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Authors: Susan Mallery

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

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BOOK: A Dad for Billie
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“Why?”

With a flick of his wrist, he sent the ball toward her. “There’s a screen of bushes and trees between you and my windows.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t usually—”

“Billie.”

The woman’s call came from the house next door. Adam stiffened. That voice. It couldn’t be. He glanced at Billie.

“Moms.” She shrugged. “They always know when you’re having fun. Over here,” she yelled. “Next door.”

“Billie, there you are. We need to go into town and use the phone.”

He turned slowly. The woman came around the hedge and stopped dead when she saw him. Her gaze darted between him and the child. Twilight had fallen upon the steamy South Carolina day, turning bright sky dark, softening the light. Sweat beaded on his brow and coated his back, but she looked as fresh and inviting as a Carolina sunrise. A loose flowing skirt and pale blouse hid all but the general outline of her body. Hair, true brown without a hint of red, had been pulled away from her face into a braid. Her bangs hung low, almost to her lashes.

From this distance he couldn’t see her eyes, but he knew the color—hazel. Brown and green and gold. Wide and slightly tipped at the corners. He glanced back at Billie, still holding the softball. A band squeezed his chest, making it tough to breathe.

“Hello, Adam,” the woman said quietly, slowly moving past the hedge and onto the lawn. “I see you’ve met my daughter.”

Her daughter? The band tightened. He dropped his gaze to her left hand. No ring. So she’d married and divorced. He wasn’t surprised.

Billie frowned at her. “How’d you know his name?”

“I grew up in this house, honey. I told you that.”

Billie looked at him. “You lived next door to my mom?”

He couldn’t speak. Slowly his gaze was drawn back to the woman. A longing swept over him. Hard and powerful, it crashed through his body, the need like an undertow pulling him down. But on its heels burned a rage so hot, the longing evaporated into mist and blew away. His hands tightened into fists at his sides. How dare she come back?

The depth of feeling startled him. He forced himself to take a
deep breath, then release it slowly. It had been over for years, he reminded himself. His body relaxed; the fists uncurled. He felt nothing. That had been his choice then; it still was.

Emotions flickered across Adam’s face. They passed so quickly, Jane didn’t have time to label them. No doubt he was as stunned as she. Despite her expectations—
she
had known she was moving back to Orchard—this wasn’t the meeting she’d planned.

“Hello, Jane.”

How calmly he spoke, she thought, wondering if he could hear the pounding of her heart. His momentary loss of control had been squashed; she stared at the handsome but unreadable face of Orchard, South Carolina’s leading citizen. Adam Barrington, bank president, favored son and brother.

He hadn’t changed much. Still a hair over six feet, still lean yet strong, still sophisticated. Even in twill shorts and a T-shirt, he looked like an ad for a men’s magazine. The caption would read something along the lines of “The Executive at Home.” But in this picture there was no happy family. She’d asked. He hadn’t married.

He continued to look at her, seeing she could only guess what. But she couldn’t read
him
. Was he angry? He had every right to be. Her mind screamed at her to turn and run back to the safety of her house. It would only be a temporary solution; they were neighbors. The truth would come out eventually. Small Southern towns were notoriously bad at keeping secrets. For now she was safe. If he’d known, if he’d suspected—even Adam Barrington wouldn’t have been able to stay that controlled.

On the long drive from San Francisco to South Carolina via southern Texas, she’d had many opportunities to plan the right thing to say when they met for the first time in years. Perhaps a casual conversation at the bank when she opened her account or an accidental meeting picking up the Saturday morning papers on fresh-cut green lawns. In every scenario, she’d imagined herself as detached, distant but friendly and well-groomed. Hot, wrinkled and frazzled didn’t fit the picture at all!

“It’s been a long time,” she said, forcing herself to smile and walk those last few feet until she stood directly in front of him.
She thought about offering her hand, but that seemed too strange. And as for a welcoming hug—he didn’t look all that welcoming.

“How many years?” he asked.

“Nine,” she said immediately, then cursed herself for her rapid response. He would probably think she’d counted the days. That she’d missed him and regretted her impulsiveness. She had, dammit, but he didn’t need to know.

“So you guys were friends?” Billie asked, her head moving back and forth as she watched them intently. “Like you played baseball together?”

Jane forced herself to look away from Adam’s mesmerizing gaze. Those brown eyes had always had a power over her, she thought as she brushed her damp palms against her skirt. Tall oak trees shielded them from the main road and the curious stares of neighbors. Word of her return had already begun to spread. At least no one would witness this awkward reunion.

“We dated,” she admitted.

Billie paused, then continued to toss the ball in the air and catch it. “Oh.” Her disappointment was obvious. At eight, her daughter had yet to find boys interesting for anything other than beating in sports.

“Briefly,” Adam added.

He called two years brief?

“What happened?” Billie asked.

“Your mother went away.”

Again the words were spoken with no emotion. He was telling a story that didn’t matter to him anymore. If it ever had. The abridged version of life with Jane and Adam. Short, sweet, and while missing the point completely, it did convey the basic facts if not the mood of the whole event. A finality. It had been over for a long time.

“You’re moving back?” he asked.

“That’s the plan.” She smiled brightly, not daring to meet his eyes. God knows what he would read there. The pocket on his T-shirt became fascinating. “My parents have settled down in Galveston, and the tenants living in the house here decided not to renew their lease. I, ah, there was a job opening at the junior high, so here we are.”

“You’re a teacher?”

“English!” Billie made a gagging noise. “The worst. You should see the books she’s always trying to get me to read.”

“You only like stories with blood and killing. That’s not literature or even suited for children. There are lots of classics that—” She stopped and shrugged. “It’s an old argument.”

“Who’s winning?” Adam asked.

Jane smiled at her daughter and pulled on the bill of her cap. “She is, but I’m determined to hang in there.”

“You never told me you wanted to be a teacher.”

She searched his face. The familiar lines, high cheekbones, strong, square jaw, hadn’t changed much. He’d been a man when she’d left. He would find differences in her though: the last time he’d seen her, she’d only been a girl. Legally a woman, but at heart, emotionally, still very young. Time had changed her, both inside and out.

“I did. Several times. You didn’t listen.”

The lines of the jaw she’d been admiring tightened with her words. Fire flashed in his brown eyes. A wavy lock of hair fell over his forehead, the only wayward thing about him. “I listened. You were the one who—”

He stopped and looked at Billie. Her daughter stood openmouthed.

“Who what?” Billie asked.

He shook his head, withdrawing from the heated conversation. “It doesn’t matter. The repairmen have been fixing up the house for weeks. I’m sure you’ll be pleased with their work.”

Who what? Jane asked silently, repeating her daughter’s question. Left? She’d admit to that. Left badly? Ditto. To understand why, he might do well to look to himself.

“Everything looks terrific,” she said. Billie tossed her the softball. She caught it, then threw it back. “The upstairs bathrooms have been remodeled.”

“That was a couple of years ago,” he said.

Part of her marveled at the surface calm of their conversation. She wanted him to say something, do something, not just stand there like a polite acquaintance. He would have gone on with his life, might even have forgiven her, but forgotten—no way. Neither
of them had. So he would pretend it didn’t matter, and she would pretend not to feel guilty. A fair exchange, she thought. Except for one small eight-year-old problem.

“It’s been great to see you, Adam,” she said, ready to make her escape. “Billie and I have to get to town. It’s late and the furniture company swore they’d be delivering today. If they’re not, we have to make other arrangements.”

He glanced at his watch. “The office will be closed.”

“The headquarters are on the West Coast. They’ll still be open.”

“Uhh, Mom?” Billie stared at the ground and shuffled her feet. That didn’t signal good news.

“What have you lost, forgotten or broken now?”

“A window.”

Jane thought about the small amount of money they had to last them the summer. She wouldn’t start teaching until September and her first paycheck wasn’t due until almost the end of that month. Please, God, let the window be a small one, she thought as she turned to face her house. Maybe they could board it up for a few months. If it was on the side that faced Adam’s yard, all the better.

“Where?”

“There.”

But Billie wasn’t pointing in their yard. Instead her small tanned arm thrust up toward the front of Adam’s house.

“No,” Jane said. “Not—”

“Yup. I was playing ball and it got away from me.”

She glanced at Adam. He was studying her with that damned inscrutable expression of his. “All those times I ignored my mother when she told me to act like a lady are being paid back in spades. Sorry.”

“No harm done,” he said. “Except for the glass, of course.”

“Of course.” Was he making a joke? The great Adam Barrington risking humor? That wasn’t fair, she reminded herself. He’d always been witty and charming. She’d been the one out of her element.

“It’s over here.” Billie walked ahead of them, past the front
porch and stepped close to the bed of flowers in front of the freshly painted white mansion.

“Don’t step on the…roses,” she called as her daughter planted a tennis shoe squarely on a peach-colored blossom.

“Tell me those aren’t still Charlene’s favorites,” she murmured half to herself.

“They are.” Adam kept pace with her, stopping at her side when they reached the scene of the crime.

“See,” Billie said, almost proudly. “It would have been a perfect pitch.”

“Yeah. All that’s missing is the batter, the catcher, a few other players and the umpire.” Jane glanced up at Adam. He looked down at her. If she hadn’t been so tired and out of sorts, she might have thought there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, that the straight line didn’t look quite as straight as it had a minute ago.

“It’s just this one pane.” Billie jumped up and pointed. Her landing crushed the rest of the rosebush. “Ow. It scratched me.”

“Self-defense on the part of the plant. Let me see.” Jane bent down and brushed the skin. “You’ll live.”

“I’m bleeding,” Billie said with a whine in her voice.

“One drop. You won’t miss it. Besides, you killed that rose.”

Billie stepped onto the grass and stared at the squashed bush. “Oh. Sorry.” She grabbed a stem, careful to hold it between thorns, and tried to straighten the broken plant. The stalk drooped to the ground. Crushed petals littered the soil. “It’s a goner.”

Jane rose and looked at Adam. “I mean this in the nicest possible way, but tell me that Charlene is dead. Because if she isn’t, I’m about to be.”

This time he did smile. The slow curve revealed perfect white teeth. Her heart fluttered madly against her ribs. She’d forgotten about his smile and how it made her feel that swooning was a lost art form.

“Charlene is alive and well,” he said, his eyes crinkling in the corners. “She’ll be out for blood when she finds out about this. You know how she feels about her roses.”

“There’s already been blood.” Billie marched up to them and pointed at her leg. “You guys are adults. I’m a kid. You’re supposed
to get worried when kids bleed. And what about infection? You’re always making me wash my hands.”

A single drop rolled down and stained her sock.

“All right, let’s deal with the medical emergency.” Adam crouched down and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. He moistened the corner and blotted the tiny puncture. “It’s stopped bleeding. You should be able to keep the leg.”

“Good.” Billie held on to his shoulder for balance. “It’s going to be hard enough making the major leagues as a girl. With only one leg, I’d never have a chance.” She glanced at the sky. “It’s getting dark, Mom. Where are we spending the night?”

“In town. Come on, honey, I’ve got to go call the furniture company. Adam, I—”

His smile had faded and in its place was the distant coolness of a stranger. For a minute or two he’d forgotten, as she had. It had been like the old days, before she’d left town. Before she’d done the unforgivable.

She would apologize. Not now. It was too soon and she didn’t want an audience, not even her daughter. Later, perhaps after he’d had time to digest the fact that they were going to be neighbors. In his present mood he’d deny there was anything to discuss, maybe even refuse to listen to her. If only he’d admit he felt something. Anger, hurt, regret. She’d carried her burden of guilt around for so long, she felt weary and overwhelmed by the weight. Even if he hated her, it would be a start.

“I’ll get you the money for the window and the rosebush. My purse is in the house. I really do have to make that phone call. May I bring it by tomorrow?”

“Use mine,” he said, staring at something over her head. He’d stuffed his hands into his pockets, as if to keep her from seeing the tight fists. But the outline of his knuckles pressed against the twill material of his shorts. Below, the muscles of his tanned thighs bulged against the skin. He still jogged; she could tell from the lean, powerful silhouette of his legs.

“Your what?”

BOOK: A Dad for Billie
8.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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