Spring had finally sprung in Iowa, enough so that the biggest worry for the blooming flowers would be if they got enough rain or too much rain rather than if the overnight and morning frost were going to kill them.
Kate Webb buried her fingers in her hair and gave her scalp a good scratch as she walked into the kitchen. She was never sure if the scalp scratching triggered a yawn or if she was just an incredibly yawny person in the morning, but either way, it was routine, no matter what time she rolled out of bed and got around for the day.
Kate turned on the coffee maker—pre-filled with water and coffee grounds the night before—and crossed her arms over the counter. She dropped her forehead to her arms and closed her eyes. Kate was far from a morning person. Hell, she wasn’t even really a daylight person. Even her eleven AM wakeup call that morning was a little too close to sunrise for her, but if she had any hope of scoring eggplants early in the season, she needed to get to the greenhouse well before the ‘just got off work’ evening gardeners walked through the place.
She had missed out on eggplants from the greenhouse three years in a row. She didn’t much care for them herself, but they were her dad’s favorite vegetable out of everything one could grow in their garden, and he wouldn’t eat any dish made with eggplants that came from anywhere but their local greenhouse. In previous years, her neighbor had been kind enough to ‘loan’ her the eggplants needed to make a birthday dish of some sort for her dad, but before winter’s cruel fingers had sunk into the town at the end of last year, her neighbor had moved for warmer weather and sunnier days.
With a groan, Kate lifted her head as the final bit of coffee dripped into the glass pot. She couldn’t wait to get back home and get back to her much-needed rest.
Though Kate wanted like hell to keep her hopes up and her thoughts positive, the greenhouse shelves looked even emptier than they had by the time she had arrived the previous three years.
She managed to get a plant or two for just about everything she usually put in the ground, save for onions and peppers. That was fine. As long as she could find even one eggplant on the shelves she hadn’t checked yet, she could make something for her dad’s birthday later in the season that didn’t require onions or peppers. There were plenty of recipes to choose from, so long as she could get her hands on the ever-elusive eggplant.
Kate’s heart sank as she rounded the corner to check the last shelf. Her dad’s good days got fewer and farther between with every passing month, and she wanted to make every good day the best it could be. Was it so much to ask for the universe to help her out just this once?
She checked every shelf in the greenhouse once more just in case someone had hidden an eggplant away behind the lonely squash plant in the back.
No one had.
Admitting defeat, Kate made her way up to the counter.
“Early riser today, eyy?”
Kate set her basket on the counter and offered a smile. “Not early enough, apparently.”
Eli Peterson nodded. “Jenny bought us out of a lot of our stock right around opening. I even asked Mom and Dad if I was allowed to place a limit on plants per customer.”
Kate snorted. “I’m sure they were appalled.”
“Oh, absolutely. Can’t rob a paying customer of their well-earned plants or… something like that. I don’t understand the rules. I just follow ‘em.”
Kate chuckled softly, shaking her head. She had known Eli and his parents her whole life. Before her mom’s passing, she and her dad had gone to the greenhouse every year for their vegetables, and Kate had always come with them. On occasion, the Petersons had even let Eli show her how to water a plant or two with his tiny watering can.
But Kate had stopped attending the annual greenhouse shopping trip when she’d hit her hormonal years as a teenager, and her mom’s passing hadn’t sparked the urge to go back. Her dad’s inability to go for the last five years had been the only thing that had changed her mind about her greenhouse attendance, and Eli had been just about her only in-person human interaction since.
God, that was sad.
“We should get a restock in two weeks,” Eli said, his voice quiet.
“That’s okay. Dad prefers the ones bought in the first week. He says they’re just not the same if you wait any longer than that.”
“Will… he know?”
One corner of Kate’s mouth scrunched up. She had gotten her fair share of questions phrased that way about her dad, but she always struggled to answer them in a way that didn’t piss someone off or make her seem ridiculous. Eventually, she had given up on trying and had settled on the only answer that had ever made any sense to her.
“No, but I will. I like to keep my lies limited when and where I can.”
Eli’s expression was far more understanding than any greenhouse clerk’s face should be allowed to be. Maybe it had something to do with those soft brown eyes or the way his brow always furrowed just a little when Kate talked about her dad every year. Maybe it was because he was the only person she’d let into her home more than once since her dad’s diagnosis. Maybe it was because he was the only person in town who had seen her dad’s dementia in person for more than a few seconds.
Or maybe it was just pity. She got that one a lot too.
“I understand. Lying sucks. I’d want to keep it limited too.” Eli looked down at the basket of plants. His little notepad resting on the counter, he went about adding up the total cost. His parents had never invested in a cash register, instead settling for a notepad, a pencil, and a lockbox. Eli had once quietly muttered something about getting a ‘damn register’ when he took over someday, but Kate didn’t know how true that was.
Old habits were hard to break, even the time-consuming and less efficient ones.
“All righty, Kate. Fifty-two dollars and sixty cents.”
“Am I still allowed to write you a check?”
“Yeah, but Mom and Dad will hunt you down if it bounces.”
Kate snorted. “Deal.” She rifled through her purse for her checkbook. Her heart skipped a beat. “No, no, no,” she whispered. She set her purse on the counter for a better vantage point, like being able to pull it apart a little more would make her checkbook jump out of the house and run down to the shop.
“It’s okay,” Eli said. “Mom and Dad left for lunch, and they won’t check the lockbox until tomorrow.”
“It’s not okay. I have it. I just…”
Eli laid a warm hand on her forearm. Kate stopped digging, lifting her eyes to meet his. “Kate, it’s fine. I’m not offering to just let you just take ‘em, okay? I know you don’t want that. But I can swing by your place tonight after work and pick up the check then. Or cash. Whatever works for you. In the meantime, take the plants and get some gardening done.”
“Thank you,” Kate whispered.
“You’re welcome.” Eli gave her arm a gentle squeeze. He grabbed the small strawberry plant from the edge of her basket and smiled. “I’ll hold this one hostage until you pay its ransom tonight.”
Kate couldn’t help the smile that crept across her face. “Just don’t hurt her. I won’t pay a single dime if you hurt any leaves on her stem.”
Eli stuck out his free hand. “Deal.”
Kate snorted and grabbed his hand, giving it a firm shake. “Thank you, Eli. I’ll have the check ready tonight. Thank you.”
Eli smiled that warm, polite smile of his. “You’re welcome. Enjoy your day, Kate. I’ll keep Miss Strawberry safe until tonight.”
Kate lifted her purse over her shoulder. “Oh, you better. Or I’ll spill the beans on your little under the counter deals.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
She pointed at him, grabbing the basket of plants with her free hand. “Don’t test me, Peterson.”
Eli held up both hands—strawberry plant and all—in surrender. “I won’t hurt her. You pay your ransom, and she goes home safe and sound.”
“Deal.” Kate mouthed one more ‘thank you’, not quite having the strength left to say it aloud one more time.
Eli’s smile spoke far more understanding than pity.
Kate had searched for her checkbook in every nook and cranny she could find when she got home. The cupboards, the drawers, the dryer, the dressers. Hell, she had even checked the refrigerator.
Letting out a breath, she walked into the living room. Her dad sat in his rocking chair, eyes on the television. She leaned around the corner for a look at what was playing. It was a relatively new show in comparison to what he watched on his more distant days. His lack of complaint or confusion was usually a good sign. “Hey, Daddy?”
He glanced up at her, smiling before his gaze shifted back to the television. “Hey, sweetheart. Back so soon?”
“Yeah. Traffic wasn’t too bad.” Kate cleared her throat. “Any chance you’ve seen my checkbook?”
“Checkbook?” he echoed. He chuckled. “Baby, aren’t you a little young for a checkbook? Lord knows I’ve got you covered until well after you graduate.”
Kate closed her eyes for a moment. Well… not as good of a sign as she had hoped. She smiled. “You’re right, Daddy. Sorry. Umm… do you know where your checkbook is?”
“It’s in my nightstand. Do you need something?”
“No, I was just cleaning. You know I like knowing where the important stuff is so I know I’m not gonna lose it.”
“Ah, that’s my girl. Well, you can go check if it puts you at ease. Just don’t overwork yourself.”
“I won’t. Thanks, Daddy.” Kate hurried past the television and walked into her father’s bedroom. True to his word, the checkbook was in his nightstand. Kate grabbed it, tore off a check, and tucked it into the pocket of her jacket. Just in case he still believed the book was his the next time he found it, she put it back in his nightstand and closed the drawer.
She headed back into the kitchen. She wrote out the check for fifty-two dollars and sixty cents and tucked it beneath the basket of fruits and veggies waiting to be planted in the garden. She’d wait to plant them until after her still much-needed nap.
Kate pulled her phone from her pocket and checked to make sure the camera feed from the little camera hidden in the living room was connected to her notifications. Her dad didn’t move much during the day, but the camera helped her feel safe about her daytime naps. If her dad switched over to his wheelchair or left the room, she’d get a notification about the movement, and she’d be able to check the feed to make sure everything was okay. It helped keep accidents to a minimum, and it helped prolong his time in the house with her instead of in a nursing home.
She raked a hand through the part of her dark brown hair to push it away from the sides of her face. “Nap first,” she whispered.
Eli felt stupid for going home and changing his shirt four times before driving out to Kate’s house. Even as he had done up the buttons of the fourth shirt, he had told himself it was just because he didn’t want to go over there in what he’d worn to work. That was, of course, bullshit, but everyone was allowed to tell themselves a white lie now and then.
Eli pulled up to the curb outside Kate’s house and cut the engine. She had waved at him from the garden when he’d driven past, so he wasn’t too surprised to see her coming out of the house, check in hand.
Her hair was a mess, pushed back from her face with a blue and white bandana rolled up like a headband. Her tank top was a little wet around the hem and a little dirty on the sides, like she’d wiped her hands on them more than once. The older women in town tended to judge her for the little things like that. It wasn’t rare for Kate to make a run to the grocery store in her pajamas or her gardening clothes.
According to one of the regulars at the greenhouse, Kate ‘thinks about her dad too much to even pretend to care about her own appearance’.
Eli didn’t much care if her clothes were a little dirty or if her hair was a little messy. She was still a beautiful woman. Eli didn’t think any amount of dirt could change that.
Kate stopped on the sidewalk as Eli climbed out of his car. Her hands went to her hips. “I don’t see my strawberry plant, Peterson. I was promised she’d be returned undamaged.”
“Ah, as promised.” Eli leaned back into the car and, after allowing his hand to hover over the two plants in his passenger seat, grabbed the strawberry plant. He closed the door and walked around the front of his car. “See? Didn’t touch a single leaf.”
“Thank God. I don’t have the energy left to kick your ass today.”
Eli snorted. “Reasonable.” He handed over the plant and accepted the check she held out to her. “Thank you.”
Kate nodded. “Yeah. Thanks again for letting me hold off on that until tonight. I completely forgot to make sure everything was in my purse before I left.”
“I think you have the right to forget something every now and then.”
“Maybe,” Kate said quietly. She held up the strawberry plant. “Thanks again, Eli.”
“No problem.” He took a step back toward his car and pulled open the passenger side door as Kate headed back up to the house. “Hey, umm, Kate?”
She stopped and turned back around. “Yeah?”
Eli grabbed the second plant from the seat and walked up the drive. “I didn’t want anyone in the shop to think there was some sort of favoritism going on, but I-I saved you one this year.”
Kate searched his face for what felt like an eternity before her gaze fell to the nursery pot in his hand. “You… you saved an eggplant for me?”
He shrugged, like saving it wasn’t something he’d been thinking about for the last two years. “Yeah. It’s no big deal. I just know you’re not really a morning person, and since Mom and Dad refuse to allow pre-orders, I made sure to buy one first thing this morning.”
Kate bent down to set the strawberry plant on the ground. Before Eli could promise there were no strings attached, Kate straightened out and threw her arms around him. Eli grunted, holding the plant out to the side before wrapping his free arm around her.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“My pleasure, Kate.” Eli expected her to pull away, but she didn’t. She twisted the material of his shirt in one of her hands, the fingers of her free hand biting into his shoulder. Eli closed his eyes, hugging her just a little tighter.
Kate was more or less alone in the world. It hadn’t been too long after her mother had died that she had switched from daughter to caretaker. She had stopped attending parties in high school, she had skipped out on just about every event but prom and graduation, and she had taken a ‘gap year’ between graduation and college.
Of course, her ‘gap year’ had gone on a bit longer than three hundred and sixty-five days, and now the only people really in her life were her dad and his doctors.
Kate patted him on the back and stepped away. Her cheeks were a little red, her eyes a little wet. She smiled. “Sorry. Haven’t had a good hug in a while.”
“That’s okay. I’m not opposed to hugs.”
“Thank God.” She took the eggplant from him, holding the pot in her cupped hands like an injured baby bird. “Eli?” she asked, eyes still on the plant.
“Do you… do you have plans tonight?”
Eli shook his head, though she wasn’t looking at him. “No. Just me and probably some gaming.”
Kate lifted her eyes just enough to meet his gaze. “How would you feel about giving up gaming to attend a little supper here?”
Eli did his best to conceal at least some of his joy at the idea. The last time he’d been invited to supper with Kate had been their pre-prom dinner, and that had been with a group of five girls and one other guy.
Tonight’s supper would just be him, Kate, and her dad.
“I’d love that,” Eli said.
Kate smiled. “I’m just going to plant this little guy and Miss Strawberry, and then I’ll get into making food. Is spaghetti okay? I know it’s not a very… sexy food, but y’know.”
Eli snorted. “I don’t normally get my hopes up that the food will be sexy.”
Kate laughed. “That’s probably a good thing.” A pause. “I’ll, uh… see you around six?”
“Six works for me. See you then, Kate.”
After planting the remaining two plants and watering everything in the garden, Kate headed inside to start supper. She wasn’t sure what to classify the night as. ‘Date’ felt like the wrong word, but not because of Eli. Kate liked Eli. Never making themselves official in high school hadn’t changed that, and since then, he had grown into a handsome man with a good sense of humor and a sense of fashion she’d be willing to ‘borrow’ on occasion.
But ‘date’ felt wrong since her dad would be there with them. Thankfully, if anyone in town understood that, it was Eli. He was the least judgmental person there was when it came to her position as full-time caretaker and breadwinner.
Kate hadn’t had time for dating since before she graduated high school. She had spent most of her junior and senior years trying to hide that her dad had gotten sick. She hadn’t wanted a judge or a police officer poking into their business, into their lives. She hadn’t wanted some stranger to decide if her dad was ‘dangerous’ or ‘unfit’ to be a parent anymore. It was a narrative she hadn’t planned to let the town put on her family, and she had managed to succeed. It hadn’t been until after graduation that it had finally gotten out that her father was sick. Though she had hated the way some of their neighbors had acted when that sickness was discovered, it hadn’t mattered.
By then, she had legally been a grown ass woman, and no one could take her or her dad away anymore.
Eli had been one of the few who stuck around as time went on, as she pulled away from her social life more and more to take care of her dad. They didn’t see each other or talk to each other every week by any means, but the time they did occasionally spend together was time Kate always appreciated.
If Eli Peterson wanted to use an eggplant to make his move instead of any of her previous trips to the greenhouse or any of his grocery runs for her, so be it. Kate sure as hell wasn’t going to reject any kind of garden variety veggies from a man like Eli.
Eli had changed his shirt twice more before heading back to Kate’s house. He owned primarily button-ups, some more solid in color than others. He had settled on a simple plaid button-up and left the house before he could change his mind again. He knew Kate liked flannel and plaid patterns, so he hoped she found it more charming than creepy.
It was a shirt after all. He hadn’t bought it specifically because Kate liked it. There was nothing creepy about wearing a shirt he hoped a woman he was interested in liked.
Eli let out a breath and shut off the car. He really needed to shut off his brain before it exploded. He had a habit of thinking himself out of dates, his mind conjuring up things to worry about that no one else would even really notice or care to acknowledge.
He opened the door and climbed out of the car. He leaned back in to pull his keys from the ignition, pocketing them as he heard the front door open.
Kate’s dad stood in the doorway, a hand wrapped tightly around his cane. He lifted his free hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Now, do my eyes deceive me, or is that Eli Peterson I see?”
“Seems like they’re still running twenty-twenty.”
Joshua snorted. “Somethin’ oughta still be working at top speed, huh?”
“Pfft, you aren’t too worse for wear.” Eli closed the door and made his way up to the house. “I didn’t know you were up and walking around with a cane now.”
“Only for about the last week,” Kate said as she came into the small foyer. She finished drying her hands and slung the towel over her shoulder. She laid a hand between her dad’s shoulders and offered a smile. “We’ve made a lot of progress with the new physical therapist. Things are going well.”
Joshua nodded. “The new therapist is a great gal. Doesn’t let me give up too easy, which I needed.” He cocked his head to the side as he adjusted his grip on his cane. “Is there something you came over for, Eli?”
“I invited him over for supper, Daddy. Eli was kind enough to save an eggplant for me at the greenhouse this year.”
“ ‘Bout time. I was starting to think both of you lacked any romantic awareness.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Get your butt back inside.”
Joshua smiled. “Of course. Leave you two alone.” He patted her on the shoulder and gave Eli a thumbs-up before heading back into the house.
“He’s doing okay today, it seems,” Eli said.
Kate looked back over her shoulder, offering a nod. “Not too bad. He thought I was in high school this afternoon, and we had an incident with the stove at lunch, but…” She lifted her shoulders. “But today’s been good. We happily accept as many of those as we can get.”
“I wish you guys had even more of them.”
She smiled an almost sad little smile. “Me too, Eli.” She nodded over her shoulder. “Come on in. Supper’s on the table.”
Eli stepped into the house and closed the door behind him. He followed Kate to the dining room, where she pulled out a chair for him. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” She looked him up and down with tired eyes. “You look nice in plaid.”
He couldn’t help but smile. Proof he’d been overthinking it: check. “Thanks. And you look nice in a gardening tee.”
Kate snorted, amusement dancing amongst the exhaustion in those light brown eyes of hers. “Thanks.” She slid an empty plate over to him. “Spaghetti here, meat sauce here, veggie sauce here. Have at it.”
Supper had gone well, at least as far as Eli knew. Conversation had been pleasant the whole evening, even after their food was eaten. Eli had never felt like a third-wheel to Kate and her dad, and he’d never felt like he and Kate were excluding her dad either.
It was the most successful date Eli had had in a long time.
Now, with Joshua back in his chair in the living room, his cane on one side and his wheelchair on the other, Eli followed Kate back to her room.
She set her phone on the nightstand and dropped to the foot of the bed. “Thanks for coming over tonight, Eli. It was nice having someone else around. I love Dad to death, but…” She laughed softly, shaking her head. “But I don’t get out much.”
“Me neither. Thanks for having me over.” Almost gingerly, he sat down beside her on the bed. “How, uh… how are things with your dad? I mean, really?”
“I don’t know.” Kate clasped her hands between her thighs. “I’m going to have to put him in a home eventually, but I’m trying to put it off as long as I can. As long as I can work from home, as long as I can keep the cameras around the house connected to my phone… As long as everything keeps doing what it’s supposed to do, I can keep him here. I can keep taking care of him.”
She swallowed roughly, shaking her head. “The good days are few and far between. Today was… was good, and I’m happy for that. But recently, the good ‘days’ are turning into good afternoons or good mornings instead. He loses who I am and where we are a lot of the time. He thought I was in high school just today, and he thought my checkbook was his. He even had it in his nightstand drawer to keep it safe, like it always was. Stuff like that is the usual now, and once he progresses further into… into it, the things he starts moving or forgetting are going to be more dangerous.”
“Like the stove incident today?” Eli asked.
Kate nodded. “It was stupid. I didn’t take my damn phone into the garden with me. I left it on the table at the front of the house, and I didn’t hear it go off when he rolled his chair out to the kitchen. He just wanted a snack. Turned on the stove, filled a pot up with water, and set it on the burner. And then a pot holder on the lid of it, which… fell off and landed right next to the flame. I-I went inside to put my hair up because I broke my damn hair tie, a-and thank God I did. I could’ve lost Dad if I hadn’t.”
Eli laid a hand on her back. “You can’t be expected to be there one hundred percent of the time, Kate. It’s too much to ask of one person. A pot holder caught fire, and it could’ve been worse, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t worse because you were there, and that’s all there is to it. You were there, even if it wasn’t before it happened. You still stopped it.”
“I guess so,” Kate said quietly. With a heavy sigh, she dropped her head to Eli’s shoulder. “You don’t have any people or animals you need to get home to, do you?”
“No, not unless you think my PlayStation is lonely.”
Kate snorted. “It might be. I don’t know.” She stayed silent for a moment. As Eli slid his hand up to her shoulder, she laid a hand on his thigh. “You can say no if you want to, but, umm… do you wanna stay with me tonight?”
“Like a sleepover? Or like sex?”
Kate chuckled. “Like a sleepover. I’m an exhausted mess.”
Eli rolled his eyes and turned to press a kiss to the top of her head. “You aren’t nearly as much of a mess as you think you are.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.” She cleared her throat, lifting her head from his shoulder. “I need to take a shower. If you’d like to join me for a sex-free water-saving mission, you can.”
Eli watched her stand up. “Are you sure?”
She smiled. “It won’t be too much different from freshman year. I’m just a little less skinny, and you’re a little more muscular.”
“You make a damn good argument.”
Eli grabbed her outstretched hand and rose to his feet. Kate grabbed her phone from the nightstand and gently tugged him to the bathroom connected to her bedroom. Once she shut the bathroom door, Eli barely managed to undo the buttons on his shirt before she pulled her own over her head and dropped it to the floor.
His eyes skimmed up her bare torso, past her belly button ring and the short hairs that led up to her bra. Part of him felt guilty for looking—for ogling—just like he had as an inexperienced freshman. The other part of him simply said, “You’re beautiful, Kate.”
Though her head was bowed as she pulled off her jeans, he could still see the smile on her face. “Thank you.” She nodded toward him as her hands came up to unclasp her bra. “How about you shed that shirt and show some skin so I can say the same about you?”
Eli snorted. “Deal.”
Their shower the night before had been far less awkward than it had been for Eli when they were younger. Kate’s back pressed up against his front as he had scrubbed her chest and stomach with her soap-covered loofa. The little smile on her face as she had stolen it from his hand to wash his chest instead. Her soapy hands on his cheeks as she had leaned up to kiss him.
Eli wouldn’t mind having more nights end that way, but whether or not Kate felt the same way was a mystery.
He had woken up alone, afterall.
Eli ran a hand through his hair, scratching the back of his head. He couldn’t smell anything coming up from the kitchen, not even coffee, so it was unlikely she had left the house. Her phone wasn’t on the nightstand, so she had left for more than a quick trip to the bathroom.
He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood up. He grabbed his jeans from the floor and pulled them up his legs before heading downstairs.
He found Joshua asleep in his rocking chair in the living room, and after a little bit of searching, he found Kate outside. She sat on the table at the front of her house, feet resting on the seat of the chair beneath her.
Eli walked outside and cleared his throat before leaning back against the table. “Everything okay?”
Kate nodded, her eyes focused on the garden. “I had a dream last night that someone came and tore up everything I planted because they didn’t want Dad to have any eggplant.” She chuckled softly, shaking her head. “It sounds so stupid, but I had to come out and check. I needed to know everything was okay. And when it was, I totally lost it and had a good cry.” She turned to look at him, cheeks still red. “I’m gonna have to put him in a home, Eli,” she whispered.
Eli lifted himself onto the table and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his bare side, her skin a little cold to the touch. “I won’t let you do it alone if you don’t want to. And if you’re not ready yet, that’s okay. You don’t have to do it right this second, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan made up. Maybe you’ll feel more… more at ease that way. Knowing what’s going to happen can help calm the mind a little, you know?”
After a moment, Kate nodded. “Maybe you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead.”
“Exactly. We all like being prepared for something.”
Kate shifted just enough to kiss his shoulder. “You probably have to head in for work soon, don’t you?”
“Yeah, in about an hour.”
“Maybe… you can come over again tonight?” Kate asked.
“For planning and preparing?”
“Maybe a little bit. Maybe for another date.”
“I’d love that,” Eli said.
“Perfect,” Kate whispered. She lifted her head and jumped down from the table. “In the meantime, let’s scrounge up something for breakfast so you don’t go to work totally starved.”
Eli chuckled and got off the table. He grabbed Kate’s hand and gave it a tight squeeze. “Sounds perfect.”
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