After Clay's preamble, Keeley crossed the threshold into Dolly's Manor half expecting there to be people swinging from ceilings and lots of loud, rambunctious talking or screaming. She was surprised when the only person in the small, but open kitchen was a plump woman with graying hair, standing at the sink washing vegetables, and quietly singing.
Clay ignored the woman for the time being and instead opened a door on their immediate left. Keeley followed him into a powder-blue room with a wrought-iron bed and an antique armoire in the corner. He put their bags on the bed. "Bathroom's through there," Clayp pointed to a door on the other side of the room. He smiled. "Make yourself at home Keels." He wheeled back toward the kitchen and she heard him yell in his loud, tenor voice "Mom!"
Keeley took a deep breath and put on her biggest smile, hoping she didn't look as nervous as she felt and stepped out of the bedroom, directly into the kitchen. Clay was already scrounging through the fridge, while he answered trivial questions the woman was throwing at him. Such a guy, Keeley thought to herself. The woman who'd been standing at the sink, Mrs. Whitlow, she presumed, had a pair of ear buds hanging around her neck and was wiping her hands on a towel. The similarities between Clay and his mother were striking: the same chestnut brown hair, the same green eyes that held a hint of a twinkle, and a prominent but attractive jawbone.
Mrs. Whitlow's face lit up when she saw Keeley standing quietly behind her. She stopped mid-sentence and rushed over towards her. "Hi dear," she said in a sincere lilting voice, leaning in for a hug. "You must be Keeley. Oh, I've heard so much about you!"
Over his mother's shoulder Keeley cocked an eyebrow towards Clay questioningly. "Maaaaa," he said flushing around his ears and closing the fridge, "you haven't heard that much."
Mrs. Whitlow pulled away and just winked at Keeley in response, and Keeley decided she liked her. "I'm Sue, Keeley," she said, holding Keeley at arms length and looking at her, finally nodding and faintly smiling after a moment.
Clay cleared his throat. "The son you haven't seen in two months is still standing here too, you know." He crossed his arms in mock exasperation, but Keeley noticed the twinkle in his eyes.
Sue laughed and then rushed to hug her youngest son. “How was the drive?”
"Informative," Clay answered with a chuckle as he eyed the half full coffee pot on the counter. “I schooled Keeley in all things Whitlow on the way here.” He wheeled over to the counters and opened a few cabinets, all of which held a random assortment of various pots, pans, utensils, and cups. So that’s where he got his organizational habits from.
As he rummaged in the cabinets Keeley noticed a flash of annoyance cross his face. In a second though it was gone and he turned to Keeley with a smile, "Keels, mind handing me one of those coffee cups up there on the top shelf?" He pointed to a shelf the height of the fridge.
Keeley grabbed one for each of them. "Sorry, sweetheart," Sue said as she grabbed the remaining cups and threw them haphazardly in a cabinet underneath the sink. “Your dad says the shelves are almost done.”
"Those shelves?" He pointed at some dusty pieces of wood laying in the corner of the kitchen. His mom nodded sheepishly.
Clay shrugged. Keeley wondered how long those shelves had been "almost done".
"Where is Dad?" Clay changed the subject as he poured a couple cups of black coffee. He handed one to Keeley. She smiled in thanks and took a sip, relishing the feeling of it move down her throat.
His mom nodded towards the picture window. “The dock.” Clay nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “So,” Sue started. “Your father said you got the Jones’ account?”
He grinned and immediately launched into a story about how he’d acquired the large account, the highlights of which Keeley had already heard. While Clay and his mom caught up, she looked around the room, truly taking it in for the first time. The kitchen they were standing in opened up into a large, airy room with a set of stairs, a couch, some seats, and an entertainment center on the left. The right side of the room held a oak dining set. The entire exterior wall was made up of windows and from where she stood, Keeley could see the lake sparkling in front of them, the water gently rippling in the wind. Cozy and comfortable, yet , just Clay’s own
That is, until she noticed the small set of stairs that seemed like they were the only way to reach the living/dining area.
While she looked, she heard Clay’s mom mention Sara and Tuck, but she couldn’t pay attention; her mind was preoccupied with other thoughts. She thought back to the lower-level shelves laying in the corner of the kitchen. Then she thought of the stairs leading to the rest of the house and the absence of a ramp. She tried to listen to the conversation, but she couldn’t. All she could think about were the frustrated looks she’d seen on Clay’s face earlier and how hard this part of coming home must be.
Around lunchtime Mr. Whitlow came in from the dock and greeted Keeley every bit as warmly as his wife. Keeley and Clay spent the rest of the morning hanging around the house with his parents.
"You know Keeley, you and I have actually talked before," Phillip Whitlow mentioned slyly as they finished up lunch.
She cocked her head to the side in question. He nodded, a familiar looking twinkle in his eyes.
"Be nice," Sue laughed as if she knew what was coming next. She stood up and collected the trash from lunch. She patted her husband on the shoulder as she walked by and he smiled in response; the affection and love between the two obvious.
Clay's father turned back to Keeley, still grinning. "Yes," he drew the word out. "You owe me a coffee date, if my memory serves me correctly."
Keeley felt her cheeks flush and she groaned, remembering the first time she'd called Clay at work, nervous and unaware that the number he'd given her hadn't been his personal line. As it turned out, Whitlow & Sons shared a phone line. "Not my finest hour.” .
"Nor mine," Phillip Whitlow added with a grin. "I regret to inform you that his brothers and I unashamedly gave Clay here grief about that for weeks."
"Yes. Yes, you did," Clay scoffed. Keeley wondered what sort of teasing he'd endured. She wondered what sort of teasing she'd unknowingly endured too. The Whitlow's all probably thought she was an idiot. Great.
"Actually, it's too bad you didn't say yes to that coffee date, Dad," Clay joked. His dad chuckled and got up from the table, mentioning something about going back down to the dock. After he left, Keeley crossed her arms, waiting.
"What?" Clay asked, a mischievous smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "Now I'm stuck with you."
Keeley raised an eyebrow. "Stuck with me, huh?"
Clay nodded seriously.
"Oh, it's realllllllly been that tough, huh?"
He started to shrug, but then he grinned and winked. He wheeled closer and pulled her down onto his lap. "It's incredibly tough being stuck with you rather than on you most of the time," he whispered in sultry voice in her ear.
"Clay! Your mother is right outside," she laughed and swatted his arm.
Clay shrugged, still grinning. Keeley twisted around on his lap so that she could see him better. His dark green eyes bore into her with an intensity that belied the cheeky grin on his face. He suggestively raised his eyebrows as he pulled her closer. She could feel his breath on her neck and she felt herself growing warm. "You know," she started, suddenly breathless, "Actually--"
"--Oh, Jesus. Get a fucking room."
Keeley lept off of Clay's lap as if it were on fire.
Clay smiled wryly and shook his head. "And she means that in both senses of the term."
Keeley wished the floor would open up and swallow her. Or that lightning would strike. Or maybe the owner of that voice (that she hadn’t dared looked at yet) was really just in her head. But, it wasn’t. Instead, it belonged to a smartly dressed, female version of Clay, standing in front of the of them with her arms crossed and a smirk on her face. The girl didn’t say anything else, she simply walked past a beet-red faced Keeley and Clay and tromped loudly up the stairs to the other bedrooms.
"Well, that's my sister Laura," Clay explained with an uncomfortable laugh.
Keeley just smiled tightly.. He chuckled lightly. "Exactly." He tried to pull her back down to his lap.
"No way." As much as she wanted to sit and wrap her legs around the back his chair and run her hands all over his chest, she didn’t want a repeat of what had just occurred. Clay’s sister would probably think she was a nymphomaniac or something. "That is the first and last time I get caught in a compromising situation with you in front of your family this weekend."
Clay Whitlow laughed heartily. True to form.
Not half a second later, the front door burst open and in came running two identical redheaded six-year old boys. One immediately jumped on Clay's back piggyback style, loudly demanding a ride. The other ran straight to the bathroom off of the kitchen and dropped his pants, not bothering to close the door in his urgency.
Keeley laughed and quickly closed the door. As soon as she had though, the door opened again and the little boy popped out. Now relieved, he went over and jumped into Clay's lap. She watched from her spot by the bathroom as Clay -- one kid on his back and one in his lap -- spun around in donut circles and popped up into wheelies. All three were laughing and squealing and Clay seemed to be having just as much fun as the little ones.
Her heart melted.
"All right," a booming and deep voice from outside yelled. "Leave your Uncle Clay alone and take your bags upstairs boys!"
His nephews looked crestfallen as he stopped spinning. Clay smiled sadly along with them and shrugged. "Dad's the boss, guys. Got to listen to him."
They slowly lumbered back out the front door, presumably to collect their bags. "Mark and Cara's kids," Clay explained as Keeley watched. "Alex and Noah. They're twins.”
“I can see that,” As if she couldn’t have figured that out on her own. She hoped Clay’s sister-in-law wasn’t one of those crazy women who dressed her children in matching outfits.
He flashed Keeley a cheeky grin. “But don’t worry, the probability of another set of Whitlow twins is about the same as me getting up and walking up those stairs."
The casual reference to kids made her heart skip a beat. Was Clay envisioning a future with her? They’d hadn’t even been dating a year yet. For Pete’s sake, she hadn’t even been legally divorced for a year yet--even though she’d been separated from Brent for about two. Was she ready to go down that road again just yet?
“Whoa!” she cried, quickly jumping out of the way as the twins came barreling back inside, this time carrying small duffel bags (which, she realized, were probably small weapons in the hands of hyper six-year old boys). As the rest of Clay’s immediate family also started to file in, she realized, a little despondently, that as much as she wanted to, she didn’t have time to dwell on those questions right now.
As the serene and peaceful ambiance of the lake house shifted to a energetic and upbeat one, and a cacophony of voices filled the kitchen, each trying to be louder than the other, Keeley realized what Clay had meant when he’d told her to prepare for a “whirlwind weekend with the Whitlows.” It was so different than what she was used to. Compared to her own small family, Clay’s was almost overwhelming. And it was a far cry from any sort of family gathering she’d been to with her ex-husband. Where the Whitlow’s were loud, jovial, and seemed to genuinely be glad they were together, the Heatherton’s had seemingly loathed one anothers existence. And hers. But, that feeling had been mutual, so she tried not to hold it against them now.
All at once, as Clay began to introduce her and everyone greeted her warmly and enthusiastically, she realized though, that if Clay were beginning to envision a future with her, it might not be such a bad thing after all.