Meggie heard the bell on the door and rushed into the shop. She’d been stocking in the back room, and her box cutters were still in her hand. Glancing at the handsome stranger, she stretched her full height, put the dangerous item on a top shelf, and said. “What can I do for you?
“I represent Almighty Batteries. We also carry a large stock of auto parts, guaranteed best prices in the area.” A handsome salesman with a mega-watt smile offered his card.
“Every salesman says that Mister. And your good looks don’t charm me none. Tony’s pretty particular about quality.”
The tall blond’s smile didn’t waver. “Your good looks charm me, Ms. . . .?”
“Mrs. Romero. Tony’s my old man. I do all the purchasing.”
“I could show you some of our stock, and maybe give you a discount on your first order.”
“I’m dumb as a post. Tony’d have to check it out,” Meggie replied curtly. Her glance flew to the corner.
“That your baby?”
“Yeah. Tony put the bed where I could watch him. Poor kid hangs around this crappy place every day, but we can’t afford daycare.”
“Does the TV work?”
“Tony put in cable so Anthony can watch Nick Jr. and Disney. He’s only eight months old, but I put him in the bouncy seat. He likes the bright colors and music, and I get my work done.”
“Have you eaten? I’ll run to Subway, get a couple of sandwiches, and bring them back.” The salesman gave her another brilliant smile.
“I usually go up to the house for something. Tony eats in the shop, if he eats at all. Maybe he feeds on battery cables. It’d be nice, but I can’t promise any sales, you got it?”
“Sure. What can I get you?”
“6 inch ham and turkey, cold, no cheese, all the veggies, and sweet onion sauce. Tony wants a meatball sub, white bread, hot, 12 inch. I got sodas in the machine.”
When he left, Meggie could breathe and she thought about her husband. Tony Romero had been a mechanic for eight years and built this plain building next to his modest house, making plans for his own business. When they dated, he proudly showed it to her. As soon as she turned eighteen, they married and started it with a loan. Now, practical Tony pinched every penny to pay it off.
This guy’s coming on to me. What am I gonna do? Tony’ll kill me! I could page the garage. He’s right there. But he doesn’t like to be disturbed. He works really hard to pay this place off. I agreed to run the shop. That’s my part of the deal. Tony was a gentleman when we dated. God knows, I was glad, but marriage should be—well, something. He’s no Prince Charming, no Cosmo lover, for sure. I shouldn’t have grabbed my first chance. He’s sensitive as a turnip. Like every man on the planet, he’s a user of women. Slam, bam, not even a thank you Ma’am. I hate my life. Sometimes I even hate my kid. I’m a horrible mother. All Tony does is work. We never go to a fricking movie. Not that we could afford it or a babysitter.
Meggie stared at the blank cinderblock wall. Gunboat grey. It was on sale the day they painted. Five gallon cans of endless grey.
Within twenty minutes, the salesman was back. He held up Tony’s sub. “I’ll take it to him. Is this the door to the garage?”
Meggie nodded and headed to the stirring baby. Murmuring softly, she changed him. He patted her face, and she kissed his pudgy fingers. Pulling a chair into the back room, she nursed him until he sat up. She opened the small refrigerator in the shop, dipped food into a divided plate, and popped it in the microwave while juggling Anthony on her hip.
As the timer dinged, the salesman returned. “The little guy up?”
“Yeah, he’s always hungry. He grows like a weed.” She lowered the baby into his wrap-around table and dragged her chair back into the office.
“How much do I owe ya?” Meggie asked.
“It’s on my expense account. Business lunch.”
Setting her sandwich aside, Meggie checked the temperature of the baby’s food. As she fed him, she talked to him, expertly catching dribbles down his chin and popping them back into his mouth.
“Tony says you do the ordering. You keep prices in your head and correct him if he pays too much. Pretty smart.”
“Dumb animals learn a few tricks.”
He leaned forward and tucked a stray wisp of soft brown hair behind her ear. “You sell yourself short. You’re smart, a good mom, and a beautiful woman.”
Meggie shrank back. “I do what has to be done.”
“Tony likes Almighty products. He said order what you need.”
“I’ll check later. I don’t want him mad at me.”
“Does he get mad often?”
“No, he mostly just ignores me.” Meggie answered quickly. “He works 24/7.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
“Some, but Anthony and me have fun.” Meggie smiled at her grinning baby. “Don’t we kiddo?” She wiped his face with a damp cloth.
He stood and took a step closer. “If I had a woman like you, I’d never ignore her. Here’s a price list. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Meggie held Anthony protectively against her chest.
He left with a wave and a heart-stopping smile.
She steadied her pulse rate.
The next day the salesman arrived with a single yellow rose in a vase.
Meggie shoved a precise list at him and stepped behind the counter.
“This is for you.” He set the vase on her counter.
“Tony said to order these,” Meggie waved at the flower. “You must have a big expense account.”
“This is from me, so you feel special.” He stepped closer and ran his smooth fingers down her bare arm, and Meggie wished she hadn’t worn a tank top.
He leaned over the counter. “Lunch again?”
“No!” Meggie raised her voice. “I, uh, have left-overs.”
Tony stuck his head in and saw his wife’s confusion and the rose in one sweeping observation.
“Robinson,” he said coldly. He glared at him and stepped into Meggie’s domain. “Thought that might be you. When can you get some distributer caps here?”
The salesman stepped back quickly. “This afternoon, in an emergency.”
“Why don’t you do that?”
Robinson left in haste.
Tony studied Meggie, standing with her head down and twisting her hands. “He bother you?”
“I don’t want anybody messing with you.”
Tony walked abruptly toward the garage. He paused and looked back. “If I get this truck done today, Hayes’ll give me a bonus. We need to make a payment.”
She raised her eyes, gave a tentative half-smile, and lifted her shoulders again.
He let the door slam behind him.
Meggie swiped tears with the back of her hand and straightened. She swung Anthony to her shoulder and headed up the path to the house. When she returned, she pushed the garage door open, lifted his lunch wordlessly, and set it on his desk.
“Thanks,” he said.
Hearing him on the phone later, she walked into the garage.
He turned his back and lowered his voice. “I’d appreciate it,” he said, and hung up. “The chili was even better today.” He studied her until she shifted under his gaze. “You take good care of us.”
“I’m done here. Wanna go to Wal-Mart after Robinson makes his delivery? Maybe get some posters for your walls?”
“That’d be nice.”
“Lemme know when he gets here.”
When the salesman arrived, Meggie buzzed Tony, who appeared immediately.
Robinson thanked him and left.
“We’ll go soon as Hayes picks up his truck. All right?”
Meggie hunched her shoulders.
“You don’t wanna go?”
“I do. Is the order okay? I gave him this.” She indicated her list.
“It’s not all here. Guess he’ll drop the other stuff off later. What’s the rose about?”
“Wants to land a new customer, I guess.”
Tony strode to the door and threw it open so hard it ricocheted off the wall.
Meggie rubbed tears away with a burp cloth and hugged Anthony close as she walked to the house. She changed into a loose blouse, covering it with a short-sleeved pink summer sweater. Hearing a truck on their gravel driveway, she looked out and watched Mr. Hayes wave to the driver. A few minutes later, he backed out in his truck.
Tony locked the garage and climbed the hill. “Ready? You look nice. Lemme clean up.” He returned in clean blue jeans and a neatly pressed knit shirt. Taking Anthony, he walked to their truck, opened the door for her, and then put the baby in his car seat. He chucked him under his chin and laughed at his babble.
Meggie twisted her hands in her lap.
“Did he hit on you?”
She shook a negative response, shrank away, and pressed herself into the door.
Tony put his arm across the back of the seat. “What’s the matter Baby?” Her wide blue eyes skimmed his face. “You’re like a doe in the sights, girl. I’d never hurt you. Have I ever in the two years we’ve been together?”
“No,” she whispered.
“Meggie, look at me.”
She kept her eyes down.
“I don’t know anything about women. I had younger brothers. I went to work in high school to help Mom pay the bills. I never had a girlfriend until you. You gotta help me out here.” He touched her, and she shuddered.
“Are you mad?” she whispered. “I didn’t lead him on. I swear.”
Tony cranked the engine and eased out of the driveway. They rode in silence. When they got to Wal-Mart, she quickly got Anthony.
Tony held the store door and grabbed a basket. “You wanna put him in?”
Eyes wide, she hugged the baby to herself. They headed toward the posters. Meggie had no preference, whatever Tony wanted was fine.
“Meggie . . . .” Tony’s voice trailed. He shoved the posters back and pushed the cart to the front of the store.
Meggie followed miserably. “What’re you gonna to do?”
“Let’s go grab a bite.”
“Can we afford it?”
He touched her face with his work-calloused hand. “I can manage.” They drove to a nearby hot dog place where an old-fashioned juke box belted out fifties songs. After ordering, they crossed the café, and sat in a red plastic booth.
Tony took a breath. “Meggie, we married real fast. We hardly knew each other, and you were real young.”
“You wanna divorce?”
Tony stared at her. “No, do you?”
“I’d have no place to go.”
“Is staying so bad?”
She shook her head.
“I love you. I don’t say it much. When Anthony was born you were so brave, and so beautiful. You’re a good mom.”
Tony chuckled and watched her face. “And that’s the longest speech I’ve ever made.” He thanked the waitress.
“But I’m not good . . . as a wife.”
He barely heard her whisper. “You take good care of us. Keep our house, cook good. I’m not complaining.”
“But, in bed.” Crimson flooded her face.
Tony stopped cutting Anthony’s hot dog into small bites.
“You roll off and go to sleep. I’m not good.”
“Do I hurt you? You weren’t, you know, when we married. I’d never had a woman before. I thought you had boyfriends. Maybe I wasn’t good for you.”
She shoved her hand in her mouth and fled to the ladies’ room.
Grabbing Anthony, he followed her.
“Come out, Meggie. It’s okay.” People were looking. The door cracked, and she reached for her howling baby. Tony backed down the hall, holding him in his strong arms. “You’ll have to come out to get him.”
She did, reaching, and Anthony launched into her arms.
Tony pulled her close and held her tightly, the baby between them.
“Let’s go.” Tony slipped his hand around her waist, guiding her gently outside, ignoring the curious stares. He tucked her into the truck and walked around it.
Meggie fumbled with her blouse and nursed the baby. Glancing up, she saw tears in Tony’s eyes.
“What would we do without you?” he said. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He brushed his knuckles against her silky cheek.
She trembled but didn’t pull away.
“Why don’t you want me?’ Tony asked. “I know when you’re not asleep,”
Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she remained silent.
“I’m no prize. I don’t say enough. I work hard to take care of you two. I love you.”
She choked on a hiccup. “You’d hate me if you knew!”
Tony gathered her into his arms. “I’m not going anywhere. We can fix this.”
She shook her head violently and began to sob. The frightened baby cried again.
Tony extricated him from her arms and soothed him. He slipped out of the truck and tucked him into his car seat. He climbed in and drove to a nearby park, pulling under some shade. He turned to face her.
“I thought I was losing you to a salesman.”
She looked down, out the window, anywhere but at him.
His cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and flipped it open.
“Yeah, I’ll tell her.” Tony looked at her. “He’s been fired. His boss discovered he’s been hitting on women all over town. He won’t bother you again. His boss apologized.”
“It wasn’t me?” She put trembling hands over her face.
“Meggie, tell me,” Tony begged.
“I’m not a slut! I never had boyfriends.” He waited. Taking a slow, shuddering breath, she said, “My step-father used me, like that, since I was twelve. Drunk, sober, all the time.” Her puffy, red eyes spilled over again.
“Oh, God, Meggie. No wonder we got married as soon as you turned eighteen and you didn’t want them at the courthouse. I didn’t know what I was doing. You poor kid, married to a loser. I don’t even know how to talk to a woman.” He leaned his head back on the seat.
“You’re not so bad, Tony. You hate me?”
His eyes popped open. “Hate you? You brave, beautiful girl—you’ve given me a home, a great kid.”
He rubbed his finger down the side of her face. “Look, Baby, we’ll get help. We gotta learn how to do this right. I won’t touch you till you say. It’ll be hard, but I swear to God I won’t see you hurt, ever again.”
“You never hurt me. I just thought I . . . I didn’t make you happy. I wanna be a better wife. I don’t wanna crawl into that dark place when you touch me.” She met his eyes and smiled. “If you can wait for me, I think we can do better, too.”
“When you do, you’ll understand about needing someone so much it hurts.”
This time when her eyes misted over, the tears did not scald. “I want Anthony to grow up to be just like his daddy.”
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