Treat me, p.11
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       Treat Me, p.11

         Part #8 of One Night with Sole Regret series by Olivia Cunning
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  “The backstage experience?” Jacob had thought he was the only one with such privileges.

  Amanda grinned at him. “You’ll see.” She opened her purse to grab her wallet, which sent Jacob scrambling for his cash supply.

  “I got this,” he said. “My treat.”

  “You don’t have to pay,” the cashier said. “God knows you do enough for this place.”

  “We insist,” Amanda said. “And we’ll also buy three bags of sheep pellets.”

  Sheep pellets? Jacob paid their admission and purchased three little brown bags that were stapled shut.

  “What is this?” Julie said as one of the bags was passed to her.

  “Don’t you want to feed the goats and sheep?” Amanda asked.

  Julie worried her lips together. “Do they bite?”

  The cashier leaned close to her. “They don’t bite, but watch out for the big brown goat. He’s a greedy one who will try to steal your entire bag.”

  Julie nodded in understanding and cradled her sack of feed against her chest.

  “I’ll let Margie know you’re around,” the cashier said to Amanda.

  “Thanks, Frances.”

  Jacob followed his two ladies across the hollow-sounding wooden floor, out onto a porch, and down a set of dusty steps to an uneven path. He glanced around, looking for signs directing them to the exhibits, or at least to a wide cement path that would be easy on sandaled feet.

  “Chickens!” Julie cried, approaching the free-roaming birds that didn’t look like any chicken Jacob had ever seen.

  The dark-gray-and-white-speckled birds fluttered away from her, releasing a chorus of raucous chirping that made Jacob wince. The noisy creatures were definitely not chickens.

  Amanda chuckled and squatted next to Julie, rubbing the center of her back soothingly. “Those are guinea fowl,” she said. “You’ll have to stand still and watch them quietly, or they’ll run away.”

  “Can I pet one?” Julie looked up at her aunt, and Jacob was struck by the resemblance between the two.

  Julie’s eyes and nose resembled her mother’s, and he hadn’t ever noticed that Amanda had the same nose. Amanda’s eyes were a different color—hazel rather than blue—but the shape of them was definitely a Lange family trait. His attraction to her was inevitable, it seemed. While Tina had the personality of a cactus, outwardly she was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever laid eyes on. He’d always liked Amanda for her personality, but he couldn’t deny that she had the physical looks he admired most. So why had he fallen for Tina first? It was an unfortunate fact that he’d probably never understand. But if he hadn’t married Tina, he wouldn’t have Julie, and he’d face any hardship to have his little girl in his life. Even put up with her mother.

  “Guinea fowl don’t like to be touched,” Amanda said, “but watch what they’re doing while they walk. They eat all sorts of bugs. Even ticks and wasps.”

  The small flock of birds marched across the grass side by side, devouring any living creature stirred up by their scaly feet.

  “And butterflies?” Julie asked.

  “Sometimes. If you keep these birds in your orchard or vegetable garden, they’ll keep all the pest insects away.”

  “Better than bug spray,” Jacob said, knowing this kind of nature stuff inspired Amanda.

  She smiled up at him, the sunshine catching golden highlights in her hair. “Exactly.”

  “What’s an orch herd?” Julie asked.

  “Where they grow lots of trees,” Jacob said. “Like apples and oranges and stuff.”

  Julie looked to Amanda, who nodded her agreement.

  Did Julie think he was an idiot or something? Her mother certainly made that opinion of him well known. Jacob scowled, pulled a pair of sunglasses from the low collar of his tank top, and shoved them onto his face.

  “Want to see a lemur?” Amanda asked.

  “Like on Madagascar?” Julie asked.

  “Exactly.”

  Jacob was underwhelmed by the first exhibit. A lemur sat on a platform just above eye level, his long striped tail dangling several feet behind him. He watched them with enormous yellow eyes as he used human-like hands to grab fruit from a bowl and bring it to his mouth. His cage was clean, but barely the size of a small closet. One side was draped with a blue tarp, presumably for shade.

  “Up, Daddy!” Julie said, lifting her arms to him. “I can’t see his face.”

  Jacob lifted her onto his shoulders, and she reached out to grab the wire cage as she peered inside.

  “He has fingers,” Julie said.

  “All primates do,” Amanda said. “And where most animals have sharp claws, primates have flat fingernails.”

  Julie shifted against Jacob’s neck as she looked down at Amanda. “Can I put some nail polish on them?”

  Amanda chuckled. “I don’t think he’d hold still long enough.”

  This was why Jacob had wanted to bring Amanda along today. One of the reasons. She was so smart. She knew things about animals and stuff. Julie could learn new things from her, where Jacob mostly felt like an escort on such excursions. And he’d never tell Amanda, but he liked learning science-type things from her as much as Julie did. He’d been terrible at school, not because he hadn’t wanted to learn, but because he got absolutely nothing from books. As far as he was concerned, books were only good as paperweights. And even when he’d paid attention in class and understood everything the teacher explained, when it came to tests, he hadn’t bothered trying. He couldn’t make heads or tails out of them. So he’d focused on the only thing he was good at: singing. He was so glad that Julie was smart like her aunt and hadn’t inherited the brick her father had for a brain.

  “Why is his cage so small?” Jacob asked.

  “Most of the exhibits are small here,” Amanda said. “This is a rescue zoo. So you’ll find animals that other zoos didn’t want or couldn’t keep, injured animals that need to be isolated, exotic animals that someone had thought would make a good pet but couldn’t keep, and retired service animals.”

  Jacob scowled. “Like dogs?”

  “Monkeys,” Amanda said. “Every animal here has a story.” She pointed to a little sign on the cage that explained the lemur’s origins and how he’d come to the zoo. Beneath it was a collection box. Amanda read the sign to Julie—and Jacob, not that he was willing to admit that.

  “Just because he didn’t get along with other lemurs doesn’t mean he should be kept in such a small cage,” Jacob said, staring intently into the creature’s intelligent eyes as it nibbled on an orange wedge.

  “They do the best they can here,” Amanda said. “All the funding comes from paid admissions and donations. They don’t get any financial assistance from the government. That’s why I volunteer.”

  Jacob reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He took out a twenty-dollar bill and stuffed it into the slot of the lemur’s collection box.

  “What are you doing, Daddy?” Julie asked.

  “Giving this lemur some money.”

  “Can I give him some money too?” she asked.

  Jacob pulled Julie from her perch on his shoulders and handed her another bill. She stuffed it into the collection box and smiled up at him with pride. Jacob stroked her silky hair and kissed her on the forehead. “It’s nice to give when you can.”

  Which reminded him of something Owen had said the day before. He fleetingly wondered if Owen’s plans to dump Lindsey on his mom had worked out.

  They continued around the zoo. Amanda shared interesting facts about all the animals. Julie insisted on shoving a twenty into every collection box. Feeling a bit light in the wallet but full in the heart, Jacob wandered the small zoo, having to stop every so often to dig sharp stones out of his sandals.

  The tortoise exhibit had low walls, and Amanda said it was okay for Julie to touch the hard shell of a roaming creature when it got close.

  “Why is there so many turtles here?” Julie asked.


  “These are tortoises,” Amanda said. “Turtles live in water.”

  “Why do they have so many tortoises?” Jacob asked. There were over a dozen of them crawling about in their dusty pens, and he was pretty sure others were hiding out in the central shelter and thus weren’t visible.

  “Tortoises live a long time—some of these are over fifty years old. So when they’re bred in captivity, it doesn’t take long to have a surplus population, and when other zoos run out of room, they send them here.”

  “This turtle is as old as Grandma?” Julie said, looking up at Amanda with wide eyes. “I mean, is this tortoise as old as Grandma?”

  Amanda laughed and touched her hair. “This tortoise is even older than Grandma.”

  While Julie reached over the wall, trying to get a hand on the mossy green back of the land tortoise, Jacob took the opportunity to move in close to Amanda. He was enjoying her company so much. It didn’t seem fair that he couldn’t openly display his affection.

  When she turned to look at him, he couldn’t resist stealing a kiss. Her hand moved to his shoulder and instead of pushing him away as he’d anticipated, she drew him closer.

  “Daddy, I can’t reach him,” Julie said with a grunt of exertion.

  Amanda pulled away, but not before Julie spied their unusually close proximity.

  “What are you doing?” Julie asked, her slim blond eyebrows drawn together.

  “Amanda . . . uh . . .” Jacob racked his brain for a plausible explanation. Amanda is utterly delicious didn’t seem like a good enough reason.

  “I had something in my eye,” Amanda said, rubbing at one lid with the back of her hand.

  Jacob was glad the woman was brilliant. “And I was helping her get it out.”

  Julie pursed her lips and shifted them to one side. Jacob didn’t know if she’d actually seen them kissing or had just seen them standing inappropriately close.

  “Can I pet the tortoise again?” she asked.

  Jacob scooped her up airplane style and made zooming noises as he shifted her over the wall. She giggled, both arms extended, and managed to skim a hand along the tortoise’s back.

  “Is it okay to do this?” Jacob asked Amanda as an afterthought.

  Amanda nodded. “Just don’t drop her in there. Tortoises like to nibble on little girl toes.”

  Making gobbling noises, Amanda grabbed the tips of Julie’s tennis shoes. Julie squealed, “He’s getting me, Daddy!”

  Jacob scooped her up against his chest and squeezed. “I’ve got you. I won’t ever let anything hurt you.”

  They watched a mischievous trio of bear cubs climb and tumble around their large enclosure, and Julie completely emptied Jacob’s wallet into the collection box for an aged black panther with a lame leg.

  “She’s very compassionate,” Amanda said as they sat on a bench and watched Julie talk to the pacing cat, telling him everything was going to be all right.

  “I think she gets that from you,” Jacob said, sneaking an arm around her back and stroking the bare skin of her shoulder with his fingertips.

  “From me? How would she get that from me?” She inched closer to him on the bench until their knees touched.

  “What do they call it, nature or nurture?”

  Amanda lifted a questioning eyebrow at him.

  “She’s around you a lot,” Jacob continued. “It’s only natural that she’s picked up some of your characteristics. She’s shaped by more than her genes.”

  Amanda smiled. “You don’t think she gets her compassion from her mother?”

  They shared a hearty laugh over that idea.

  “What’s funny?” Julie asked, wriggling her slight form into the nonexistent space between them.

  “Nothing important,” Amanda said. “Are you getting tired?”

  Julie shook her head. “Can we ride the train now?”

  “Don’t you want to feed the goats first?” From the diaper bag Amanda had been hauling around for over an hour, she pulled the three sacks of animal food they’d purchased at the main entrance.

  “Yes!”

  Julie was very careful to make sure each goat in the fenced corral got exactly one pellet. She giggled as their lips wiggled over her palm to collect her offering. Jacob watched closely, wondering if goats carried rabies. They sure didn’t smell very clean.

  A big brown goat butted his way between his fellows and stole another goat’s pellet from Julie’s outstretched hand.

  “No!” Julie shouted, waving a chastising finger at the crazed-looking animal. “That’s not yours.”

  Brown-goat didn’t look the least bit ashamed, and Jacob had to admit the animal’s oblong pupils weirded him out. Did they all have bizarre eyes like that? Or just the crazy, rabid ones?

  “What is it with their eyes?” Jacob asked Amanda.

  She opened her mouth to answer but was cut off by Julie’s piercing scream.

  Jacob’s heart slammed against his breast bone, and expecting to find his little girl with fewer fingers, he couldn’t help but laugh at what had her so upset.

  Brown-goat, having identified Julie’s stash, had gone straight for the bag in her hand, biting into the brown paper and tearing off a chunk. The animal seemed satisfied with his meal until he swallowed and went back for a second bite.

  “No!” Julie screamed. “You’re a stupid, stupid idiot!”

  “Julie!” Amanda admonished. “That’s a terrible thing to say. You should never call anyone stupid or an idiot.”

  Amanda went still and her head jerked, turning her stunned face in Jacob’s direction. She grimaced, her brows crumpled with sympathy. What the fuck? Why was she looking at him all apologetic-like?

  “My mom does it,” Julie snapped, throwing the remnants of her bag into the pen.

  She crossed her arms over her narrow chest, stuck out her lower lip, and stomped off toward a mesquite tree in the center of the clearing surrounded by the petting barn’s fences and the reptile shed. Brown-goat snatched up the bag and scattered the remaining tan pellets in all directions.

  “Sorry,” Amanda called to Jacob’s back as he went after Julie.

  Why was she sorry? Because she’d shouted? Because she’d upset Julie? Or was it because she thought stupid was his trigger word? Yes, Tina called him stupid on a regular basis, but Amanda didn’t have the same opinion of him, did she?

  Jacob squatted beside Julie and watched her kick at a tree root.

  “Are you mad?” he asked.

  “Yes,” she grumbled.

  “What about?”

  “That stu—” She glanced at her Aunt Mander and adjusted her word choice. “That greedy goat taked all the food.” Her eyes welled with tears. “Now the nice goats don’t get any.”

  And wasn’t that the way of the world? But that wasn’t something he wanted her to simply accept. “Do you want to feed the nice goats my bag of food?” he asked, holding his full bag of pellets out to her.

  “But the stupid—I mean, that brown goat—will just take it all again.”

  Jacob couldn’t resist stroking her soft hair. “I have a plan to outsmart that brown goat.”

  Julie perked up, and it warmed his heart that she didn’t even question his ability to outsmart a goat. “What is it?” she whispered, obviously not wanting Brown-goat to overhear his plan.

  “We’ll dump the pellets into our hands, and Aunt Mander can take the empty bag over there.” He pointed to the far end of the corral. “And make Brown-goat think she has all the food.”

  Julie scrunched up her face and giggled into her tiny hands. “That’s a good trick, Daddy.”

  Surprisingly, his trick worked. Brown-goat was so accustomed to being fed out of a paper bag that he was distracted by the bait long enough for Julie to make sure all the nice goats had several pellets each.

  “Thank you, Daddy!” Julie said, hugging him as tightly as she could. “You saved the day.”

  Smiling, he squeezed her back. He wished she would stay this size fore
ver. She’d eventually become a teenager and his ability to outsmart goats wouldn’t seem quite as heroic to her.

 
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