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The Temptation of Savannah O'Neill Molly O Keefe 2022/8/3 13:53:00

Lifting his arm, he scratched at the worst of the grit and dirt that clung to his neck and face. He needed a shower and a change of clothes, but as far as he knew, Katie and Savannah were still planted in his room.

Man, what a weird day. He didn’t like seeing those girls so hurt, wished he knew a better way to help than to step aside and build a maze.

Katie needed a father. In fact, thinking about the falling apart O’Neill house of estrogen, and that hot and hungry look Savannah had in her eyes when she watched him working—to be totally caveman about it—a man was needed by all of them.

The door opened and shut and he turned to find Katie standing in the sparkly bright light that signaled the end of the day. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her cheeks flushed, but she wasn’t bristling with anger.

“Hi,” he said, cautiously.

“Hi.” She scratched at her knee, then her elbow. “I’m supposed to apologize for being mean to you.” Ah.

“Understandable,” he said, “considering who you thought I was.”

“I’m sorry about the water balloons.”

“Forgiven,” he said with a quick nod. “You okay?”

Katie pursed her lips as if she were weighing her answer. “Sure.” But she sighed and plunked her hands on her hips. “My dad is a jerk. He has a bunch of other kids in Chicago.”

“He never told Mom and she never told me because she didn’t want me to get hurt.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” he said.

Matt sat on the step and pulled off his gloves. Katie jumped from the landing with both feet and sat beside him. “It’s his loss, you know,” Matt said and Katie looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “I mean, I’m sure those other kids are fine, but they’re not you.”

Katie blinked down at her fingers, twisting them into knots as if playing some kind of game. Sadness dripped off her like bitter honey.

“I bet,” he said, “they don’t know card tricks. Or how to play poker. They probably can’t climb trees like you can. I’m sure they can’t hide as well as you can.”

She smiled, sadly, but didn’t look up.

“They don’t make your mom happy like you do,” he said.

“You make my mom happy,” she said. “Now, I mean—not before. Before you made her cry, but now you make her happy. I can tell.”

Only an idiot would misread the hope in that little girl’s face. And he was no idiot.

“I’m leaving on Sunday, when I’m done with the courtyard,” he said, softly, carefully, not wanting to cause this little girl any more pain. “I can’t stay here.”

“Where do you have to go?” Katie asked.

“Back to St. Louis,” he said, wondering why the words stuck and filled his mouth. Wondering why the future looked so damn bleak. “I have a lot of things I need to fix up there.”

Katie twisted her lips. “Well, when you’re done with that you should come back,” she said and jumped to her feet. As if it was that simple.

Man, you gotta love kids, he thought, they rebounded so fast. All that sadness was gone, at least for the time being.

On the other hand, he knew he would never rebound from his time spent here. Not in a million years. He didn’t even want to try.

“Remember what you said the other day about teaching me how you beat me at poker?” she asked.

MIDNIGHT FOUND MATT back in the good graces of Margot and Katie. He sat, a scotch at his elbow, one of Margot’s fine cigars between his lips.

Like a stranger brought in out of the cold and propped in front of a fire, Matt stretched out his legs and luxuriated in the moment.

He totally understood, right now, why his father had loved the tables so much. Why he’d sat again and again with the last of his money, with his kid waiting outside in the car—because it was warm.

Friendly, when the world was upside down.

“Katie,” he said, getting on with his lesson. “I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got a tell.”

Katie gasped as if he’d offended her honor. “I do not!”