell. She’d been stupid, but it was a reasonable mistake. Somewhat reasonable anyway.
Seriously, what four year olds could tie knots like that?
Brett had been a jerk, but she knew he’d just come from a meeting with the school district regarding his mute son and about getting him services. So, his stress level had been understandably high.
Then, there were his twins whom Mel called the “Terrible Two.” It was the sweet playfulness combined with evil genius that she hadn’t anticipated. How could anyone resist playing any game they suggested when Tommy asked with those innocent eyes…and Tyson nodded sincerely? They could have told her they’d be playing with nuclear missiles and she would have agreed.
And those freaking knots! What were those? Her shoulders ached from trying to yank free before she’d realized she needed to look at those crazy, sailor-worthy knots on her wrists.
But, seriously, if Brett hadn’t called her immature, she might have forgiven him just based on the fact that he had to deal with the Terrible Two on a daily basis. That mixture of cuteness and trouble must wear on a guy…especially a single father.
So, really, it had been just a combination of all those awful things combined that had buried her chances with Brett Michaels. It was like…the perfect storm. It was probably a sign from the universe.
Maybe it was just as well. Brett’s sons were just as mischievous as he was. With his black curly hair and blue eyes…he’d always looked like what she thought Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream might look like. Brett looked like trouble, and he was. His kids were double that. All together, they were just a bucket of trouble. She didn’t need that. There was a knock at her door, and she scrubbed her face on the inside of her shirt as she got up to answer it.
She was doomed.
The universe hated her. No. Despised her.
There, standing on her porch, holding something behind his back, was the man she’d been in love with for years and years and years. “Go away,” she said, standing on the other side of the screen door.
“Can I come in?” Brett asked.
He should have led with an apology.
“No, you cannot.” She crossed her arms and leaned against the inside of the door. He was not going to sweet-talk her into giving him another chance. No way. He’d blown his chance. Completely.
Heaven help her. The universe despised her.
She looked rumpled and blotchy as if she’d been crying. Crap. If only getting anywhere when you had kids didn’t involve a half an hour lead-up. Speaking of a lead-up…he should have started this with an apology.
“Look, Pepper, I’m sorry. I was way out of line,” he said.
Pepper had a glass of lemonade in her hand. She looked down at it and rattled the ice around. Her blinking told him that he was still contending with some major hurt feelings. If she started crying again, he’d go find someone to punch him in the face. Hard.
“I said a lot of things that were wrong…and just plain stupid,” he said. “The boys and I are both grounded for two weeks from TV.”
This brought a smile to her mouth, though she tried to smother it.
“I overreacted,” Brett said. “I’m sure you know that Trisha left me right after they were born, so I’m not used to having to rely on other people with them. I’ve always worked out of my house, so it’s just been me and the boys.”
Every time he mentioned his sons, she loosened-up a little bit. She probably hadn’t even noticed that she had a soft spot for them. Everyone who met them did—it was the only way the boys survived with how much trouble they were. It was probably wrong to use the boys to obtain her forgiveness, but they’d helped get him into this mess. He’d planned on calling up Pepper and asking her out on a date, not having her show up on his doorstep three hours ago without even a warning phone call from Mel.
“You know, I’d been at this meeting with the school district, and it’s complicated trying to get Tyson services that are right for him. Plus, I was trying to convince them that Tommy should be there with him, but they think I’m either trying to get free services—or the reason Tyson won’t speak is because Tommy is around.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Pepper said. “If they saw them together they’d realize that’s not what it is, and Tyson will be miserable without Tommy.”
Her defense made his stomach clench, in a good way. She understood. His family had always seemed to “get” the boys but, outside of the family, everyone seemed to be of the opinion that it was either his fault or Tommy’s fault that Tyson wouldn’t speak. Well, and some people suggested that Tyson was mentally handicapped despite all the testing proving otherwise.
Even the boys’ own mother didn’t understand them. Trisha didn’t even want to see them anymore. Well, she didn’t want to see Tyson because she didn’t want to deal with him, and Tommy was on her outs list because he’d stuffed several of her bras into the toilet to clog it on their last visit. She’d passed on all the last few visitations and then moved out of state with her latest boyfriend.
“Anyway, so I got them to agree to a round of evaluations of both boys and to look at Tyson’s medical records, but it was a…tense meeting,” he said. “I was on edge when I got home, and I completely overreacted.”
Pepper was biting her lip. She used to do that when she was younger…it was usually when she was on the verge of giving in. She was still on the other side of that door, though. Until she was on his side of the screen, he was still in the doghouse.
“Plus, I was also really worried about you.”
“Me?” she repeated.
“Your wrists.” She hadn’t bandaged them. There were a few good rope burns where she’d clearly been trying to get free. The skin was even broken. He was a total moron for laying into her when she’d nearly lit her wrists on fire trying to get out of those ropes. And he’d heard her yelling before he’d even opened the car door. That and the crying was making her voice a bit husky. He tried not to find it sexy, but he couldn’t Okay, he was grounded from TV for three weeks. “Plus, the psychological damage,” he added.
“Sure. I’ve heard those kept in captivity often suffer deep psychological damage.” He reached for the porch door’s handle with his free hand.
Narrowing her eyes, Pepper grabbed the door handle from the other side, holding it closed. “Nice try there, Brett, but your charm isn’t working on me. I’ve seen you play girls for ten years with sweet lines like that.”
“You thought that was a line?” he asked, grinning.
“The sentiment behind it was.”
Not true. Okay. He’d been very interested in the opposite sex in high school…and since Pepper had been suffering from a crush, he’d probably seemed like the worst kind of player at the time. He’d reformed since then. Trisha had definitely burnt into him a desire to never be casual about a relationship ever again.
“I’m not like that anymore,” he said.
Pepper stared at him. “People don’t change, Brett Michaels. You’re still the same guy just interested in chasing anything with estrogen.”
Okay, he really should have seen this coming back to bite him with Pepper. When she’d turned sixteen, he’d thought it would be “nice” to cure her of her crush on him rather than waste her high school years. He may have made it seem like he’d dated more than he had. He may have “bragged” to her so she’d understand he was dating girls his own age, and she should date guys her own age. Until she was older, they shouldn’t date, but he’d always sorta planned on dating Pepper. Then, the whirlwind that was Trisha had blown into his life and destroyed all his plans. Course…he’d torpedoed some on his own.
It was time to eat some serious crow with Pepper.
“I wasn’t actually that bad,” he said. “I just told you about all those girls so that….” He stopped just in time. That had nearly been an incredibly stupid thing to say. She probably wouldn’t be thrilled that he’d known she had a crush on him. Yeah. He should just keep that information to himself until she knew he wasn’t going to hurt her again.
“Why?” Pepper asked.
“Because I wanted to impress you,” he said. It was almost true. He’d wanted to impress upon her that she was too nice to go after a guy who she was jailbait for.
Pepper folded her arms and gave him a look that he swore could see into his soul. That the boys had managed to convince her to let them tie her up just proved how devious they were. Right now, her frown wasn’t giving him much hope.
Then, she shook herself a bit, and nodded. “We’re good. Apology accepted.”
“Now can I come in?” he asked.
“No!” She grabbed the door handle again.
Well, that was no good. It was good that she’d accepted his apology, sure, but he actually wanted Pepper now. He wanted to get to know her, find out what made her laugh, teach her how to stop the boys from conning her with their mini-shyster ways. Yes, he also wanted to kiss her and press her up against him, but those were secondary to his other wants. Mostly.
“Will you come out?” he asked.
Pepper gasped in outrage…as he knew she would. “I’m not a sissy! And who even uses that word anymore?”
“I do…and you’re scared of spending time with me because you secretly like me just as much as I secretly like you.”
That startled her. She recovered quickly, though. “I’m not just another conquest for you. I’m too old to be playing your stupid games. You don’t want to get to know me. You just want to get into my pants.”
That just wasn’t true. Well, not entirely true…and that was what mattered. She was looking for proof that he wasn’t just interested in a quick fling, and he had proof of that. Good proof that he knew her and was interested in getting to know her better.
“You used to be curious,” he said.
Pepper frowned at the sudden change of topic. “What?”
“I have something for you behind my back, and you haven’t even asked about it.”
“You brought me something?” she asked. Her voice was suspicious…as well it should be—Michaels boys played dirty.
He held up the jar with its captives.
“You brought me fireflies in a jar?” Her nose wrinkled up, and she tipped her head.
“Yep. Ten years ago, I caught a whole bunch of fireflies in a jar because I thought they were cool. Do you remember?”
Pepper leaned against the door frame, smiling. “I remember.”
She’d had braces back then and freckles…lots of freckles. He remembered that night with the fireflies. He couldn’t remember his senior prom all that well, and he was working on forgetting his wedding day, but the night with the fireflies and Pepper was a permanent resident in his mind.
“You made me release them because you said it wasn’t right to keep them. You said you shouldn’t keep a living thing unless it wanted it. You remember?”
When he’d released them, she’d looked at him like he’d harnessed the sun because he’d listened to her. Then, she’d watched the fireflies go with a huge grin. The moon had reflected off her cheeks and in her eyes. He’d thought, back then, that she was sweet clear to the core. Of course, back then, she’d been thirteen, and he’d been seventeen, and he’d run off on a date a moment later. He couldn’t even remember his date, but Pepper…Pepper had been magical even back then.
“Mmm hmm. I see you’re back to your old ways,” she said, gesturing at the jar.
“Yes. It’s a firefly-napping. I’m holding them for ransom.”
“What’s the price for releasing your captives there? And don’t think I don’t realize now where your boys got that from.”
“We like to hold beautiful things captive.” He wanted the words back as soon as he said them. Not because they weren’t true. Pepper was beautiful…but it had sounded like a line.
Sure enough, Pepper froze.
“I just want to talk,” he said quickly. Damn.
“We are talking.” Pepper cursed herself for nearly falling for that. The fireflies were a nice touch, but why had she even thought he’d changed? The more time she spent with him…the more she remembered how little attention he’d paid to her as a teenager, and how much he’d paid to other girls.
He had remembered about the fireflies, though. Plus, earlier he’d said he liked her.
“Pepper, I haven’t dated anyone since Trisha,” Brett said. Sincerity was written all over his face. “She rejected me…she’s rejected the boys, and I wasn’t really all that sure I ever wanted to be with another woman again.”
Pepper’s heart went all gooey. Why did she have to be so soft-hearted? Swallowing, she asked, “Are you saying this so I won’t take you seriously or so I will?”
Brett unscrewed the lid to the jar, and they both watched as the fireflies knocked against the sides of the jar before going free. “ I’ve got two boys now, Pepper. I’m done catching fireflies, I swear. I’m only catching things I can keep…for good.”
She held up her hands, showing him her wrists. “I think your boys had that same idea earlier today.”
“Well, maybe I shouldn’t have let you go. I should have just thrown you over my shoulder and taken you inside,” he said, grinning—just as mischievously as his sons had when they’d tied the second knot on her ankles.
“Primitive, Brett. Very primitive.”
He reached for the handle of the door, paused, waited for her to stop him, and then opened it.
“You can’t expect us to be any better…a bunch of guys…no females.” He held up the jar. “It’s Lord of the Flies, Pepper.” Setting the jar down, he picked up her hands. “Now will you let me bandage your wrists? It’s the least I can do since it looks like you were moments away from gnawing them off to escape.”
Pepper laughed. She was falling…all over again. He better be right about keeping her. He lifted one hand to kiss the red skin on her wrist. She couldn’t seem to take her eyes off him. He kissed the other wrist, staring into her eyes.
“So, how about it, Pepper? You going to give me a chance?” His finger tipped her chin up.
“To bandage my wrists?”
He smiled before leaning down and kissing her mouth softly. It was just a whisper of a kiss. A request and a hint of a promise. “Well, yes, that, but I need you, Pepper.”
“Need me or want me?” she asked. What did it matter when he could kiss like that? But it did matter.
“Both. I need you to want me… and Tyson and Tommy.”
Smiling, Pepper pulled him farther into her place. “I do.” Taking his hands, she slid them around her waist and tipped her face up to his. “ I’ve got a big jar out back to keep you all in.”
Brett laughed. “Sounds good. I’ll even let you tie me up, Pepper.” This time when he kissed her, she was pretty sure it was more than just a hint. Brett Michaels was playing for keeps.
Copyright © 2013 by Wendy Sparrow
**In this short story, one of the kids is mute. When I was in waiting rooms and working with kids in Special Needs groups, there were a decent amount of kids who were nonverbal, but there were some that they could not figure out why they weren’t speaking. I remember sitting in a Birth-to-Three waiting room and talking to a mom who had no idea why her son couldn’t speak. I also saw many twins there–and sometimes only one child was affected, but both kids attended…the twin attended as a child the others could model after. That discussion with the mom was what prompted this story.
If you liked Keeping Fireflies, you’ll love The Teacher’s Vet.