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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: A Father's Promise
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Especially because Tricia was supposed to have been with Molly that day.

His eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight outside, and as they did, his gaze slipped past the carousels of stickers, rows of papers and shelves holding bottles of glitter, shiny paint and a rainbow assortment of ribbons and buttons.

Tricia, however, was nowhere in sight. Nor was Blythe, her babysitter.

He navigated his way through the shelves of scrapbooking supplies and finally found Tricia at the back of the store standing beside an older woman in a wheelchair. She looked to be about fifty, her graying hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, and when she turned to them, he caught a faint resemblance to Renee Albertson in her heart-shaped face and the upward tilt of her eyebrows. He guessed this was Renee’s mother. His father had mentioned that Mrs. Albertson had been in a car accident that had left her paralyzed.

Tricia’s grin almost split her face as she ran toward him, her hair streaming behind her. She grabbed his hand and pulled with a strength surprising for an eight-year-old.

“Come and see, Dad. This is the coolest thing,” she announced, dragging him toward Mrs. Albertson, who was looking over at him now with an expression of interest.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Truscott,” she said with a wide smile. “I’m glad to see you here.”

He looked over to Tricia, trying to keep his voice light and nonthreatening. “Honey, you’re supposed to come to the office right away after school.”

Tricia’s expression shifted. “I’m sorry. I wanted to see the store. Blythe said she would tell you.” Her lip quivered and she dropped her head in sorrow.

He felt instantly contrite. It wasn’t her fault he had overreacted. “It’s okay,” he said, trying to reassure her. “I was just worried.”

“Children do that to us, don’t they,” Mrs. Albertson said, looking up at him with a smile. “From the moment they’re born, they make us vulnerable and scared.”

Zach laughed lightly. “You can say that again.” He glanced down at Tricia, remembering all too well his feeling of utter helplessness when that tiny baby was placed in his arms.

And behind that a rush of love so full, he knew his life would never be the same.

Tricia tugged on his hand again. “Look at these cards,” Tricia was saying. “Aren’t they pretty? Renee teaches people how to make them. What do you think of it?”

Zach obediently glanced at the cards lying on the table beside Mrs. Albertson. “Very pretty,” he said, not sure what else he was supposed to say about the colorful stacks of paper and glitter. “Now we should go.”

“We could make some cards. Together.” Tricia looked up at him, and must have sensed his hesitation. “Don’t you think that would be fun?”

“That might not be your father’s idea of a good time,” a gentle but husky voice spoke out behind him.

Zach was surprised at the imperceptible lift Renee’s sudden presence created.

He turned to look at her as she came around the display of papers. Yesterday when she came to his office she wore her hair pulled back, a suit jacket, tailored shirt and pencil skirt, which, combined with her somewhat-reserved attitude, had given her an aloof air.

Today she wore a pink shirt, blue jeans and sandals. Her light brown hair was loose, falling around her heart-shaped face.

Today she looked softer, more feminine. More appealing.

He brushed aside his reaction. He was in no place emotionally to allow another person into his and Tricia’s lives. He pulled his attention back to his daughter.

“Where is Blythe?” Zach asked.

Renee waved a slender hand. “I was showing her some accents she could use on her scrapbook. I’ll go find her.”

As she spoke, Blythe appeared from behind the rack of paper, staring down at a package, as if reading the contents. Her dark hair stuck up in gelled spikes glistening in the overhead lights of the store, at odds with the plaid schoolgirl skirt and slouchy sweater she wore today. “Hey, sweetie, there you are,” she said, glancing over at Tricia. “We should go. Don’t want your dad to...”

Her voice trailed off as she caught sight of Zach. “Hey, Mr. Truscott,” she said with an airy wave. “Did you get my message?”

Zach was momentarily taken aback. “What message?”

“That Tricia and I would be late today.” Blythe gave him a tentative smile. “I called your cell phone and left a message. Every time we walk by this store, Tricia wants to stop in, and today I said it was okay as long as it was okay with you. And then you didn’t call back and we were coming past and Tricia was pulling at my hand—”

“It’s okay,” he said, stopping her midgush. “Everything is fine.”

It wasn’t really, but he wasn’t getting into a discussion about Blythe’s responsibilities in front of strangers or the fact that he didn’t think to check his messages before imagining his daughter either lying injured on the street or in the hospital. He turned back to Tricia, who was leaning against Mrs. Albertson’s wheelchair. The sight of the little girl and the older woman caught at his heart. His own mother had died when he was young, and Molly’s mother and father lived overseas. Tricia didn’t have a grandmother in her life.

“We should go, honey. I need to get back to work,” Zach told his daughter. “And I’m sure Renee and Mrs. Albertson have their own things to do.”

“Okay. I’ll go.” Tricia cast a wistful glance around the colorful store as if comparing it to her father’s dull office, then heaved a long-suffering sigh and trudged past Blythe out the store.

Zach hesitated a moment, and without knowing why, looked back at Renee and her mom, Brenda.

Renee was watching Tricia, her arms crossed over her chest, a curious mixture of fear and sorrow on her face. Then she turned her head, and as their eyes met, he felt it again. A connection. An awareness.

Then she turned and the moment faded away.

You’re a widower with a daughter who is still grieving,
he reminded himself.
You don’t need the mess of another relationship.

And definitely not someone like Renee, who, it seemed, had her own priorities.

Chapter Two

“S
ure, Zach Truscott is good-looking—I won’t argue that.” Renee took another sip of her coffee and sat back in the soft leather chair tucked in a back room of Shelf Indulgence, Evangeline’s bookstore. “But I’m not interested.”

She looked around the room, allowing the ambience of the store to wash away the stress of the day.

The walls were lined with shelves filled with Evangeline’s personal library. Evangeline lived above the shop in a small apartment that couldn’t begin to hold all the books she owned.

Leather recliners, worn-fabric occasional chairs and a long, low-slung couch were scattered through the room, creating a welcoming and eclectic atmosphere. Bright paintings, done by local schoolchildren, hung on the one wall that wasn’t taken up with shelves.

Twice a month on Tuesdays, Evangeline, Mia Verbeek, Renee and a variety of other women met in this small den to discuss a book chosen by one of the members. The discussion was often lively, as the main members of the book club had varying tastes in books.

“Why wouldn’t you be interested in Zach Truscott?” Evangeline asked, lowering herself into the armchair across from Renee, her long skirt draping artfully over her legs. She swept her wavy brown hair back from her face and secured it with an elastic, enhancing her delicate features. “He’s handsome, eligible and elegant. I’m trying to imagine him in a cutaway and cravat. Absolutely perfect.” Evangeline sighed dramatically, obviously very taken with Mr. Truscott herself.

“I think it’s time you return to the real world and get your nose out of your Regency novels,” Renee said with a faint snort, wishing her friend would get off the topic of Zach Truscott. “As for eligibility, he’s a recent widower, and he has a little girl. I’m sure he’s not looking to date.”

Evangeline gave her an I-don’t-believe-you look that Renee waved off.

Zach had been taking up too much space in her mind as it was. He and his little girl. She was surprised at the pain she felt when she saw the little girl. Tricia was too glaring a reminder of what she had given up all those years ago.

“The real world? Like what’s in those depressing highbrow novels you read?” Evangeline kicked off her sandals and tucked her feet under her skirt. “I’ll stick with my happy-ever-afters, thank you very much.”

“But my books generate the best discussions,” Renee returned, just as the door behind them opened again.

Renee saw Mia enter through the store’s back entrance.

“That’s because everyone wants to talk about how much they hated them,” Mia said as she set her book bag down on the small table in the middle of the room and hung her jacket up on the hooks just inside the door. She shoved her hands through her short-cropped black hair and blew out a sigh. She poured herself a cup of coffee from the carafe on the table behind Renee and dropped onto the empty couch across from Renee and Evangeline. Taking a sip of coffee, she leaned back and closed her eyes. “Ah. Bliss. I’ve been clinging to the promise of this moment for the past ten hours.”

“Busy day in the flower shop?” Renee asked, feeling sympathy for her friend. Mia was a single mother of four children and ran the flower shop full-time. Renee, who only had her mother to take care of, couldn’t imagine how Mia managed.

“The flower shop is the easiest part of my life,” Mia said, nudging her running shoes off her feet and wiggling her toes. “It’s the boys who are wearing me down. Thank goodness Blythe came early today to help me out.” She sighed, rolled her shoulders and looked around. “No one else coming tonight?”

“I don’t know about April or Emily, but Eloise is coming. Though she said she didn’t care for the book we had to read,” Evangeline said, casting an arch look Renee’s way.

“Told you,” Mia said with a curt nod. “Depressing.”

Renee was about to challenge her opinion, when Evangeline spoke up. “Renee finally met Zach Truscott.”

Mia lifted one eyebrow and nodded. “What did you think?”

“Why is everyone making a fuss about this guy?” Renee tried not to sound peeved.

“Single. Good-looking. What’s not to fuss about,” Evangeline said with a gleam in her eye.

“I’m not in the market,” Renee retorted.

“You haven’t been in the market since Ted,” Evangeline said.

“Ted didn’t count.” Mia waved Renee’s previous boyfriend off with a flick of her hand, as if getting rid of a pesky fly. “Nor did Kent or Scott. None of them lasted longer than four months.”

That was because none of them could handle the reality that Renee’s mother was part of the deal. And once Renee had found out about the new therapy plan available for her mother in Vancouver, she hadn’t bothered getting involved with anyone else.

“Dwight was your last serious boyfriend,” Evangeline murmured. “And that was over nine years ago.”

“Are we still talking about him?” Renee shot Evangeline a warning look.

“Sorry,” Evangeline said. “I just thought of him because I saw his mother in town yesterday. She told me he was married and living in Australia. I didn’t think he’d ever settle down.”

“Neither did I,” Renee said.

Renee had buried that part of her past long ago. She and Dwight had dated all through high school, much to her parents’ chagrin. Dwight was bad news and she knew it. But he was popular and was invited to all the best parties. When her father died, at the beginning of their first year of college, Renee’s mother was lost in her own grief, and Renee drowned herself in a lifestyle full of drinking and partying. And Dwight.

The consequences of those mistakes were still affecting her and her mother’s life.

“You were well rid of him when he decided to hightail it out of here,” Mia said.

“Trust me, I’m not pining for Dwight—or any man,” Renee said. “I’ve got enough going on in my life right now.”

“You’re probably right to avoid Zach anyway,” Mia said, taking a sip of her coffee. “I heard that Kelly at Mug Shots tried to set him up with someone, but he told her flat out he wasn’t interested, and then he turned down a date with Tiffany Newton.”

“I’m sure Renee could make him change his mind,” Evangeline said.

“So what did you all think of the book?” Renee asked, bringing the subject back to the book club and away from romantic entanglements.

“I think I’d like to talk about why I saw Zach Truscott come to your scrapbook store today,” Evangeline said, shooting Renee an arch glance over the top of her coffee mug. “I don’t think he was there to make cards or a scrapbook.”

“He came to pick up his daughter,” Renee retorted. “She stopped by the store with Blythe. And that’s the only reason he came.”

When the words left her mouth, she regretted it. She should have simply smiled, nodded and moved on.

Evangeline gave her a cheeky grin and looked as if she was about to say more, but thankfully was interrupted when the door opened again.

Eloise Beck entered with Sophie Brouwer, the two chattering away like the good friends they were.

Eloise lowered herself into a chair beside Renee and heaved out a sigh. “Busy day today,” she said as if to explain why she was late.

“Were you helping in school again?” Renee asked as Eloise pulled out her book from the bag she had taken along.

“The teacher asked me to read with a little girl who just moved here,” Eloise replied, adjusting her glasses. Though Eloise was past retirement age, she occasionally helped at the school. “Her name is Tricia Truscott. Poor thing’s still grieving the death of her mother.”

Renee wished her heart didn’t beat so hard at the mention of Tricia. The little girl created a storm of feelings she didn’t know how to navigate. Longing, pain and sorrow. Each created a tug that drew her to the girl one moment and made her want to push her away in another.

“Everything okay?” Mia asked, laying her hand on Renee’s arm. “You look upset.”

Renee jerked her attention back to her friend and waved off her concern. “No, I’m sorry. Just got lots on my mind.”

“I imagine you do,” Mia said. “What with trying to sell the store and your mother’s treatment plan. Lots to deal with.”

Renee nodded. “More than enough. I don’t have any room for anything else in my life,” she said with a warning tone. She didn’t want to talk about Zach, and she especially didn’t want to talk about his daughter. Thankfully, she wouldn’t be seeing too much of them anytime soon.

* * *

“I’m bored, Daddy. I don’t like being in the office so long.”

Zach looked up from the papers on his desk and gave his daughter a smile. She sat, elbows planted on her table, swinging her feet. Crayons and papers lay strewn about her, imitating the mess spread out over his own desk.

“I know, honey. Give me another hour and then we can go.”

“Another hour?” she whined.

Zach glanced at the file, then at the clock. His father was always reminding him that right now Tricia should be his priority. But Zach still wanted to pull his share of the workload. “Okay, maybe half an hour, then we can leave for the ranch.”

“I don’t
want
to go to the ranch.”

“You haven’t seen the horses since we dropped them off last week,” he said. “What else would you want to do?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed again, and Zach shot her a concerned look. Ever since Molly died Tricia had been drifting along, a lifeless little shell of a girl, not excited or enthusiastic about anything.

He thought moving to Hartley Creek and having the horses closer would help lift her out of her funk. And it had, for a while, but she’d drifted back into the same lethargy that had gripped her since he and Tricia had walked away from Molly’s grave.

In fact, the only time he’d seen Tricia excited about anything was yesterday at the scrapbook store.

“Do you want to go out for dinner tonight?” he pressed. “We could go to the Dairy Queen. Peanut-buster parfaits?”

“I miss my mommy,” she said, her voice wobbling.

Sorrow gathered in his chest at his daughter’s plaintive words. Ever since Molly’s death, his entire focus had been the well-being of his precious daughter. He had stayed in Toronto so she could finish school. Had put off moving here so she could work through her grief.

She was the reason he’d given up his huge salary at a prestigious firm and moved here to join his father’s law firm once he thought enough time had elapsed. He wanted to give Tricia the family she never had during his and Molly’s shaky marriage.

He had always been careful not to say anything negative about Molly, but at times Tricia’s grief over her mother bothered him. Molly hadn’t deserved such sorrow.

“Of course you do,” he murmured, his heart melting at the sight of the tear tracking down his daughter’s cheek. “Come here, honey,” he said, pushing himself away from his desk and holding out his hands.

She shuffled toward him and climbed onto his lap. He cuddled her close, barely able to get her head under his chin. When did she get so big?

“Someday you won’t fit on my lap anymore,” he murmured, stroking her head with his chin.

“I’ll always sit on your lap because I’ll always be your little girl,” she announced. “But someday I won’t be your only girl.”

“What do you mean?”

“Grandpa was saying he hoped you would get married again. If you do, I won’t be your only girl anymore.”

A chill washed over him. “When did Grandpa say that?”

“Last night. He was talking to Aunt Sally.”

Aunt Sally was his mother’s sister and lived back in their old hometown of Radium. Though his mother had died when Zach was young, his father had stayed in close contact with her, even after his father moved here to Hartley Creek. And Aunt Sally was never short on advice.

“I don’t think you need to worry about me getting married again,” Zach promised his daughter.

“Why won’t you?”

Too complicated, Zach wanted to say. Marrying Molly had caused him a world of hurt. He’d truly thought she was the one for him when they met. Even after enduring three miscarriages, they’d been happy, and when they finally adopted Tricia, Zach truly thought his and Molly’s life was complete.

His perfect life started unraveling, however, when Tricia was a year old. Zach had discovered that Molly had been unfaithful to him. She’d promised to change. They moved to Toronto for a fresh start, and for a while life seemed good. Until he found out that she’d cheated again.

Though it seemed harsh to think, her death a year ago was a mercy. At least Tricia was spared the nastiness of a prolonged divorce and custody battle.

“Grandpa and Aunt Sally think you should get married again.”

Zach winced at the thought. He’d been so wrong about Molly. He certainly didn’t trust himself to make those promises again to any woman. Nor did he ever want to put himself in a position to be hurt again.

A picture of Renee drifted into his mind, and once again he filed it away under
What Are You Thinking?

Tucking his finger under Tricia’s chin, he tilted her face up. “Grandpa and Aunt Sally shouldn’t make decisions for you or me. Right now you’re the most important person to me.”

Tricia gave him a tremulous smile. “God is important, too,” she reminded him.

Zach released a semi-embarrassed laugh. “Yes. And God.”

His faith had taken a backseat to his personal and professional life the past few years, but coming to Hartley Creek felt like a renewing of his values. After his father moved here, Zach had visited a couple of times, and he’d appreciated the laid-back ambience of the town. So when it had been time to make a change in his life, this was the first place he’d thought of.

Zach gave Tricia a quick kiss, then glanced back at his files. “Let me finish up here, then we’ll go to the ranch.”

Tricia rested her hands on Zach’s shoulders, and her expression grew serious. “I want to go to the store again.”

“Sure, we can go shopping.”

Tricia shook her head. “No. I want to go to the scrapbook store.” She sat up, looking suddenly animated, grabbing his cheeks between her hands, still sticky from the candy he’d given her. “We could go there and make a book. We could get stickers and paper and...and all kinds of things and Renee can help me make a book.”

BOOK: A Father's Promise
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