Authors: Gina Wilkins
Proving that the previous adults in Isabelle’s life had subscribed to Caitlin’s philosophy, Isabelle displayed very nice manners as she and Caitlin dined on soup and sandwiches. Sitting in a booster seat provided by the restaurant, a snowy napkin draped over her lap, Isabelle thoroughly charmed the staff and the other diners with her contagious smiles and precocious conversation.
“She reminds me of Shirley Temple,” an older woman at an adjoining table informed Caitlin. “Those big blue eyes and sweet little dimples—and the way she behaves. So poised and polite for a child her age.”
Uncertain how to respond—since she, of course, had had nothing to do with Isabelle’s manners—Caitlin smiled and murmured something inaudible.
She drove straight back to Nathan’s house after they finished the ice cream they had ordered for dessert. Surely enough time had passed that it would be safe to go back, she reasoned.
Excited about the prospect of decorating her room, Isabelle practically bounced in the safety seat Caitlin had borrowed from Nathan. The little girl babbled a mile a minute. Fortunately the only responses required were a few nods and murmurs. Caitlin was becoming increasingly distracted by her concern about what had transpired between Nathan and his mother.
“Is Nate’s mom still here?” Isabelle asked as Caitlin parked in the driveway.
“No, her car’s gone,” Caitlin replied with some relief.
“She was sad.”
The quiet comment surprised Caitlin. It was the first time Isabelle had mentioned Lenore since they’d left earlier. She had assumed the child had already forgotten the brief encounter. “What makes you think that?”
“Her eyes were sad. I think she was nice, though.”
“She can be very nice,” Caitlin agreed, though she didn’t want to say much more. She didn’t know if Isabelle would ever even see Lenore again. “Let’s get Nathan to help us carry all this stuff in.”
“We got a bunch of stuff,” Isabelle commented happily, looking at all the packages piled around her—not to mention the ones squeezed into the trunk, Caitlin thought.
“Yes, we do.” Reminding herself that Nathan had encouraged her to buy whatever Isabelle wanted, she helped the child out of the car and held her hand as they walked to the front door.
Though Nathan was smiling when he opened the door, the expression in his eyes made Caitlin’s breath lodge painfully in her chest.
“Well?” he asked. “Do I have any money left?”
He cut off her concerned question with a quick, “Later.” And then he focused on Isabelle. “So, did you find anything you like?”
The child immediately launched into a breathless monologue, listing not only everything they had purchased that morning, but also nearly everything else they’d seen. Responding with apparent fascination, Nathan helped them carry in boxes and packages, hauling everything straight to Isabelle’s room.
He teased about the amount of purchases they had made, laughed when Isabelle said something funny, asked questions and made appropriate comments, but Caitlin sensed that a part of him had simply shut down. His smile was as bright and charming as ever, but a light had gone out in his eyes. She had heard that phrase before, but she’d never quite understood what it meant until now. Nathan’s usually gleaming blue eyes were dark, and their expression was heartbreakingly empty.
Darn it, she hadn’t wanted to get this deeply involved in her partner’s personal problems. But looking at Nathan now, she knew she couldn’t pull back without trying to encourage him.
The best way to help now seemed to be with manual labor and upbeat conversation. Within a couple of hours, Nathan’s bland guest room had been transformed into a lovely setting for a little girl. The bed was covered with a lavender-and-white gingham comforter over lavender sheets and a white eyelet dust ruffle that just brushed the floor. Throw pillows in gingham, solid lavender and white eyelet rested invitingly against the headboard. White eyelet panels hung at the windows, and the beige ginger jar lamp had been exchanged for a white china lamp hand-painted with clusters of violets.
The built-in bookshelves now held books, toys and Isabelle’s collection of Disney figurines. Colorful framed posters depicting several of those same characters replaced the dull landscapes on the walls.
On the mirrored dresser sat a pretty little white-painted jewelry box and a purple glass music box—items Isabelle had seen on display at the store and had fallen in love with. Caitlin had bought them for her, charging those purchases to her own card, rather than Nathan’s. Her lecture about not spoiling the child had hovered at the back of her mind, but she hadn’t been able to resist when she’d seen how longingly Isabelle gazed at the music box that played “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
A purple fabric-covered butterfly chair was tucked into one corner of the room, an inviting place to curl up and read or listen to the purple-cased radio/CD player that now rested on the nearby chest of drawers. That had been one of the items on Nathan’s list of recommended purchases. A music lover, himself, he probably wanted to share the pleasure with Isabelle. The rest of her belongings were neatly stowed in the room’s good-size closet.
“It’s beautiful,” Isabelle breathed when they declared the room finished. Clutching her stuffed owl, she stood in the center of the room, turning in circles to admire every inch of her living quarters. “It’s perfect.”
“It does look nice,” Nathan agreed. He smiled at Caitlin. “You did a great job.”
She replied self-deprecatingly. “Most of this was displayed together as a grouping. Isabelle and I just pointed, charged and had it bagged.”
“I picked out the posters,” Isabelle said, motioning to each as she named the subject. “Belle, Ariel, Jasmine and Mulan. There were a lot more at the poster store—I almost got Pocahontas and Esmerelda—but I liked these four the best.”
“These are perfect,” Nathan assured her. “I really like Jasmine,” he added, indicating a fiery-haired mermaid.
Isabelle rolled her eyes. “That’s not Jasmine, that’s Ariel.”
“Oh.” He grinned at Caitlin. “Nice clam shells.”
Caitlin cleared her throat loudly. “Isabelle, are you thirsty? Would you like some fruit juice?”
“No, thank you.” The child was still obviously entranced with her room. She wandered over to the bookshelf to make a minute adjustment of a figurine—one of the stars of
The Lion King,
Caitlin believed, though she was hardly an expert on modern-era Disney characters.
“Tell you what.” Nathan tugged lightly at Isabelle’s hair. “Miss Caitlin and I are going to have some coffee in the kitchen while you finish admiring your room. If you’re tired, you and Hedwig can climb up on the bed and see if those pillows are as comfortable as they look.”
“I’m not tired,” Isabelle assured him, quickly stifling the yawn that had escaped while he’d spoken. “But Hedwig might be.”
“Then I’m sure he would appreciate a little rest. Owls like to nap during the daytime, you know.”
Isabelle had already kicked off her shoes and was climbing onto the bed when Caitlin followed Nathan out of the room.
Nathan urged Caitlin to sit at the kitchen table while he made the coffee. He didn’t meet her eyes as he measured coffee into the basket, added water, then pulled out mugs, creamer and sugar while the coffee brewed. He talked the whole time, but he kept the conversation focused on Isabelle.
“She seemed to really enjoy the outing,” he added, using a paper towel to wipe a countertop that was already spotless. “And the lunch—did some woman really say she looked like Shirley Temple?”
He opened a cabinet door and rummaged inside. “Do you want some cookies or something? We have chocolate chip and animal crackers.”
“I remember. But, no, I don’t need any cookies, thank you. Isabelle and I had ice cream for dessert. What—”
“Coffee’s ready. Just cream in yours, right?”
“Right. Are you ready to talk yet?”
His hands went still for a moment, his back very stiff and straight. And then he finished pouring coffee into the mugs. “Almost.”
She waited, sitting quietly as he placed one steaming mug in front of her and then took the seat opposite her, his own mug clasped loosely between his hands. He seemed to have no interest in actually drinking the beverage.
Caitlin sipped her own only to give her something to do while he decided what he wanted—or needed—to tell her. She was sure the coffee tasted fine, but Nathan’s stark expression kept her from enjoying it.
He sighed. “My talk with my mother didn’t go well.”
“I gathered that already.”
There was another pause before he spoke again. “She told me I’ve broken her heart, and she isn’t sure she can ever forgive me.”
“You’re her son, Nathan. She loves you.”
“I know. But right now she doesn’t ever want to see me again.”
Caitlin’s fingers tightened spasmodically around her mug. “She said that?”
“Words to that effect.”
“She didn’t mean it. She’s hurt. And worried about what everyone will say when word gets out that you’ve brought your father’s child home with you. I’m sure she’s embarrassed about having the old gossip crop up again.”
“I understand all of that, and I told her so. I even tried to apologize for causing her pain, even though I really felt I had no choice. She didn’t want to hear anything I had to say.”
“Pain has a way of shutting down hearing. You’ve dealt with enough ugly divorces to understand that.”
Staring into his mug, Nathan nodded. “My head understands that. But my heart thinks I deserve better than to be thrown out of her life for doing no more than taking in a little girl who had nowhere else to go.”
“I didn’t say your mother was being fair. I said her reaction isn’t completely unexpected.”
“I’d hoped when she saw Isabelle—how sweet and vulnerable she is—maybe my mother could forget…”
“When she looked at Isabelle, she saw your father. And her own past, if Isabelle looks as much like Deborah as you said. I’m sure it was a shock to her. But still she managed not to say anything hurtful in front of Isabelle.”
“No. She said she didn’t wish any ill to the child, but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. She doesn’t want Isabelle in her home, and she doesn’t want to visit me in mine as long as Isabelle is here.”
“And what did
The hesitation was a bit longer this time. “I tried to be patient. I had made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t lose my temper or say anything I would regret later. I was just going to let her say whatever she needed to say and hope she would come around eventually.”
He sighed again. “I’m not very good at holding my tongue. I sort of lost my temper.”
Caitlin groaned. “Oh, Nathan. What did you say?”
His expression turned defensive. “I reminded her that she was just given a fancy award for her work with children’s charities, and I thought it was the height of hypocrisy for her to be willing to throw this child out in the streets because she’s a social embarrassment. I said anyone who would blame an innocent little girl for events that happened before she was born had a heart of stone. And I might have said something along the lines that she was letting
down by not standing behind me when I most need my family’s support.”
He’d had a right to speak his mind, of course, but perhaps it would have been better if Nathan had stuck to his original plan of letting his mother do all the talking during that first encounter. Still, he didn’t seem to have said anything that was ultimately unforgivable. “Give it time. Maybe she will come around.”
He scowled. “Maybe right now I don’t care if she does or not.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“At the moment I do. But I’ll get over it. I just don’t know if she will.”
Because he seemed to need the reassurance, Caitlin reached out to touch his hand where it lay so lifelessly on the table. “You knew this was a possibility, Nathan. You said you were prepared to face it for Isabelle’s sake.”
“I am,” he assured her. “I still believe Isabelle needs me more than my mother does. I’ll have to be content to be a family of two from now on.”
“No regrets about the decision you made?”
Nathan glanced toward the doorway in the direction of Isabelle’s room. “You saw how happy she looked in there. She’s already had her life turned upside down twice in the past year. The only reason she’s adjusting so well this time is because she already knew me and had a good relationship with me. Do you think she would have settled in so easily with strangers?”
Caitlin thought Isabelle was extremely resilient, but she couldn’t say with any certainty that she would have happily adjusted to a family she didn’t know. Isabelle adored Nathan, and she had talked about him constantly during their outing.
Nathan was Isabelle’s anchor, now that fate had cast her adrift again. And Caitlin was slowly coming to believe that his courageous and self-sacrificing decision to bring her into his home had been the only real choice he’d had. Caitlin had only spent a few hours with the child and already she knew that deliberately walking away from Isabelle would be difficult.
Caitlin could hardly expect Lenore to welcome Isabelle with open arms, but Lenore should know her son well enough to understand that he’d done what he felt he had to do. Was it so easy for Lenore to turn her back on her own son when Nathan had been unable to do so with his half sister?
“Maybe she will come around in time,” she repeated lamely. “In the meantime…”
“In the meantime, I have my own life. A life that includes Isabelle now.”
Caitlin nodded and started to remove her hand from his. Before she could pull away, he covered her hand with his free one. “You’ve been really great today. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
Something in his voice raised her mental warning flags. And maybe the way he was looking at her, with a new warmth in his eyes that ignited an answering spark in her. A spark she fully intended to douse before it blazed out of control.
It wasn’t that hard to figure out what was going on here. Nathan was feeling overwhelmed and cut off from the support of his family. She was the one person who was on his side in this conflict. They had to be very careful about mistaking gratitude and desperation for something more…personal.