Cry Uncle(6)

By: Judith Arnold

He spread his legs, rested his elbows on his knees and tapped his fingertips together. “I guess you’re wondering why I called you all here tonight,” he joked, then flashed her a smile that, for all its edginess, she found comforting. If nothing else, they had their anxiety in common.

The least she could do was help him out by contributing to the conversation. “Kitty told me you need to get married,” she said.

He shrugged modestly. “That about sums it up.”

“Forgive me...Joe?” she half asked.

He smacked himself in the forehead, evidently disgusted by his lack of manners. “Jonas Brenner,” he said, prying her fingers from their death-grip around the stem of the wineglass and giving her a friendly handshake. “Everyone calls me Joe. And you’re Pamela. Kitty didn’t mention your last name.”

“Hayes,” she said. “Pamela Hayes.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

She smiled faintly. She couldn’t quite say she was pleased to meet him, not yet. She wished he were a little less disheveled, a little more genteel. She wished circumstances hadn’t driven her to the opposite end of the continent, as far from her home as it was possible to be without leaving the country.

Wishes weren’t going to get her anywhere, though, so she accepted his firm grip as he shook her hand, and consoled herself with the thought that at least his fingernails were clean. As soon as he released her, she took another long sip of wine.

He leaned back in his chair, scrutinizing her. She felt exposed, like a job applicant unprepared for an interview and doing everything wrong.

“Well,” he said, then fell silent as a squadron of thundering motorcycles cruised down the street nearby, riders hooting and mufflers roaring. When the night air grew relatively tranquil once more, he began again. “The deal is, I have this niece.”

She nodded.

“I’ve had custody of her for three years,” he explained. “When I first got her, I thought it was just going to be for a few months, but when Lawton and Joyce—that’s my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law and sister—”

Pamela stopped nodding and held up her hand. “Your brother-in-law’s brother-in-law?”

Joe smiled apologetically. “Okay,” he drawled, as if speaking more slowly would clarify everything. “See, Lizard—that’s my niece—”


“Elizabeth. But she likes to be called Lizard.”

“Lizard,” Pamela echoed quietly. If marrying Joe had seemed like an absurd idea before, it seemed even more absurd now. How on earth could she take a man who had a niece named Lizard seriously?

“Yeah. Now, Lizard’s parents—that would be my sister and brother-in-law—died.”

“Oh—I’m sorry.”

He disguised his sorrow behind a shrug that didn’t hide much. His uncanny blue eyes grew momentarily dark, the summer-sky irises obscured by storm clouds. Then the moment passed. “Well, anyway. That was three years ago. Lawton and Joyce said they’d take Lizard, which made sense. They were married, they were rich, they could afford nannies and all that crap. Only problem was, they were involved in setting up some sort of development deal in Singapore. So they asked me if I could keep Lizard for just a couple of months until they wrapped things up overseas. And I said sure. But then a couple of months turned into a couple of years. Three years, to be exact. I suppose those Singapore development deals can get complicated.”

So could stories about orphaned children named Lizard, Pamela thought, although she refrained from saying so. She only nodded again.

“Anyway, about a month ago, I got this letter from Joyce saying they were finally done doing their thing in Singapore, and they were returning to California, and they intended to take Lizard. But by now Lizard and I have been together a long time. We’ve grown pretty close.”

“How old was she when you got her?”


Pamela didn’t know much about babies. She was an only child, so she’d never had the opportunity to observe younger siblings, or nieces and nephews. Even so, it seemed to her that the years between two and five must be significant in a child’s development.

“I taught her the alphabet,” said Joe. “I potty-trained her. I nursed her through the chicken pox. And frankly, I’m not in much of a mood to hand her over to a couple of stuck-up financiers who haven’t even seen her in three years.”

“I don’t blame you.”

“So, I went to Mary DiNardi—that’s my lawyer—and asked how I could go about getting permanent custody of Lizard. And Mary said, ‘Joe, look at you. You’re thirty years old, you run a bar, you’re single and you don’t even shave regularly.’” He shot Pamela a sheepish grin. “Meanwhile, Lawton and Joyce have a ten-room house in Hillsborough and millions of bucks stashed in the bank. The fact that I potty-trained Lizard doesn’t count for much with family-court judges. My lawyer said I have to start living like a clean-cut good little boy. Specifically, she told me to marry a decent lady.” Another flash of a smile, this one curiously seductive. “You wouldn’t happen to be decent, would you?”

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