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Authors: Susan Mallery

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

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BOOK: A Dad for Billie
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“Stupid.” She picked up the brush and began vigorously stroking.

“You’re gonna pull it all out,” Billie said as she walked into the room.

“What?”

“Your hair. You’re brushing too hard. Are you mad at me?”

“No, honey.” Jane set the brush on the bed and held open her arms. “Come here.” Her daughter stepped into her embrace and they hugged. “I’m not angry at all.”

Billie had managed to stay reasonably clean, despite a quick trip to the berry patch. Jane held her at arm’s length and studied her. The peach-and-cream floral print sundress brought out the tan on her face and arms. Her hair showed signs of recent contact with a comb. Brown eyes, so much like Adam’s that it hurt to look at them, glared back mutinously.

“I’m not wearing that hat,” Billie said. “And you can’t make me.”

“Your grandmother went to a lot of trouble to find one that matched that dress.”

“I know, but it’s dumb looking.” Billie planted her hands on her hips. “I don’t think God cares if I wear a dress to church or not.”

“We dress nicely to show respect,” Jane answered, trying not to smile at the familiar argument.

“Maybe.” Her daughter brushed her bangs out of her face. “But I
know
he doesn’t need me to wear a hat.” She wrinkled her nose. “It’s got ribbons and flowers. People will laugh at me.”

“You’d look very pretty.”

Billie opened her mouth wide and made a gagging noise, showing exactly what she thought of looking pretty.

Jane sighed. Compromise. It was the first rule of parenting. “You don’t have to wear the hat.”

“Whew. Thanks, Mom.” Billie spun in a circle. The hem of her dress flared out exposing the denim shorts she wore underneath. “I’ll even leave my softball at home.”

“Thank you.” Her gaze drifted past her daughter’s bare legs down to sneaker-clad feet. “But you have to change your shoes.”

“I’m not wearing those patent leather things. Yuk.”

“Sandals are fine.”

“Okay.” Billie dashed from the room.

Jane picked up the brush. She’d given up trying to get Billie not to run in the house. As long as nothing terribly expensive was in danger of being broken, it wasn’t worth the fight. Besides, the kid had way too much energy.

She smiled fondly as she remembered her own childhood. Being a tomboy had never been a question, let alone a problem. No, she had been a typical girl. Dolls and books, quiet games with two or three friends and little time outdoors. She hadn’t even learned to swim until she was almost twelve.

Her fingers nimbly worked with her hair as her eyes drifted half-closed and she remembered the muggy heat of that summer, when the temperature alone had driven her to the local swimming hole. The big kids—the teenagers—had taken over one side, but the rest belonged to everyone else. Jane had stayed in the shallow part, dangling her feet while she sat on a fallen log. The combination of sun and friends and laughter had wooed her into relaxing. Then she’d seen him.

Goose bumps erupted on her skin as she remembered looking up and seeing a boy—a young man really—poised at the top of a platform one of the fathers had constructed. With the sun in her eyes, she hadn’t been able to see his face, but she’d watched him dive cleanly into the water, barely making any splash at all. He’d surfaced close to where she sat.

When he’d gotten out, water streaming off his developed and tanned body, and laughed, she’d found herself giggling with him. Their eyes had met. Adam, she’d thought with some surprise. The boy who lived next door. But he wasn’t a boy anymore. He’d shaken himself then, spraying her with water, and had invited her to jump off the platform with him.

She refused. She couldn’t swim. Instead of mocking her like the other boys had, he’d held out his hand and led her to a quiet cove. He’d taught her to swim that summer, Jane remembered, finishing the braid and clipping a silk rose at the bottom. Slowly,
patiently. He’d been a football player in the fall, a swimmer in the spring at high school. He’d been to the state championships once. A jock. Nothing like her. At eighteen, he’d been a prize catch in a small town like Orchard. She smoothed down her dress and allowed herself a bittersweet smile. He would have been a prize catch anywhere. And despite the other teenage girls ready and willing to spend their days with him, he’d taken the time to teach his twelve-year-old neighbor to swim.

A scholar, an athlete and a gentleman. Her heart never had a chance. He was her first crush. It had been as inevitable as the coastal tide. Her desires had been unfocused, just vague longings that had made her heart beat faster whenever she saw him. It wasn’t until high school that she’d recognized the feelings for what they were. Love had quickly followed.

And she’d thrown it all away.

Jane rose from the bed and walked to the doorway of the guest room. The thick carpet muffled her footsteps. It seemed another lifetime ago that she’d been engaged to Adam. They were both so different now. Coming home had been—stupid.

“I just want you to know that I
hate
these,” Billie said, joining her in the hall. She flexed one foot and glared at her sandals. “When I’m grown up, I’m never going to wear a dress again.”

The shaft of pain caught her unaware and ripped through her heart. Billie was, if nothing else, her father’s daughter. Adam had rebelled at dressing up. He’d been active in sports. He’d been—

She drew in a breath. He’d been the one she’d left standing at the altar. Oh, why on earth had she thought returning to Orchard would be a good idea? And if that wasn’t bad enough, why had she insisted on pushing him to reveal his feelings about her walking out on him? It accomplished nothing except to bring those awful memories to the surface. If being in the same room with him before had been difficult, now it would be impossible. She’d have to think of an excuse to leave or move or—

“Jane! Billie! It’s time to go. What are you two doing up there?” Charlene’s voice sailed up the stairs.

“We’re coming,” Billie called down. “You ready, Mom?”

“Sure,” she said, trying not to clench her teeth. If she was uncomfortable now, it was her own fault. Bearding the lion in
his own den had been foolish. Maybe Adam would chicken out. Maybe he’d stay home from church. Maybe—

Maybe it was her fate to be punished for the rest of her days. She took Billie’s hand and together they descended the stairs. Waiting at the foot stood Charlene in one of her bright voluminous dresses, and Adam. His dark suit emphasized the lean strength of his body. Damp dark brown hair gleamed. The slight waves had been tamed with water and a brush, but soon one or two locks would tumble over his forehead.

She felt heat climb her cheeks and prayed he wouldn’t notice. He didn’t. He wasn’t looking at her, but at some spot over her head and to the left.

“Are you ready?” he asked quietly. Nothing in his voice hinted at the conversation they’d had not two hours before. Only the slightly clenched fists and the stern set of his mouth showed that emotions lurked below the calm facade.

“My tummy hurts,” Billie said.

Jane glanced down at her and raised one eyebrow.

The little girl rubbed the top of her right foot against the calf of her left leg. “Okay. It doesn’t.”

“Billie isn’t too fond of church,” she explained to Charlene, careful to avoid looking at Adam again.

“I don’t mind it too much, but they make you sit still so long.” Billie drew in a deep breath and let it go in a sigh. “I like God and everything. The songs are okay. But there’s always some old lady telling me to sit still.”

“Charm school,” Charlene said, taking Billie’s other hand, and ushering her toward the front door.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Jane said. “She’s awfully young.”

“This is Orchard, dear. We strive to turn girls into ladies, at any age.”

“What’s charm school?” Billie asked suspiciously.

“You don’t want to know,” her mother told her, keeping step with them. Adam brought up the rear.

As they walked outside, toward the dark sedan parked in front, she tried not to think about him. It was only for one more night.
Her furniture would be arriving sometime tomorrow. If she worked at it, she’d never have to see him again.

Yeah, right, she thought as he held the rear door of the car open. What about her plans for an eventual father-daughter reunion? She still owed them both. Before Jane could make her move, Billie had ducked inside the car, with Charlene quickly on her heels.

“You sit in front,” the older woman told her.

Jane swallowed uncomfortably. Adam closed the rear door and opened the front. She murmured her thanks as she slipped in past him. The scent of his body—soap, shaving cream, and some essence of male—taunted her. She wanted to breathe deeply and savor the fragrance. It made her think of sultry Southern nights and velvet-on-silk passion.

The door slamming shut with a bang caused her to jump slightly. In the back seat, Charlene and Billie chatted. Charlene spoke glowingly about charm school, but Jane could tell that her daughter was becoming more and more disenchanted by the second.

“Do I have to?” she asked, leaning over the front seat. “I don’t want to learn how to drink tea and dance. And I already know how to walk.”

“Not like a lady,” Charlene said. “You’ll like it.”

“I won’t!”

Adam slid into his seat. She half expected him to take part in the conversation, but he just started the car and shifted into gear.

“Mo-om!”

Jane drew in a deep breath. “Billie, you don’t have to go to charm school if you don’t want to. Charlene, she
is
only eight.”

“It’s never too early to learn how to be a lady.”

“I’m going to be a pitcher.”

Jane bit back a smile and tried to relax in her seat. The conversation between Billie and Charlene continued as they debated the merits of their positions. She didn’t glance to her left, but she was aware of him sitting so close. Except for asking if she were ready, he hadn’t said a word. Not that any of this was his fault. It had all been a big mistake and she only had herself to blame.

The drive to church took about six minutes. As they pulled
into the parking lot, Jane tensed and waited for the rush of memories to envelop her.

“Did you used to go to this church?” Billie asked.

“Yes, until I—” She cleared her throat.

“Moved away,” Adam offered helpfully. She knew she was the only one to hear the sarcasm in his voice. She didn’t dare look at him.

“That’s right,” she said softly. “Until I moved away.”

A large crowd mingled on the edge of the lawn. One woman glanced at Adam’s car as he parked it. She did a double take and nudged her neighbor. Jane couldn’t hear what was being said but she watched as the news rippled through the group. The prodigal daughter had returned.

Oh, no! She’d never given a moment’s thought to what it would look like if she arrived at church with Adam and Charlene. And Billie. What would people think? Say? She was doing it again! Acting without thinking and leaving Adam to deal with the consequences.

Darting a quick glance to her left, she waited for him to comment on the interest they’d generated. Instead he opened the car door and stepped out. She fumbled with the handle, anxious to exit before he made his way around to help her. Nervous fingers slipped. He reached her door. When it opened, he held out his hand. Politeness demanded that she accept the gracious gesture. Her fingers brushed his palm. Sparks flew in all directions, landing on her skin and midsection, creating a warmth that threatened to make her tremble. His touch had always affected her. The flash of familiar electricity comforted as it excited. Was there still something between them?

She slowly raised her gaze, past the dark suit jacket, past the white shirt and faintly patterned blue tie. Past the squared jaw and straight lips to his eyes. The anger there, deadly and barely controlled, made her drop her hand and turn away.

While she struggled with her composure, several people came over and said hello. Some of the faces looked familiar, some did not. But they all stared. A few of the people she knew glanced from her to Adam, then back. The speculative look in their eyes
made her blush. The rumors would sprout faster than kudzu. This had all the earmarks of turning out to be a crummy day.

Billie bounced beside her. “Oh, look. There’s Matt. I met him at the pool. He’s a catcher. I’m going to go say hi.” She darted off without waiting for permission.

“Charm school,” Charlene murmured quietly, before she, too, walked away to greet some friends. Adam also disappeared into the crowd to speak with someone.

Alone, Jane moved toward the front steps of the church. The old-fashioned white building had been recently painted. Green grass stretched out on either side of the path leading from the parking lot to the stairs. Lofty chestnut trees provided shade. They’d grown taller in her absence, she thought, glancing up at them. And the dogwoods had grown wider. Small changes really, not enough to keep her from remembering.

As she climbed the steps, she reminded herself it was all in the past. But it wasn’t. As she stepped through the open double doors, time shifted. It bent until that day and this one touched, and she once again stood in the back of the church, her long, white wedding gown dragging at her with each step.

The church had been full, the townspeople eager to see Adam Barrington wed his bride. White roses, always her favorite, filled every urn. Wide ribbons curved along the center aisle, holding small white bouquets at the end of each pew. Even now, the scent of roses swept over her. Someone jostled her gently and she stepped into a corner of the foyer. The shadows blurred, the sounds faded, until all she could hear was her mother telling her it was too late to change her mind.

“You can’t back out now,” her mother had said, an edge of hysteria in her voice. “The wedding, the reception. It’s all planned. What will your father say?”

A familiar theme growing up, Jane recalled. Her father had been the undisputed master of his castle. Her mother the eager subject. It was her mother’s willingness to be what her husband demanded that had first given Jane a glimpse of what life with Adam might be like. Adam also made politely worded requests. As she stared at the people waiting to watch her marry, she had wondered if he loved her. Confusion, as real today as it had been
nine years ago, filled her. Was she the most convenient bride? Young and easily influenced? Did he want
her
or had she simply fulfilled his list? They were so different. Six years had loomed large between them. He’d been a man.

BOOK: A Dad for Billie
5.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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