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Authors: Susan Mallery

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

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BOOK: A Dad for Billie
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Jane dropped her gaze to the hardwood floor. “I suppose with Billie as proof, I’d be silly to deny that.” But her memories blurred about that night and the others like it. She’d been so young—too young. And too much in love. “I would have given him my soul. He was more interested in a hostess.”

Charlene shook her head. “You’re remembering him with the eyes of a child. Perhaps Adam had offered you
his
soul and you didn’t notice.”

“I loved him. I would have noticed.”

Charlene watched her closely. The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth had been formed by smiles rather than displeasure. Heavy makeup and the brightly colored hair couldn’t disguise her softhearted nature. “Tell me about Billie.”

Jane chuckled. “I’d like to tell you I’ve done a fine job with her, but I can’t take the credit. Billie is…Billie.”

“Her father’s daughter?”

“Sometimes,” she admitted, remembering the first time her child had looked at her with Adam’s defiant gaze. The pain had been unexpected but she welcomed the connection with the man she had once loved. “I see him in her eyes.” She moved to the bed and resumed her seat. “But Billie is so full of life and Adam—he’s not
anything
. It’s as if I’m an old acquaintance who has shown up for a weekend visit.”

“What did you expect?”

Jane glanced down at Charlene’s hands clasped in her lap. A few more age spots marred the pale skin, some wrinkles bunched at the knuckles, but other than that, these were the hands she remembered from her youth. The shiny rings glittered, the bracelets tinkled and rattled.

“I thought he’d hate me,” she said at last, voicing the fear that had dogged her since leaving the West Coast.

“For nine years? Everyone has to let go sometime. Change. You did. Perhaps he did as well.”

“He never married.”

“That’s true.” Charlene glanced at her. “But he has been involved with several women. Adam is many things, but not a saint. Or a martyr. He didn’t wait for you, Jane. That I am sure of.”

“I know.”

The lie sat heavily on her tongue. Logically, she
knew
he hadn’t, but there had been a tiny piece inside her heart, the spot where dreams hid. Every year Charlene had sent a letter in her Christmas card to Jane’s mother. Every year there had been no mention of Adam marrying. It didn’t mean anything, she told herself, even as she dared to wonder if it did.

“You’ll want me to keep quiet for now?” Charlene asked, smoothing a hand over her hair.

“I just need a little time.”

“Don’t take too long. He’ll figure it out on his own, and if he doesn’t, someone from town will. Better for him and Billie if he hears it from you.”

Jane again fought the guilt that filled her with empty sadness. “There’s a lot at stake. I could lose Billie.”

“Never that.” The older woman smiled. “She’ll always be your daughter. And there’s so much you could gain. Adam—”

“Mo-om, I’m shriveling up in here,” Billie called from the bathroom.

“I’m coming.” She picked up the nightgown and walked into the bathroom. “All clean?”

“I’m a prune.”

Billie stepped out of the tub and into the fluffy towel Jane held for her. She wrapped the terry cloth around her child’s body and began to rub. The scent of soap and freshly cleaned little girl tickled her nose.

“I love you, honey,” she said, giving her a squeeze.

Billie eyed her suspiciously. “I heard you talking to someone. You aren’t planning anything awful, are you? Not like those singing lessons?”

“No singing lessons,” she promised.

“Good. Then I love you, too.”

“Little girls shouldn’t barter their affection. May I come in?” Charlene hovered outside the door.

“Sure.” Billie brushed her bangs out of her eyes. “I wasn’t bartering, I was checking. She always wants me to do girl stuff. Yuk.”

“Perhaps because you are a girl,” Charlene said.

“It’s not my fault.” Jane handed Billie the nightgown. She pulled it over her head and wiggled until it dropped past her knees. “Look at this. There’s a kitten on it!” She pointed at the offending appliqué. “I’ve told her a thousand times I want pajamas.”

“This was a gift from your grandmother,” Jane said, reaching for a comb.

“Let me.” Charlene took the comb and settled on the lid of the toilet. After positioning Billie between her knees, she began to tame her short cut. “I am so looking forward to you discovering boys.”

“Why?” Billie sounded suspicious.

Jane turned away to hide her grin.

“One day you’ll look up and the boy you thought was a terrific—” She glanced at Jane.

“Catcher,” she supplied helpfully.

“Catcher…will be a charming, handsome young man.”

“Not to me.” Billie cocked her head. “You’re not married. Mom told me.”

“I am not like most women. I prefer my men—”

“Charlene,” Jane warned.

“I was just going to say that I prefer them appreciative.”

“I don’t understand,” Billie said. She yawned and rubbed her eyes.

“You will,” Charlene said. “One day.” She leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “I’m so pleased you’re here. Both of you.”

“We can still be friends, even if you don’t know much about baseball.” Billie wrapped her arms around Charlene’s neck. Jane saw her friend hug her back.

“Thank you,” Charlene whispered, her voice hoarse with emotion. “Now, off to sleep.”

Jane settled her daughter in the big bed, handed her her worn teddy bear and plugged in the night-light she’d carted clear across the country. She and Charlene kissed her, then moved quietly into the hall.

“She’s darling,” Charlene said as Jane closed the door. “And you look as tired as she did. It’s late. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Jane thanked her, walked to her door and pushed it open.

“Jane?”

“Yes?”

“I will keep quiet about—” she motioned toward Billie’s room “—everything. At least until you figure out the real reason you came back.”

Chapter Three

“H
i. You’re up. I thought I’d be the only one. Mom’s still in the shower. What’s for breakfast?”

Adam bent the corner of his paper and stared at Billie as she bounced around the kitchen. Today’s outfit was an exact duplicate of yesterday’s except her T-shirt and shorts hadn’t had time to get dirty. Yet. The red baseball cap covered most of her hair, the bill had been tugged down to her brows. A softball bulged from the oversize pocket of her denim shorts.

“You wanna play catch later? Mom says we have errands in town. Shopping, that kind of stuff. Oh, and to see about glass for the window. Did I tell you I was sorry about that?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“I am. Really.” She stopped in front of the table. “Whatcha reading?”

“The paper.”

“Did the Giants win?”

“Who?”

“The San Francisco Giants. They’re my favorite team.”

He set down the financial section and flipped through until he found the sports page. “Here.”

Billie sat next to him at the bleached oak table. “Thanks.” She peered at his cup. “Do I get coffee?”

“No.”

“Toast?”

He pushed his plate toward her and picked up the paper.

“Milk?”

“It’s in the refrigerator.” He scanned the columns until he found the article he’d been reading. Lack of sleep made his eyes burn. The house had been still. Jane and Billie’s rooms were far enough away that he couldn’t hear them, but he’d known they were there. Despite reading the most boring financial newsletter he could find, despite the shot of Scotch and the cold shower close to midnight, he’d been awake until dawn. That was the hell of it. He could force his mind to forget, but his body was less willing to cooperate.

There was a dragging noise behind him. He tried to ignore it. It was the “whoops” followed by mad scrambling and “I got it, don’t worry” that caused him to look up.

Billie stood on top of a stool. One foot rested on the seat, the other on the counter. A glass balanced precariously in her grasp.

“What the—What are you doing?”

“Getting a glass. Mom told me not to bother you. She said we have to be quiet and stay out of the way.” She climbed down. “I’m pretty sure I can stay out of the way, but the quiet part is gonna be tough.”

“No kidding.” He gave up and tossed the paper onto the table. “What do you normally eat for breakfast?”

She grinned. “Donuts?” she asked hopefully.

“Not a chance. How about cereal?”

“What kind you got?”

He opened the cupboard and scanned the contents. All the boxes contained sensible multigrain products. He glanced at Billie. “Somehow I don’t think you’ll approve of the selection.”

“Then toast is fine.”

She picked up a slice and nibbled on the corner. Her mouth twisted into a grimace as she tasted the marmalade.

He chuckled out loud, surprising her and himself. “I’ll make you fresh. There’s peanut butter in the fridge. Or honey.”

“Great.” She crossed to the fridge.

“Oh, and grab that bowl of fruit salad and the milk. Are we hitting all the major food groups here?”

“All of ’em except donuts.”

“That isn’t a major food group.”

“Okay, a minor food group. But it’s still my favorite.”

Billie held the bowl of fruit and the milk in her arms, then bent over and reached for the peanut butter. Milk sloshed onto the floor and three grapes slipped from the bowl to land in the puddle. She straightened, the peanut butter jar clutched in her free hand, then used her hip to shut the door. He waited, but she remained oblivious to the mess on the floor.

They assembled breakfast together. Billie spread a thick layer of peanut butter on her toast, then looked around. “You got any bananas?”

“I think so. Why?”

“To put on the bread. It’s yummy.”

His stomach lurched. “I’ll pass. You go ahead.”

She handed him the fruit to cut, then she mashed the slices onto the flattened toast. While he poured the milk, she dished out two bowls of fruit. They each got a serving, as did the table. Only a couple of chunks hit the floor. He stepped around them and resumed his seat.

“Good, huh?” A milk moustache outlined the top of her mouth. Crumbs stuck to the peanut butter on her cheek.

Ignoring her engaging grin would require a man stronger than himself. “Yeah, it’s good.” He folded the newspaper and set it on the extra chair.

They chatted through their meal. Billie discussed the school she’d left behind and her friends. Although she must miss them, her outgoing nature would make it easy to settle in.

“There’s a couple of softball leagues in town,” he said. “Perhaps I could have a word with the coaches and see if there’s any room for another player.”

The last bit of her toast fell back to the plate untasted. Big
brown eyes got bigger. “You’d do that? For me? After I broke your window?”

Adam cleared his throat. “It’s no trouble. Besides, I have a lot more glass to worry about. If you’re off playing on a team, I’ll rest easier.”

“You’re the best.”

She flew out of her seat and around the table, then flung herself against him. Thin arms, small but surprisingly strong, tightened around his neck. She smelled of soap and milk and peanut butter. The kiss on his cheek was sticky and wet, but he didn’t pull back. Little girls and their dreams were out of the realm of his expertise but there was something about Billie that would be easy to get used to.

“I promise I’ll never break a window again,” she said.

“That’s some promise.”

She giggled. “Okay. I’ll
try
never to break a window again.”

“Better.” He laughed.

“You’re up early.”

Adam stiffened at the sound of a new voice and glanced up. Jane hesitated in the doorway to the kitchen. Her eyes flickered from Billie, still standing next to him, to the table and back.

“We had breakfast together,” her daughter said. “Adam helped. And he’s going to see if I can play softball this summer. Isn’t that cool? I’m gonna go tell Charlene.” She turned to run out the back door. With her hand on the knob, she paused. “Is this the way?”

“Her house is down the path about two minutes. There’s only one. You can’t miss it,” he said.

“Bye. Oh, morning, Mom.” The door slammed shut behind her.

“All that energy first thing in the morning.” Jane offered a tentative smile. “I’ll just grab a cup of coffee, then leave you in peace.”

“There’s no need to rush off on my account.” Even to his own ears, the words sounded stiff. He wanted her out of his sight—out of his life—as soon as possible, but he’d be damned if he’d allow her to figure that out. “Help yourself to breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry.” Jane walked over to the coffeepot and poured herself a cup. “You’ve made a friend for life.”

The sundress she wore fit tightly across her back, then flared out to fall in soft folds just at her knees. The bright magenta fabric added a glow to the light tan on her shoulders and arms. Once again, her hair had been pulled back in a thick braid. The slightly damp rope gleamed in the light.

He hated the way his fingers curled, as if to encircle the braid. His gaze drifted down past the curve of her calves to bare feet with painted toenails. With a suddenness that surprised him, his mind filled with a picture from another time, so long ago. She’d been getting ready for a date with him. He’d dropped by unexpectedly and had caught her in the middle of her preparations. Fat pink curlers had covered her head. A ratty shirt, stolen from her father’s closet, concealed her body to mid-thigh. She sat on the floor, her long legs bent, a tissue woven between her toes. Even now he could inhale the acrid scent of nail polish, see the tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated, hear the shriek when she’d looked up and seen him watching her.

Her blush had climbed clear to her hairline, then dipped to the cleavage showing in the V of the white shirt. She tried to run from him, but he caught her easily. His body heated at the memory. Her protest had died amid roving hands and joined mouths. Later that night she’d been beautiful. A woman. But what he remembered was the teenager in curlers, shy but eager, trying desperately to please. He’d wanted more, he’d realized that day. Had wanted it all. So that had been the night he’d made his decision. It had changed everything.

BOOK: A Dad for Billie
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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