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Authors: Susan Mallery

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

A Dad for Billie (4 page)

BOOK: A Dad for Billie
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“Adam, I got through to the moving company. They won’t be able—” Jane walked into the kitchen. Her gaze moved past him to the gaudily dressed woman next to her daughter. “Charlene?”

“Jane!”

His aunt stood up and held open her arms. Jane flew into her embrace. “Charlene, I’ve missed you so much.”

“It’s your own fault for leaving, child.” The tears in her eyes and the catch in her voice took away the sting of the words.

Adam stood awkwardly on the fringe of the reunion. Charlene and Jane had always been close; of course they’d be happy to see each other. It didn’t matter to
him
. He didn’t feel anything, not even regret.

“Have you met Billie?” Jane brushed her cheeks.

“I have met your daughter. There’s a lot of her father in her, isn’t there?”

Jane stiffened slightly. “Some,” she said cautiously.

Adam wondered if that meant she didn’t like her ex-husband. Stupid question, he told himself. If she still liked the guy, they’d be together. Unless he’d left her. He wanted to ask what had
happened, why she was alone. But he couldn’t. Questions like that might make her think he was interested.

“Charlene told me she was raised by wolves,” Billie announced.

Jane stared at her friend. “You didn’t.”

“It’s the truth. As God is my witness.”

Jane looked over her shoulder at Adam and rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe she’s still using that old line. You’d think after all this time she could be more creative.”

Adam was tempted to smile back at her, to share the memory. His control instinct wouldn’t let him. They had nothing left to share. Her grin quivered, then faded altogether. She turned back, hunching her shoulders against an invisible weight.

“What did the furniture company have to say?” he asked.

“The truck broke down in Nevada and won’t be here until Monday.”

“Monday,” Charlene said. “You mean you’re in that big house next door without a stick of furniture?”

“We brought a few things with us,” Jane said.

“Not beds. Not food.” Billie swiveled on her stool. “Can we stay in a hotel with cable this time, Mom? I hate these channels with nothing good on. Do you know that in one place they didn’t have the sports channel?”

“You’re not going to a hotel,” Charlene said. “There are plenty of extra rooms right here.”

Adam glared at his aunt. “I’m sure they’d be more comfortable in a place of their own.”

“He’s right. We wouldn’t want to impose.” Jane spoke without facing him.

“Why?” Billie asked. “I like Adam and he likes us. Charlene can teach me to play poker.”

“Poker?” Jane stared at Charlene who was suddenly interested in slipping her bracelets back on. “Charlene, you can’t teach a child—”

“I never said that. It was Adam. He’s always accusing me of things that aren’t true. I might be a little unconventional—”

“A little,” Adam growled. “The town eccentric is more like it.”

“That’s not fair. Orchard is a backwater town. It’s not my fault if I’ve had more experiences than the average local citizen.”

“Experiences? Is that what you call it when you get on the CB and invite truckers to stop by and sample your—”

“Adam!” Charlene stood and straightened to her full height. She was barely over five feet. He wasn’t the least bit intimidated. “There are children present.”

“Just me,” Billie said.

“Why don’t you wait on the lawn?” Jane handed her daughter the softball.

“But I wanna listen. You
always
send me out when it gets good.”

“When you’re a grown-up, you can send your children from the room. It’s one of the privileges of adulthood. Now scoot.”

Billie pulled on her cap, then left the room. Her footsteps dragged audibly on the bare wood floor.

“I’m leaving,” she yelled from the foyer. “I’ll be outside. Alone. In the dark.”

“Have fun,” Jane called. “And stay away from the windows.”

“Don’t tell me,” Charlene said.

“Yup. We’re here five minutes and she’s already broken one.”

“Definitely takes after her father.” Charlene smiled.

“What does that mean?” Jane asked quickly.

She put her arm around Jane’s shoulders. “Only that you never broke windows when you were a girl. You were always too much of a lady.”

Jane opened her mouth, as if she was going to protest, then shook her head. “I give up. It’s late, we drove almost five hundred miles today. I adore you.” She kissed Charlene’s cheek. “But I can’t make heads or tails of anything right now. Do not, under any circumstances, teach my daughter to play poker. Adam.” She gave him a weary smile. “Thanks for the use of your phone. I’ll get you the money for the window and the—” she glanced at Charlene “—the other thing tomorrow.”

The overhead light cast shadows on her face and darkened the rings under her eyes. Lines of fatigue deepened the hollows of her cheeks. A few strands of hair had escaped from the braid. One wisp drifted near the corner of her mouth. He fought the
urge to brush it away, to reach out and feel the silky smoothness of her skin. The anger was well under control, but the want—He’d always known it was the most dangerous emotion.

“I insist you stay here,” Charlene said. “And Adam agrees with me.”

Jane was looking at him. The need to punish her—hurt her as he had been hurt—boiled up inside. His silence would be telling enough. She would know he didn’t want her here. But he wouldn’t risk letting her think she still mattered. Better to let her stay.

“That’s what neighbors do here,” he said. “You’ll have a whole wing to yourselves.”

“I don’t want to impose.” Two bright spots of color stained her cheeks.

“No imposition.” Even to his own ears his voice sounded strained. “Sally comes in five days a week. She always keeps the guest rooms ready.”

“But—”

“No buts.” Charlene linked her arm through Jane’s. “It’s all arranged. Let’s go get that darling daughter of yours and collect your suitcases. I see you’ve kept your hair long. I like it. Maybe we can go to the salon together and you can get a trim. I hate to criticize, dear, but Billie’s hair is quite atrocious. You might want to have a little talk with her about the merits of acting like a lady…”

Their voices faded as they walked toward the front door. Adam forced himself to relax. Jane and Billie would only be here for a couple of nights. It was a big house; they could easily avoid each other. And if they didn’t—

He shrugged.
He
didn’t have a problem with Jane Southwick now or ever. Nine years ago she’d shown him the truth about relationships in general and theirs in particular. Loving someone meant being left. He’d learned his lesson well. He’d offered his heart to a young woman once and she’d returned it broken and bleeding. That part of him was safely locked away, and no ghost from the past was going to find the key.

*

“You haven’t told him, have you?”

Jane glanced around the cheerful guest room, but there was
nowhere to hide. She finished putting out Billie’s nightgown, then checked to make sure the door to the bathroom was tightly closed. The sounds of her daughter’s off-key singing and the splashing of water against the side of the tub continued uninterrupted. All the activity was supposed to give her time to compose herself. It wasn’t working.

“You know,” Jane said, glancing up at her friend.

“How could I not?” Charlene stepped over to the bed and sat on the corner. “The eyes, her personality, the way she stands. A blind man could see it.”

The hard lump in her stomach doubled in size. Jane felt herself grow pale.

“I meant that as an expression, dear,” the older woman said hastily. “Nothing more.”

“Good. Because Adam—”

“Men don’t look for things like that.” Charlene took her hand and tugged, forcing Jane to sit on the bedspread, next to her. “Start from the beginning.”

Jane folded her hands in her lap. “I’ve made a mess of everything.”

“That sounds the tiniest bit exaggerated.”

“I left here nine years ago, had Adam’s baby and never told him.” She paused and drew in a breath. “Now I’m back and I’ve brought home his child. What would you call it?”

“Fine Southern drama.” Charlene’s blue eyes glittered with suppressed laughter. She sobered quickly. “Sorry, dear. I understand your concern, but you are back, and you’re going to tell him about Billie, and everything will be fine.”

Jane twisted her fingers together. “I’m not going to tell him.”

“What?”

“I mean, I am, but not just yet.”

The lump grew again, pressing against her ribs and making it difficult to breathe. Dear God, she prayed, then paused. What to ask for? Forgiveness? She could use a strong dose of that. Common sense? That went without saying. Show me the right thing for my daughter, she thought. But would God listen? Would anyone? After what she’d done?

No one had told her guilt tasted so empty. That the hollowness would linger on her tongue, as though the emptiness was too much for her heart to bear, and the excess would seep out into her body, stealing joy and promise.

Charlene touched her arm. “Then why are you here if not to tell Adam about his daughter?”

“I am. I will. I thought—” She squeezed her eyes shut, but that didn’t block out the past. “I thought it would be so easy. I’d show up, tell Adam I was sorry and he’d forgive me. Then I’d introduce Billie and we’d live as neighbors. Like a TV sitcom.” She paused, feeling overwhelmed. “I’ve been a fool. It’s not going to be like that. It can’t be. I should never have come.”

“If your furniture is being delivered Monday, then it’s a little late for second thoughts.”

Despite herself, Jane smiled. “Always practical. And this from a woman who still claims to be raised by wolves.”

Charlene straightened. “I
was
raised by wolves.”

“You got lost in the woods for a day. The family dog was with you. That’s hardly being raised by wolves.”

A smile twitched at one corner of Charlene’s mouth. “Dogs are related to wolves. And you’re avoiding the real issue.”

“I know.”

Jane rose and walked to the window of the guest room. The sultry night air drifted past the curtains, carried lazily by a sleepy breeze. Familiar fragrances brought back memories. Jasmine for evenings, flower blossoms for day. The scents clung to her skin, a sticky residue from the humidity. So different from the life she had built, yet so right.

“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished,” she said, leaning on the window frame. “It was tough at first, financially, I mean. Billie was a good baby, but any infant is expensive.”

The evening noises began, the screeching and chirps sounding like an orchestra being tuned.

“I couldn’t go back to college until Billie started school three years ago,” she continued. “But I never gave up the dream of teaching. I got my credential a couple of months ago. My parents offered me their house here, then I got the job at Orchard Junior High. It seemed like a sign. And a chance.”

“To let Billie meet her father?”

Jane touched the lace curtains. Behind her, Charlene waited silently.

“Yes,” she admitted at last. “It’s what Billie wants more than anything. A father. But I hadn’t counted on what it would be like coming here, seeing him, the house, knowing that I’d never escape. I owe her, I owe them both. And all I want to do is turn around and run back to San Francisco.”

“What does this have to do with telling or not telling Adam?”

She released the curtain and turned to face the older woman. “I don’t want to compound my mistakes. If I tell him and he’s not interested in being a father, she’ll be hurt worse than before.”

Charlene frowned. “You can’t hide the truth forever. This is Orchard, dear. Small Southern towns are notoriously bad at keeping secrets.”

“I know, and I’ll tell him. In my own time. But first, I want to know he wants her. I want to be sure that he won’t punish
her
for the mistakes I’ve made.”

“We don’t always have the luxury of time.”

“I know. I’m so afraid.”

“Because you’ve kept him from his daughter for eight years?”

The dart hit home. She crossed her arms over her chest. “I didn’t feel like I had any other choice at the time.”

“You could have come home. Adam would have taken care of you.”

“I didn’t want that. I’d always been the quiet one, the obedient child.” She tucked her hands in her pocket. “Adam was always ready to guide me. To tell me what was right for me, whether I wanted the information or not. I was afraid of him—of us.” She shrugged. “I ran. Foolishly. And when I couldn’t run anymore, I stopped. Only to find out I was pregnant.”

“You could have come back then.”

Jane remembered the cool fog of her first San Francisco morning. It had taken her almost a month to make her way across the country. As her stomach had churned with the lingering effects of nausea, and the tears left cold trails down her cheeks, she’d imagined going home. She’d humiliated Adam in the most devastating
way possible, but if she told him about the baby, he would have taken her back.

For several hours, she’d stood staring out at the ocean. Her fear of going home, of giving up like her mother, had been greater than her fear of going forward. She’d left Orchard to prove to herself she had the strength to make it on her own. Returning at the first sign of trouble would have meant losing forever.

“My pride wouldn’t let me come back,” she said.

“Pride makes a cold bedfellow.”

So Charlene wasn’t going to accept the half truth. “I wasn’t sure I mattered to him,” she said softly, confessing the most painful secret of all. “I didn’t want to be an obligation.”

“He loved you.”

“Did he?” She stared over her friend’s head at a landscape hanging above the bed. The warm colors—the reds and yellows of the flowers, the mossy green of the trees—blended perfectly with the wallpaper. “Or did he know I’d be easily trained? A perfect banker’s wife. Quiet, malleable, well mannered. Sometimes I thought he had a list that he checked whenever he met a woman. I was the most suitable.”

“It wasn’t that way.” The older woman frowned. “You make him sound unfeeling. Adam is a passionate man.”

BOOK: A Dad for Billie
10.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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