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Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …

Windy City Stories by Dave & Neta Jackson


Pound Foolish

Book #4 in the Windy City Neighbors series

By Neta Jackson and Dave Jackson
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Jackson and Neta Jackson

Chapter 1


From the moment Nicole Singer saw the long black Lincoln sliding toward her, she knew it was the same vehicle that had almost hit her and her two children a few minutes before as they’d dashed across Western Avenue in the rain. She gripped Nathan’s and Becky’s hands, lifted her head a little higher, and picked up the pace, ignoring the approaching limo and the large drops making their way through the branches of the overhanging elms.

     The stretch Lincoln eased over to her side of the street—the wrong side, though there wasn’t much traffic in this quiet neighborhood—and slowed to a stop as it came even with her. A dark rear window hummed down. “Excuse me,” a man said.

     Nicole kept walking, looking straight ahead to the far end of the sidewalk.

     The car began backing up to keep pace with her. “Excuse me. Do you live on Beecham Street?”

     Her six- and eight-year-olds were lagging, twisting to look at the speaker. “Mom, it’s the McMansion man,” Becky said in a stage whisper.

     Nicole relented and looked.

     The man in the limo chuckled, an easy smile spreading across his handsome features. “She’s right, you know . . . big house across the end of the block? I suppose you could call it a McMansion, but to me it’s just home. I’m Lincoln Paddock, by the way. And I’m really sorry my driver gave you a start back there on Western. I don’t know why we were going so fast. I’m not in any kind of a hurry. Here . . .” He swung open the door to the plush limo. “I’m so sorry. The least I can do is offer you a ride and get you out of this rain.”

     Nicole hesitated. But Nathan tugged on her hand. “Can we, Mom? We’ve never ridden in a real stretch limo.” At least her son knew what to call it. She hesitated, but Becky began to whimper. “Please, Mommy. I’m gettin’ cold.”

     Nicole stepped across the parkway grass toward the curb. “I wouldn’t want to put you out, Mr. Paddock.”

     “Please, just call me Lincoln. It’s no problem giving you a ride. Please.” He stepped out and held the door open like a gentleman ushering them into his coach. He was taller than Nicole and a real hunk under his black business suit. Nicole felt herself blush at taking note. How would she like it if that was his first impression of her?

     Both kids had claimed the long side lounge seat, stretching out each way with their heads together in the middle. “Look, Mom. A TV in the car and a little kitchen with things to drink.”

     She could have walked all the way to the front and taken that seat, but it didn’t seem dignified, all bent over from the waist, so she sat down on the far side of the back seat. “Kids, get your feet off the seats, now.” They complied just as their neighbor closed the door and sat down beside her.

     “Don’t worry about it. The seats are leather and wipe right off with a damp cloth. Here, kids, let me find something for you to watch.” He pressed buttons on the controller until a cartoon came up on the flat screen.

     The car began to move, the driver proceeding without being told.

     Paddock turned to her. “We’ve never met, but I’ve seen you in the neighborhood with your kids. So you are . . .?”

     “Nicole Singer.”

     He extended his hand, and she shook it awkwardly. “Nicole. That’s nice. Do they call you Nikki?”

     She shrugged. Her husband was really the only one who used that pet name for her, but even then it’d been a while.

     “After we almost ran you over, I thought I recognized you, so I told Robbie to go around the block until we found you. But,” he chuckled, “what I want to know is, what you three are doing this far from home in the rain?”

     Nicole was going to brush off his question by saying it wasn’t that far and it hadn’t been raining when they started out, but Nathan seemed to have two-track hearing. “We were at Indian Boundaries.”

     “Not Boundaries, dum-dum, Boundary! Indian Boundary Park,” his sister corrected, proving she, too, was tuned in to more than the cartoon.

     “Becky . . .” Nicole let her voice rise in warning.

     “Okay, I know where that is.” Paddock ignored the name-calling discipline. “No wonder you were rushing back across Western.”

     “Yes, we probably should’ve driven. Never can tell how fast rain’ll come up in this spring weather.” Nicole grabbed her damp blouse at the corners of the shoulders and lifted it away from clinging to her like a second skin, only to realize her actions drew Paddock’s attention.

     “Mom, can we have somethin’ to drink?”

     “Honey, we’ll be home soon. You can wait.”

     Paddock chuckled again. “That’s okay, but the bar’s dry. We haven’t restocked it for a while.” He pushed a button. “Robbie, head up to Howard Street and swing by McDonald’s to get these kids something to drink.” He glanced out the back window. “There’s another McDonald’s back there a couple of blocks, but turning this thing around is like a battleship in a canal.”

     “But he”—Nicole let her eyes go wide—“he can get it through a McDonald’s drive-thru?”

     Paddock’s chuckle was becoming characteristic. “Not a chance. We’ll stop across the street, and he’ll run our order over. I usually take one of our Town Cars. Robbie has to jockey this baby around in our cul-de-sac just to get it out of Beecham.”

     “Oh, please, don’t go to any trouble on our account. The kids don’t need anything, and you can drop us at the end of the block.”

     “It’s no problem, Nikki. He was taking me home anyway.” Lincoln Paddock looked at the children. “So why aren’t a couple of bright kids like you in school today?”

     His questions seemed far too personal, but when the kids didn’t answer, she said, “We homeschool.”

     “Homeschool? That means you do your own lessons and, and . . .”

     “And we get to go on field trips,” Nathan offered, still staring at the cartoon.

     “And your field trip today was . . .?”

     “The zoo.”

     “Really? I didn’t know there was a zoo in that park.”

     “Oh, it’s not really a zoo anymore,” Nicole said hastily. “Just a few goats and chickens.” Then in case he got the idea that homeschoolers took field trips to nowhere, she added, “The kids have been studying hard, so this was more of a break than a real field trip.”

     “Yeah,” Nathan said. “So when can we go to a real zoo, Mom?”

     “Oh, you like zoos? Maybe one of these days, I could take you down to Lincoln Park Zoo, where they’ve got lots of animals. Would you kids like that?”

     “Could we, Mom? Could we?” The cartoon had lost their attention.

     Nicole’s mouth fell open. What was with this guy? “Um . . . maybe someday, when Daddy’s home.” It seemed high time she brought her husband into the conversation. Though she had to admit, there was something enchanting about this ride in the back of a limo with a handsome stranger.



Chapter 2


Greg Singer stopped the Jeep Cherokee at the curb in front of his neat bungalow on Beecham Street and turned off the engine. “Okay kids, run on in and help Mommy with lunch. I’ll be along in a minute. Just have to make one call.”

     “Oh, Greg. Not on Sunday.” Nicole rolled her head back and gave him a sideways stare as the kids piled out of the car and ran up the walk. “You promised.”

     “It’s not work.” He grinned mischievously. When she didn’t relent, he flicked his hand toward her as if sweeping her out the door. “Go on, now. I said it wasn’t business. You’ll see.”

     She sighed and stepped out, following six-year-old Nathan and eight-year-old Becky in her bright spring dress as they bounced up the walk. Greg gazed after them. Beautiful kids. Beautiful family. He was a lucky man . . . no, a blessed man, no question about that! The kids had their mother’s blonde hair, blue eyes. Becky was already becoming tall and slim like . . . well, at least like Nicole had been when they’d first met. But the long winter had bleached the glow from her skin, and she’d become—how to say it?—more “full-figured.” Had to be careful how he spoke of such things or he’d be in big trouble.

     Not that the last eleven years hadn’t affected him too. But he liked to think of himself as becoming “more solid,” more like he’d played football than ran track. The wave in his dark hair allowed him to brush it casually forward to take a half-inch off his high forehead without it looking intentional. He was an executive in a sports industry and needed to look the part—trim suits, but open collars. He knew his hazel eyes and easy smile with just a hint of dimples caught the attention of most women, but he didn’t flirt. Nicole was still the one to light his fire.

     He punched in the number for Potawatomi Watercraft on his cell phone and waited. “Ah, Roger Wilmington, just the man I wanted to speak to. Sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but this is Greg Singer from Powersports Expos. I’m the guy who got you that prime location at the Chain o’ Lakes Boat and Sport Show last February.”

     “Oh yeah, Singer. That was great. Best show in years. And they call this a recession! Can you believe that? Really appreciate what you did in positioning us.”

     “Uh . . .” Greg hesitated. Would Wilmington remember? “I’m calling about your cottage on Deep Lake. If the offer’s still good, I’m wondering when it might be available?”

     “Hmm. I’ll have to check. My secretary keeps the schedule. When were you hoping to use it?”

     “According to the weather report, the weather’s supposed to be pretty good for the next few days. I know this is short notice, but, uh, now through Wednesday would be ideal, if that’s possible.”

     “Ah, well, I know nothin’s happening this week. Sure, it’s all yours, Greg. My associate, Bob Kruger, went over there a few days ago and put the boat in. It’s a brand-new sixteen-foot Crestliner. You’ll love it. Big Merc on the back and a Minn Kota trolling motor on the front. Crappie oughta be bitin’ pretty good ’bout now too. Sure, you can have it. Listen, let me give you Bob’s address. He lives just down the road from the cottage, less than a mile. You met him at the show. I’ll give him a call, and you can drop by his place and pick up the keys. He’ll check you out on everything. Okay, man? We owe you, and I wouldn’t want you to think we don’t pay up. After all, I’m lookin’ forward to next year’s show.”

     Greg took down the information, thanked Wilmington, and ran for the house, taking the porch steps in two bounds. This oughta satisfy Nicole!

     “Hey, you haven’t started lunch yet, have you?” he called as he burst through the front door.

     Nicole appeared from the bedroom, buttoning a casual shirt as she headed for the kitchen. “How could I? I just now got out of my church clothes.”

     He followed her into the kitchen. “That’s good! Forget cookin’. Let’s go to Red Lobster.” He grabbed his wife by the waist and swung her around a little.

     “Oh Greg! We don’t have to do that. I was planning on—”

     “Come to think of it, forget Red Lobster. That’d take too long. We can catch some fast food on the way.”

     “On the way.” Nicole pushed him away and stared at him. “On the way where?”

     He’d wanted to keep the whole plan a secret until they pulled up to the cottage on Deep Lake, but he realized that’d never work. There was too much getting ready to do. They needed to pack—food, clothes, swimsuits, and beach toys—if the weather held.

     Greg grinned at Nicole, imagining the joy a little getaway would bring. “Remember what you said the other night when I got home, how I’m never around to do anything with you and the kids? Well, like the pastor said this morning: ‘This is your season. Reach out and grab it!’” That’s what he liked about Victorious Living Center, even if it meant driving thirty minutes to the ’burbs. No doom-and-gloom from Pastor Hanson. “So I heard ya, Nicole. You’ve been working too hard. We both have. We need a few days away. The pastor promised we’d receive back tenfold what we seed into the ministry. Now I don’t know if this is tenfold or not, but spring is in full bloom, and it’s supposed to be great weather for the next few days—”

     “Greg, stop! Just stop.” His wife pawed at his arm. “You’re not making any sense. Seeding . . . spring? What are you talking about?”

     “A vacation!”

     Her eyes lit up. “Really?”

     “Yes. I realized this morning that even though the indoor season for Powersports has been over for a couple of months, I haven’t taken a break. And now we’re about to begin our in-water shows, which means I’ll be totally busy until July. So now’s the time—this afternoon. I’ve got a cottage reserved for us up on Deep Lake for three days. The weather’s supposed to be beautiful.”

     A frown clouded her eyes. “But today? I don’t know, Greg. It’s so sudden. How far is Deep Lake? We’d have to pack, shop for food to take, and the kids have lessons to do. We can’t just . . .”

     “Run off?” He chuckled. “Of course we can. That’s why you homeschool them, isn’t it?”

     “Well, yeah . . . I mean, no! We homeschool because it’s best for our kids, but—”

     “What’s the matter, honey? I thought you wanted to do more things as a family.”

     “I did, but . . .” Nicole clasped her hands to the sides of her face as if to stop her head from spinning. “I do want us to be able to do more things together, but I wasn’t talking about a vacation the other night. I meant I need you more on a day-to-day basis. And to cover for me sometimes. I . . . I just need a break.” Tears were pooling in her eyes.

     “A break, that’s what a vacation is.” Greg sighed. She wasn’t reacting like he’d hoped. He’d always been more spontaneous than Nicole, but she usually came around.

     Nathan wandered into the kitchen and looked back and forth at his parents. “Mommy, what’s the matter?”

     “It’s nothin’, snookums,” Greg tousled his hair. “It’s a big secret.”

     “A secret, a secret, a secret!” Nathan began hopping around.

     “Greg, don’t get ’em all revved up.” Nicole wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “Wish you’d given me more warning. I’m not sure we can just take off like that.”

     “Why not? We haven’t done anything like this for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start now. As the pastor always says, ‘We’re blessed and highly favored. We’re the King’s kids.’ This is just one of the blessings. Of course we can take off!”

     She let out a huge sigh. “I mean, we should’ve planned this together. I can’t just drop everything at a moment’s notice. I have the whole week planned, things that can’t be put off.”

     Greg’s shoulders fell, and he looked down at Nathan. “Guess we can’t have any surprises in this family!” He knew he shouldn’t have “used” him to make his point to Nicole, but he was exasperated. He looked back at his wife. “The kids like surprises, and so might you, if you’d only—”

     A whine started deep in Nathan’s throat.

     “Ah, forget it.” The whine grew. “No, not you,” Greg told his son. “We’ll do the surprise.” He gave Nicole a glare as his youngest began bouncing again, quickly switching the whine to “Yes, yes, yes!” as Nathan scurried out of the room to tell his sister.

     Greg leaned back against a counter, arms folded. “Point is, Nicole, this is a one-time opportunity. End of February we did a show up near Grayslake, remember? I had to stay over the whole weekend, and you never like it when I do that. But that weekend Potawatomi Watercraft, one of our biggest exhibitors, paid for a Class-A space in the fairground building. We had six Class-A spots laid out, but they felt the position by the main entrance was far superior to any of the others.” He knew he was rehearsing details that wouldn’t matter to her, but he was making his case. “Head guy said if I made sure they got the entrance space, he’d give me use of the company cottage for a nice getaway. And that’s what we’re doing!”

     Nicole’s eyes narrowed. “Sounds like some kind of a bribe.”

     “Not a bribe. A perk, Nicole, a perk! Their way of saying thanks!” Why did she always put a negative spin on things? Maybe it was her time of the month or maybe she was getting back at him for dragging Nathan into their fight. He clenched his teeth and drew a deep breath. Yeah, it had become a fight. He had to dial it down if he wanted to salvage this trip. This was no time to argue over things that would probably evaporate once they both got a little rest.

     After staring at each other for a few moments, Nicole shrugged and turned away, then started to make coffee. “Why right now? Why couldn’t we talk about this, plan for it, put it on the calendar?”

     Greg sighed, intending to count to ten, but he only got to three. “’Cause I wanted it to be a surprise. Look, it’s May. Spring’s here. Weather guy said it’s gonna be nice for the next few days, maybe even up in the seventies with some sun. I thought you’d like it, thought it was what you were asking for. Look, you can get some rest, catch a few rays lounging on the dock to get some color back in your skin.”

     A grimace flitted across her face. Oops, he shouldn’t have said that. “What I mean, honey, is you deserve a break. You need a blessing. Didn’t you listen to the pastor this morning?”

     “Oh, don’t go there, Greg. That’s not fair.” Nicole shook her head and then took a deep breath and turned back to him. “Okay. Let me get this straight. You want us to pack up right now—before we’ve even had anything to eat—and head off to this Deep Lake, wherever it is, for the next few days. The lessons I have planned for the kids require a computer to—”

     “Look, they need a break too. Public schools have spring breaks, don’t they?”

     “They already had it back in April.”

     “But you didn’t take time off, did you?”

     “Well, not really, a day here and there. But . . .”

     “There you go. The kids need a spring break. And the good thing about homeschooling is, we’re flexible. We can schedule our spring break according to warmer weather.” He could see she was running out of excuses, but he had to be careful. Try to close the deal too soon and it could backfire in a swirl of hurt feelings. “Look, if you really don’t want to go, we don’t have to. I might be able to get the cottage for some other time. It’s just that it’s available now, and I’m free till Wednesday, so think about it, please?”

     Nicole threw her hands up. “Oh, I guess so. But you really don’t understand what I was talking about the other night.” She closed her eyes. “How much do we have to pack? Do we have to bring bedding and food and everything?”

     He hadn’t thought that through. He’d only envisioned taking personal clothes. “Okay. I hear you now.” He held out his hands to calm her. “The place is supposed to be fully furnished, outfitted kitchen, cable TV, boat, everything, so I’m sure they have bedding. They use it for hosting manufacturer reps and big customers. But if it’d make you more comfortable, we can bring sleeping bags just in case. As for food, Lake Villa’s real close. We can zip into town for food.”

     “Greg, that’s okay for groceries, but what about things like salt and pepper, coffee, sugar—stuff I could bring from home so we wouldn’t have to spend the—”

     “Maybe it’s already there.”

     She rolled her eyes.

     Greg knew he needed to compromise. “All right. What if we all calm down and go to Red Lobster for now. Then we’ll come home and pack—on the minimal side—and head up there first thing tomorrow morning?”

     Relief flooded over Nicole’s face, and Greg knew they had a plan.

* * * *

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