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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: A Father's Promise
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“So, let’s get these sorted,” she said, surprised her voice sounded so normal considering how hard it was for her to breathe.

Thankfully, Tricia didn’t notice anything wrong and eagerly spread the pictures out, looking over her shoulder at Zach, who had joined them. “You have to help me with this, Daddy,” she said.

“Sure thing, sweetie.”

In her peripheral vision, Renee caught Zach shooting her another concerned glance, which she chose to ignore. She had a job to do, and Zach was as much a part of her problem as Tricia.

The father of her baby.

The man she had unexpected feelings for.

The next fifteen minutes were an agony for Renee as Zach and Tricia sorted through the pictures, chatting about various things, consulting Renee as to how they should lay them out. And always, in every picture, there was Molly. Blonde, beautiful, smiling. The perfect mother, according to Tricia’s stories.

The mother Renee never could have been.

“I think that’s it,” Zach said, laying the last picture on one of the piles on the table. “We don’t want the book to get too long.”

“Okay. Good.” Renee glanced over her shoulder at the clock, then straightened as she turned back to Zach and Tricia. “I’m sorry, but I just remembered I have another appointment in about fifteen minutes. So, I don’t think it’s worth getting started on putting the pictures in the book today.”

“Aw. Really?” Tricia’s wail cut into her heart, but what cut harder was the truth Renee had just discovered. “Can’t you change it?”

Renee gave her what she hoped was a regretful smile. “Sorry, sweetie. I can’t.”

She caught Zach’s puzzled look, realizing how this looked through his eyes. First Renee’s initial reaction to Tricia. Then the dramatic exit a little while ago. Now she was brushing them off.

“If you want, my mother can help you start the book,” she said, her mouth growing tired from holding her smile.

Tricia pouted as she looked down at the pictures, then shook her head. “No. I want
to help me.”

Did the little girl know on some subconscious level who she was? Was that why she was so stuck on having Renee and only Renee help her?

Renee dismissed the questions, her gaze sliding over Zach, who still looked confused. She knew she had to talk to him and explain what was going on, but not now.

Then another thought slipped in.

What would Zach’s reaction be to this revelation?

She pushed the question aside, as well. For now, she just had to keep moving. Operate on autopilot and do whatever came next.

“So, we can come back tomorrow?” Tricia asked.

Renee tapped her lips with her fingers, making a show of remembering something important. “You know, let me check my appointment book. I think I might have something going on tomorrow after school. I’ll call your dad tomorrow and let him know, okay?”

She didn’t want Tricia’s disappointment to influence her, but the little girl’s exaggerated pout hooked into her heart.

She glanced at Zach, raising her eyebrows in question.

“Sure. Sounds good,” he said, his voice suddenly chilly.

She guessed he knew she was putting Tricia off, but right now his opinion of her was secondary to her self-preservation.

He surged to his feet, grabbing his jacket and shoving his arms into it. “C’mon, honey. We should go.”

He flicked a hand toward the pictures on the table. “Should we take these along or leave them here?”

“Just leave...them here,” Renee stammered, disappointed at her reaction to him. His muted anger bothered her in a way she couldn’t examine right now. “They’re not a bother.”

“Okay. Let’s go, Tricia. We’ll come back when it’s convenient for Ms. Albertson.”

He’d been calling her
until now.

She kept her head down as he and Tricia walked past her, realizing how guilty she must look. She managed to hold it together as father and daughter left the store. Then she stumbled to the bathroom, locked the door, held her head in her hands and silently sobbed.

Chapter Four

o, that’s all we need to do,” Zach said, smiling at Carter and Emma Beck as they scribbled their signatures on the papers on his desk. When they were done he slipped a copy in an official-looking folder embossed with the name of his father’s law firm on the front. “I’ll keep one copy of your will on file here in this office, and this copy is for your own records,” he said, pushing the document toward them.

Carter glanced at his wife, his smile relieved as he picked it up. “So, enough talking about what will happen to Adam and Courtney when we die—let’s talk about life. I’m hungry. How about lunch at Mug Shots?”

Emma made a reluctant face. “I left Hailey babysitting. I don’t know if we should.”

“You gave Hailey enough baby bottles to last Courtney for a week. She’ll be fine” Carter dropped his cowboy hat on his head and pushed his wooden chair back, then held out his hand for Emma. “I guess our next step is to get a safe-deposit box like you suggested.”

“Probably a better idea than shoving the will in a box under the bed,” Emma said. She turned her dark brown eyes back to Zach, a dimple flashing as she gave him a quick smile. “On behalf of Adam and our daughter, I want to thank you for making this so painless.”

“Wills are difficult to think about, but it’s important if you have dependents,” Zach said, getting to his feet, as well. “If you need anything more, just call me.”

Carter was about to leave, then turned. “I heard you have horses at Evangeline’s place,” he said. “If you and your daughter ever want to do some riding, we’ve got some great trails at the ranch.”

Zach grinned, surprised again at the wonderful community that was Hartley Creek. “I think I’ll take you up on that. Tricia and I haven’t had much chance to take the horses out, and I know they’re ready for some exercise.”

“Just call,” Carter said again. “We’ll set something up.” Then he turned to Emma. “Mug Shots?”

She laughed, then took his hand as together they walked out of the office.

Zach couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy at Carter and Emma’s easy relationship. From the moment they stepped into the office, it wasn’t hard to see how much they cared for each other. The way their eyes sought each other whenever Zach had a question. How Carter’s hand rested on Emma’s shoulder. The little smiles they exchanged.

His parents had the same type of relationship, and he’d hoped for the same when he’d married Molly.

The intercom on his phone buzzed, and he pushed the button. “Yes, Debbie, what’s up?”

“Are you busy right now? Can you take a quick appointment before lunch?”

Zach glanced at the calendar on his computer. He was free for the next half hour, but he had counted on getting more work done for a local client whose business he was hoping to get. The work would be the nice steady work that was the bread and butter of his previous firm.

But a client was a client, so he said yes.

“I’ll send her in,” Debbie said.

Zach took his copy of Carter and Emma’s will and slipped it into one of the large side drawers of his desk. It would go into the vault this afternoon.

However, the
Debbie referred to didn’t come in right away. He heard the muted murmur of Carter’s and Emma’s voices from the anteroom, then realized his next client and Carter and Emma probably knew each other.

Small towns, he thought with a smile, remembering how the same thing would happen in Whitehorse.

Finally the door opened, and when Zach saw who came in, his stomach dropped.

Renee Albertson.
Why was she here?

He steeled himself, trying not to let his concern and frustration from yesterday rise to the surface. Too easily he remembered the disappointment on Tricia’s face when Renee cut short their afternoon and then canceled their next visit. Obviously she couldn’t have been that busy today if she had time to see him now.

Zach smoothed his tie as he stood, politely smiling as Renee entered his office, a hint of her flowery perfume preceding her. “Good afternoon, Ms. Albertson. What can I do for you today?” he said.

In spite of his frustration, he still felt that momentary spark of attraction at the sight of her, which he tried to dismiss as simple loneliness. Renee seemed a complicated woman, and he didn’t need any more of that in his life.

Renee twisted her hands together, shot a glance over her shoulder as Zach came around and closed the door behind her. He pulled out a chair for her to sit down, then he went behind his large wooden desk, putting some distance between them.

Renee cleared her throat, then glanced past him at the picture he had on his bookshelf of Molly and Tricia. Her eyes rested there, and he caught a surprising wistful look, then she shook her head, as if dismissing it from her mind.

Then her eyes met and held his. He felt as if something momentous was coming.

“Have you...have you heard anything more about the lien?” she asked.

“No. I’m still waiting to hear back from Freddy about setting up a meeting to resolve the issue.” Why was she asking this? He told her the other day there hadn’t been any change.

Renee’s slight nod acknowledged this comment. “So we wait.”


Silence followed, broken only by the muffled tapping of computer keys coming from the outer office and the muted wail of an engine as a train rumbled through town.

Zach looked at her, surprised at the attraction he still felt. As she glanced up at him, he had a sense the attraction was mutual.

“I’m sensing there’s something else you want to talk about,” Zach prompted, leaning back in his chair, trying to dismiss his reaction to her.

“I know that yesterday I seemed a,” she said, her voice quiet. She drew in a slow breath, looking down at her fingers twisted around each other on her lap. “I also know that I wasn’t as kind to Tricia—” Her voice faltered and Renee stopped, as if trying to pull herself together.

She seemed distressed. Then as he watched her struggle to speak, he felt a nudge of sympathy. Perhaps something had happened to Renee in the past? Something that Tricia triggered?

But he didn’t know what to say, so he waited.

Finally she drew in a long, wavering breath, then looked up at him, moisture glimmering in her eyes. Was she crying?

“When you adopted Tricia, who handled the adoption?” she asked, her question as much of a surprise as her tears.

“Um, actually, it was my father.”

Renee’s face grew pale, and she fell back against her chair. “Did he tell you who the mother was?”

“No. Only that she didn’t want to know anything about Tricia. That it was a closed adoption. We were pleased about that because, even though we would have liked to know for Tricia’s sake, we lived so far up north it would have been difficult to make regular visits.”

Renee gave a curt nod, then lifted her chin. “Eight years ago I had a baby girl, born here in Hartley Creek. Your father handled my adoption, and the only thing I was told about the adoptive parents was that they lived in the Yukon.”

Zach could only stare at her, ice slipping through his veins as her words slammed into his chest like physical blows.
Eight years ago. Baby girl. Living in the Yukon.

“Are you sure?” was all he could say as questions buzzed through his head, unreal and uncertain.

Renee swiped her fingers across her cheek, leaving a trail of moisture. “What day did you take Tricia home from the hospital?”

Zach stared at her, confusion and agitation stealing his voice.

When he’d moved to Hartley Creek he’d had a vague notion he might meet Tricia’s mother, but he had also assumed, because of her desire for a closed adoption, he would never know who she was. Never meet her.

Now she sat across his office from him. A woman whose life was moving on a path that would take her away from Hartley Creek.

“What day did you give birth?” he countered.

Renee released a slightly cynical laugh. “I should have known you would prefer to ask the questions. Lawyers don’t like to answer them.”

Zach suppressed another retort, realizing that his nervousness was making him defensive. So he took a slow breath, then sent up a quick prayer for wisdom and help.

“We picked Tricia up from the hospital the afternoon of September 7,” he said. “A beautiful sunny day. She was born that morning.” His mind slipped back again to that pivotal moment when the nurse had handed them Tricia. How he’d felt as if everything in his life had come to such a good place. After the heartbreak of the miscarriages, neither he nor Molly had thought they would ever see this day. A tiny, helpless infant, barely a few hours old, who belonged to them. An infant who would only know them as her parents.

Renee’s eyes slid shut and tears slipped down her cheeks as she pressed trembling lips together. “I gave birth the morning of September 7. I left the hospital the next morning. Your father helped facilitate the adoption.”

Zach’s head was buzzing, but he still heard the hitch in her voice.

How many evenings had he leaned over Tricia’s crib, simply staring at her, letting her fingers curl around his, wondering how someone could have let this precious child go? Sometimes he’d get angry about it. Other times he’d try to understand why. But always, behind all those emotions, he’d felt humble gratitude that Tricia’s mother had given her up.

“Did you know anything about us?” he asked. “The records were sealed, but still...” This was Hartley Creek, and secrets were only kept until they could be shared with someone who didn’t know.

Renee sucked in a shuddering breath. “The only thing I knew was something your father let slip. That my little girl, your daughter,” she corrected suddenly, “was living in the Yukon Territory. I had come to the office, upset and worried, demanding to know where my baby was. That was all he would tell me. That and the fact that the family was a loving, caring one. That was good enough for me.”

“We were living in the Yukon when we adopted Tricia.”

Renee nodded, as if absorbing this information. She bent over, picked up her purse and pulled some tissues out of it. Then she looked up at Zach with red-rimmed eyes. “When did you move to Toronto?”

“About two years after Tricia was born.” Six months after he found out Molly had cheated the first time. He pushed aside that memory. No sense dwelling on the shame and hurt. “After Molly died, I waited awhile, then came here so I could spend more time with Tricia. Working for a prestigious law firm is not conducive to family life.” He was telling her too much. She had chosen to stay out of Tricia’s life. He had to respect that both for her sake and for Tricia’s.

Renee dabbed at her eyes. She looked up at him, and again he felt a connection. Had he known, on some subconscious level, that this woman was his daughter’s mother?

Or was something else happening?

“What do you want?” Zach couldn’t keep the harsh note out of his voice, frustrated with his consistent reaction to her. “Are you going to demand some rights as Tricia’s mother?”

He didn’t relish the idea that now, at this emotionally fragile moment in his daughter’s life, her birth mother would make demands.

Renee sniffed again, then waved her hands in an erasing motion. “I don’t want anything. I know Tricia is your daughter,” she corrected. “I don’t have any right—” She stopped there, pressing her hand against her mouth.

Relief loosened the tension in Zach’s shoulders at Renee’s dismissal of his concerns and he sighed. “Okay. I was worried.”

Renee looked up, an intensity burning in her eyes even as tears gathered. “I would never do anything to hurt her or jeopardize what you have with her. She’s your daughter. You are her parent.” In spite of her bravado, her voice broke on the last word, and Zach felt, again, a flash of sympathy for her.

But mingled with that was a respect for her integrity.

“I appreciate that.”

Renee bent her head and wiped her eyes again. “Sorry about this. It’s just...”

“Emotional. I understand, and I’m sorry to have put you through this.”

He caught the edges of her smile through the curtain of hair obscuring her face. “No. It’s okay.” Then she lifted her head. “I know what my life is like right now. I have my mother to think about. You know that I’m moving away after I sell the store. So obviously, I’m not going to disrupt Tricia’s life in any way. She’s not to know who I am. For her sake, more than anything.”

His respect for Renee grew with each word she spoke. He wondered if Molly would have been half as considerate. “That’s kind and giving of you,” he said quietly.

She said nothing for a time, letting the silence ease away the emotions of the moment. Then she cleared her throat and crumpled the damp tissue in her hand.

Zach hesitated to ask an obvious question, but knew he had to. “And Tricia’s father?”

Renee released a cynical laugh. “He’s so out of the picture he’s not even in the album. He signed away all rights to her. Last I heard, he’s married and living in Australia. Dwight was not the type to take responsibility. For anything.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Renee shrugged. “Don’t be. He wasn’t worth any of the tears I shed over him.” Then she pressed her lips together as if she had said too much.

“So now that we both know this,” she continued, “what are we going to do about Tricia’s scrapbook? I don’t think I should continue to keep working with her. I don’t know if I can...”

Zach knew she was right, but after the minor fiasco yesterday, all Tricia talked about was Renee this and Renee that.

And he felt a kinship with his daughter in that respect. In spite of his best efforts, all he thought about was Renee, as well.

Zach tapped a pen on his desk, trying to see the wisdom in what Renee was saying. “She has her heart set on finishing it. Who could help her?”

“I’d offer my mother’s services, but I don’t think that would be a good idea, either. My mother is in an emotionally fragile place. One of these days I’m going to have to tell her about Tricia, and I’m concerned about her forming an attachment to your daughter. My mother needs to stay centered on what’s ahead for her.”

BOOK: A Father's Promise
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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