Cold Comfort


   Police car in Mistletoe windown The men continued to talk. Claire leaned against the car, imagining herself sliding off the fender like spaghetti off a plate, congealing into a lump on the ground. Those little white pills, on top of everything else, packed a wallop. The men droned on. Watching Jason, she thought he grew two inches on the spot, and he hadn’t squeaked, mumbled, or shuffled his feet once. Riley’s easy, matter-of-fact way with the awkward boy surprised her.
    Jason blew a warm breath and watched it crystallize in the air, still basking in Riley’s praise. He rubbed his arms through his shirtsleeves.
    Hal draped his arm over the boy’s shoulders. “We’d better go in. It’s freezing out here.”
    “Yes, sir. Goodnight, Claire, Mr. Riley. Come on, Goodyear,” Jason said. The dog came to his side, wagging his tail.
    Hal raised his eyebrow in a question, offering her a last chance at rescue.
    “Thanks for coming out to check. I’ll be fine.” Nice of him to be concerned, she thought. He turned to walk his son home. Claire glanced at Riley, looking hard and tough. Maybe she didn’t need a rottweiler after all.
    “I want to check your house,” he said to Claire. “And you ought to cut down this bush.”
    “My lilac? Never.” She loved that bush. Her mother planted it.
    Riley’s dour expression conveyed his opinion. “Maybe the SOB’ll be allergic to them, but at this time of year, it’s unlikely.”
    “The police officer checked all the locks the other night.” She opened the door and entered the hallway, reached for the lamp switch before she remembered the missing bulb. “Oh! The light’s
    Before she could explain, Riley shoved past her into the dark hall. “Get down!”
    Startled, it took her a second to understand. The light. “Wait, the
    “Quiet,” he mouthed, cutting her off. Crouching, he edged around the arched opening to the living room.
    In the dim light from the porch, Claire glimpsed the gun in his hand—the last straw. She gulped back tears. In their place, laughter bubbled up in her throat. Imagining his reaction, she tried to suppress it, tried hard. Then she heard him trip. She winced, understanding instantly. She’d left the electric drill on the living room floor when it got too heavy to hold anymore. Riley would kill her himself, saving someone the trouble. Wild laughter erupted through her fingers, pressed tightly over her mouth.
    Lights flashed on, exposing his humorless expression. “What, exactly, do you find so funny, Miss Spencer?”
    “The light bulb” She gasped and interrupted herself with another burst of laughter. Peal after peal tumbled out of her, until tears rolled down her cheeks.
    He grabbed her shoulderthe left one, fortunatelyand swung her around to face him. “Stop it. You’re hysterical.”
    She couldn’t.
    He caught both shoulders and gave her a quick shake. Claire at window
    Pain shot through her. Her eyes opened wide, then closed. The laughter died on her lips. She stifled a cry, feeling like a punctured balloon. “I’m sorry,” she managed, still trying to catch her breath.
    “Now, would you like to tell me what this is about?” He lowered his hands, still clenching his fists.
    “I gave the light bulb to the policeman. He put it in the porch light for me. And then the drill, the windows.  I was so tired…” A hard lump formed in her throat. Tears, real ones this time, filled her eyes. She spun out of his reach toward the kitchen. “I’m going to make a cup of tea,” she said, her voice strained, and ran.
    “Hold it.” Riley pushed past her into the kitchen, glanced around. “Let me check the house before you go charging off.”
    She heard him mutter “Women” like a curse before he disappeared again. Leaning over the sink, she splashed cold water on her face. After a minute, she patted her face dry with a paper towel, took a deep breath, and opened her eyes. Black smudges stained the white paper. Damn. Dracula’s daughter. She was not a pretty crier.

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