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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: A Father's Promise
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Even as her heart yearned to stay in the refuge of his arms, her practical mind told her that letting him hold her like this would complicate her life and cloud her decisions.

She curled her fingers against his shirt, her eyes closed.

But finally she drew on the self-control she had clung to all these years, wiped her eyes one more time then pulled away. She pushed her hair back from her face, her eyes swollen and sore from shedding tears she had suppressed for so long.

Zach kept his hand on her arm, clearly as reluctant to let her go as she was to leave.

“When was the last time you cried?” Zach asked finally, his fingers making gentle circles at the back of her neck.

Renee wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “When the nurse walked away with Tricia in her arms.”

“All that time.” Zach’s voice held a note of wonder. “All that time you’ve been strong, and held in your sorrow,” he continued. “Was there no one to comfort you?”

Renee swallowed down another sob, wrapping her arms around her waist. “Mom was unconscious in the hospital, and my friends all had their own difficulties.”

Mia had had a shaky marriage. Evangeline had been dealing with a broken heart. She couldn’t burden them with her sorrow. Her aunts and uncles and grandparents had come, but they all lived far away, and her guilt over what had happened had kept her from telling them the truth.

Zach trailed his hand along her arm, creating a light shiver that danced down her spine.

“It was during that time that I returned to my faith. I couldn’t have gotten through it otherwise. So I really wasn’t all alone.”

“I know what you mean,” he said, leaning forward, his clasped hands dangling between his knees, his gaze still holding hers. “There were many times in my life when I thought I could manage on my own, but learned, especially after Molly died, that God’s strength carried me through when I couldn’t.”

Zach’s eyes shone with a conviction she knew to be true. As his words settled into her heart, she felt as if one more barrier was broken down between them. They shared a faith in a God who had brought them both through difficult times in their lives.

Possibilities hovered on the periphery of her mind, and she felt the quickening of her awareness of him. She couldn’t look away; didn’t want to. Her world had narrowed down to this moment with this man.

She didn’t know who moved first, him or her, but it seemed the most natural progression for their lips to touch.

This felt right.

And Renee didn’t want it to end.

Then Zach slowly pulled away, letting his forehead rest against hers.

His breath was warm on her cheek. She closed her eyes, letting the moment sink in.

Visions of Tricia, her mother, his father floated in her mind. Not yet, she thought, reveling in the moment. Not yet.

But when she couldn’t stop the onslaught of other obligations and responsibilities in her thoughts, she slowly withdrew from his arms.

He eased out a gentle sigh, trailing his finger down her cheek. “So beautiful,” he said.

His words kindled a yearning she hadn’t allowed herself to feel since Dwight left her. A yearning for someone to see her as a person who had nothing to do with caregiving or work. A yearning for someone to support and sustain her when she couldn’t handle things on her own.

Then the phone’s sharp ring intruded. She glanced at the display before she picked it up. It was her mother calling from her cell phone.

As always, she felt a stab of worry as she hit the talk button. “Hey, Mom, are you okay?”

“Of course I am. Why do you always ask me that?”

Because I always worry about you. Because you are in a wheelchair and anything could happen if you’re not careful.

“Because you don’t always call from your cell phone, and you’re out and about.”

“And I’m fine,” her mother said with a surprising sharp tone in her voice. “Stop fussing.”

Renee pressed her lips together to hold back a retort. “Why did you call?”

“I just thought I’d let you know that I might be a little late. I’m still at Sophie’s place, but the wheelchair lift in the van was acting a bit jerky, so I’ve called a mechanic to come have a look at it while I’m still visiting.”

“It’s probably that loose connection again.” Renee glanced at the clock, surprised to see it was already nine. Her mother liked to be in bed by nine-thirty.

“No. No. I’ll wait for the mechanic.”

“I’m coming right away.”

“I thought Zach was there to see the house.”

Renee turned away from him, unable to face him right now. “Oh, we’re done here” was all she said as she got up from the couch.

“Okay, then. How did it go?”

“Um...yeah, good.” Renee didn’t want to talk about “how it went” because she wasn’t sure herself. “But I’ll come right away.” She ended the call and set the receiver on the little stand by the back door. Her mother’s dilemma brought her back to her senses and her priorities.

“Is there anything I can do?” Zach asked.

Renee appreciated the offer, but answered, “No. Thank you. I know what needs to be done.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“No. It’s just a simple fix. I’ll have to get after our mechanic and get that done properly.”

“Wow. A paper crafter, businesswoman
mechanic,” Zach said with a note of admiration.

“A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do,” she said with a dismissive wave.

Zach laughed as he glanced around the house one more time, as if assessing it as he picked up his coat.

Then he looked back at Renee. “So you’re sure about selling this place?”

Renee felt her own convictions waver. Was she sure?

A few weeks ago there was no doubt.

But now?

“I have to sell it. For my mother,” she said with more force than necessary, as if she had to eradicate the kiss they had just shared, bring herself back to reality.

His curt nod indicated that he understood. Probably more now than he had before.

“Of course you do,” he said, his eyes taking an inward look. He tossed his jacket over his shoulder and hesitated for another moment, as if still unsure of her decision.

Renee felt her breath quicken as questions hovered between them. His smile held a hint of sadness, then he turned and left.

As the door closed behind him, she leaned against the wall nearest her, needing the support.

Her fingers floated up to her mouth as if to feel the kiss they’d just shared. Then she heaved out a breath of frustration. The kiss had been a colossal mistake. It could never happen again. She had to keep her distance from him. He was too complicated and tempting.

Why, Lord?
she thought, closing her eyes.
Why did You bring him into my life? This can’t happen.

Yet even as she tried to convince herself, the memory of their kiss lingered.

Chapter Eight

he doors of the church elevator creaked open, and Renee pushed her mother out and into the back of the foyer. The noise of people chatting washed over them as Renee negotiated the gathering. Just as they came to the open door leading to the sanctuary, a young girl, Natasha, skipped over to them, her brown ponytail bobbing behind her, her gray eyes sparkling and her hands full of brightly colored carnations.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” Natasha said, her wide smile taking in both Renee and Mrs. Albertson. She handed Renee’s mother a red flower and gave Renee a quick smile, then skipped off to give a flower to another mother, obviously pleased with her duty.

Renee held back a prick of sorrow as her mother sniffed the flower. Mother’s Day had always been difficult for her. Each year the day was like pressing an unhealed bruise.

This year, however, it brought a poignancy and pain that hit even harder. This year, the daughter she had given up had come back into her life.

Renee negotiated her mother’s chair past a group of people laughing and chatting, and wheeled her into their own special place in the church sanctuary.

Years ago, after her mother had come home from the hospital to stay, Benny, a local carpenter, had shortened one of the wooden pews so Mrs. Albertson could park her wheelchair beside the pew and not block the aisle.

Renee sat down, and as she scanned the bulletin, looking for news, a movement in the aisle caught her attention. She couldn’t stop from looking up any more than she could stop her heart from beating.

Zach and his father walked down the aisle of the church, Tricia between them, holding both their hands. She was about to look away, when Zach shot her a quick glance, and Renee felt her resolve crumble like a cracker.

They settled in a pew one ahead and across the aisle. Renee looked away from the man who had starred in her thoughts all night and the little girl who had been ever present in her dreams.

But this little girl’s father had kissed her, and had thrown Renee’s life into a tailspin she was trying, desperately, to recover from.

Then, as the service started, Pastor Blacketer congratulated all the mothers in the audience and commended them for their love and sacrifice on this important day.

Unable to stop herself, Renee’s eyes slid over to where Zach and Tricia sat. Tricia waggled her fingers at her, grinning. Something elemental stirred in Renee’s chest.

She shifted her concentration from them to the tasks she had coming up. She had to call Freddy about the lien, Cathy Meckle the buyer, confirm the conference call, look into flights to Vancouver and try to confirm the sale of the house.

Even as the litany of her responsibilities swirled through her head, she could still feel the kiss Zach had given her. She had felt a deep connection with him.

Pastor Blacketer announced the opening song, and she rose to her feet with the rest of the congregation, looking over to the words on the screen.

“My Jesus, my strength, my rock and solid fortress, my hope, my song, my light in the wilderness.”

She sang with the congregation, letting the words draw her along, reminding her of where her hope and her strength lay. This song had comforted her those long days after she had walked out of one hospital alone, then stood vigil beside her mother’s bed in the hospital in Cranbrook. Those days when life seemed bleak and dark, devoid of hope. Thoughts of Jesus had been like a shimmering light of promise, holding her and her mother up.

To her dismay, she suddenly felt the sting of tears at the backs of her eyes. She clenched her fists, focusing on the words. She couldn’t cry again. She wouldn’t.

After last night, it was as if the dam had broken, and her sorrow was threatening to overwhelm her again. Last night had been a moment of weakness she couldn’t allow to happen again.

Dear Lord, help me to stay on task,
she prayed.
Help me to put my needs aside and to focus on my mother’s.

Slowly she felt the sorrow subside, and as she sat down, she kept her eyes fixed on the pastor, letting his message soak into her weary soul.

However, by the time church was over, she felt the beginnings of a headache pounding at her temples.

After the last notes of the last song resounded through the church, Renee put the songbook down. She wanted nothing more than to go home, put her feet up and lose herself in the book Evangeline had chosen for their book club. She didn’t care that it was an historical romance, complete with a dashing earl and a feisty debutante.

But just as she grasped the handles of her mother’s chair to wheel her down the aisle, they were joined by Arlan Truscott.

“Good morning, Renee,” he said. Then he smiled down at her mother. “Happy Mother’s Day, Brenda.”

“Thank you, Arlan.”

“I was wondering if you and your lovely daughter would like to join us for lunch,” he continued. “As a way of thanking you both for all the work you have done on Tricia’s scrapbook. She’s so proud of it.”

Please, no,
Renee wanted to cry out, but then Tricia joined them.

“Can you come?
” Tricia pleaded, grabbing Renee’s hand, her little fingers clinging to hers. “That was the surprise I wasn’t allowed to tell you, but I kept it a secret, even from you, Daddy.”

“Good job,” Zach said, smiling.

In spite of the emotions roiling around her soul, she started to voice her regrets, when her mother spoke up, cutting off her protest.

“We’d love to come,” Brenda said. “We don’t have any other plans.”

Had her mother forgotten the casserole Renee had made and the cake she had baked for their own Mother’s Day celebration?

“That would be wonderful,” Arlan responded, glancing back at Renee. “Then we’ll see you there.”

And that, it seemed, was that.

But as Renee pulled out of the church parking lot, her foolish heart couldn’t stop the zing of anticipation at the thought of spending more time with Zach.

* * *

“That was an amazing lunch,” Renee’s mother said, wiping her mouth delicately with her napkin, then setting it on the table in front of her. “I had no idea you were such an accomplished cook, Arlan.”

Zach resisted the urge to roll his eyes at his father’s smug expression. “He does have good taste.” He shot an admonishing glance toward his father, who sat at the head of the table in the dining room.

The table was spread with the leftovers of a variety of salads, premade ham and chicken croissants, chicken skewers, crab cakes and artichoke dip. All very delicious and all put together by Kelly at Mug Shots yesterday and delivered last night when Zach was at Renee’s.

Zach looked across the table to her, but she was focusing on the croissant she was eating. He was glad he had managed to keep his wits about him during lunch. It had been an awkward affair and, as Tricia had said, a complete surprise to him.

Yesterday, holding Renee in his arms had put a crack in his defenses. For the first time since Molly had died, he had held another woman close.

But Renee’s life was heading in a direction she wasn’t veering from. He would do well to learn from her. When he’d come to Hartley Creek, his aim was to give his daughter a home and security. To give her his attention. To avoid making the same mistakes he’d made with Molly.

Now he wasn’t at all sure where loneliness ended and attraction began. He had to be careful not to risk his heart again.

“I wanted to do something special for both of you,” his father was saying to Renee and Brenda. Then his expression softened, and he looked toward Renee, a melancholy look in his eyes. “And in honor of Mother’s Day, I especially wanted to do something for you, Renee.”

Renee’s head shot up at that, her horror-filled eyes shooting toward Tricia.

Zach’s heart sank. What was his father thinking? Was he going to reveal the truth about Tricia and Renee?

He was about to say something, but Arlan carried on, seemingly oblivious to the heightened tension.

“I see what an attentive daughter you are to your mother,” his father was saying. “I wanted to honor that by giving you a break from cooking.”

“Hear, hear,” Mrs. Albertson said, raising her glass of lemonade. “I propose a toast. To the best daughter a mother could ask for.”

Zach quickly relaxed, and saw Renee do the same. Then he quickly raised his own glass, as well. “To a loving and devoted daughter,” he said quietly.

A flush worked its way up her neck, and she ducked her head. In spite of his commitment to keep his heart free, he couldn’t prevent his reaction to her vulnerability. Her devotion to her mother, her willingness to sacrifice everything for her, was beyond admirable.

“And now, if you’ll excuse us,” Arlan said, getting up from the table, “Brenda and I are going for a walk around the neighborhood.”

“Can I come?” Tricia asked, jumping to her feet. “I can push Mrs. Albertson’s wheelchair. I’ll be really careful.”

“Of course you can,” Renee’s mother said, holding her hand out to Tricia. “But you don’t need to push the wheelchair unless my arms get tired.”

Then Tricia looked at the table behind her. “Who is going to clean up?”

“I can.”

Zach and Renee spoke at the same time.

“Good. That’s settled, then.” Arlan rubbed his hands as if everything was going according to plan, and again Zach wondered what his father was up to.

“When will you be back?” Renee asked, laying her napkin down and pushing away from the table.

“I’m sure there’s no rush,” Mrs. Albertson said, looking over at Renee with a smile that created a twist of apprehension in Zach’s stomach. How long was he going to be alone with Renee?

“Do you need help getting the chair out of the house?” Renee asked, making a move to follow them.

“We’ll be okay,” Arlan said.

Then, with a self-satisfied grin, his father followed Mrs. Albertson out of the room.

Renee watched them leave, her head craned as the front door shut behind them.

Zach heard the muffled rumble of the wheelchair on the metal ramps they had borrowed from a neighbor, then Renee returned, her hands twisted together as she looked over the remnants of lunch.

“You go relax in the living room,” Zach said, holding up his hand to forestall the protest he saw forming on Renee’s face. “It’s Mother’s Day. You aren’t doing the dishes.”

“I don’t mind helping. What else would I do?”

Zach wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to be so close to Renee for that long, but she was already busy gathering up the leftover food. He stacked up the dirty plates and followed her into the kitchen.

“The food was really good,” she said as she set the platter of leftover chicken skewers and artichoke dip onto the tiny kitchen counter.

“I’m sure as a longtime resident of Hartley Creek you recognized Kelly’s menu items,” Zach said with a wry note in his voice as he pulled open the dishwasher.

“Mom often orders the dip when we go to Mug Shots.” Renee gave him a quick smile, and for a moment the tension permeating the meal dissipated.

Renee pushed up the sleeves of her brown blazer and turned on the faucet to rinse the dishes while Zach took care of the leftovers. She turned to Zach, her expression suddenly serious.

His heart jumping in his chest, his mind slipped back to the kiss they had shared yesterday.

Don’t go there,
he reminded himself.

“So, I hate to sound old-fashioned, but what are your father’s intentions?”

Zach blinked, trying to wrap his head around this sudden shift in their conversation as he dumped the leftover dip into a plastic container. “What?”

“I just need to know what’s happening,” Renee said, a flush creeping up her neck as she ran the dirty plates under the water. “We are supposed to leave in a couple of months for the therapy program in Vancouver, and...I don’t want my mom distracted by...other things.”

“Other things meaning my father?” Zach asked.

Renee nodded, and Zach finally realized what she was implying. “You think my dad has a thing for your mom?” he said, leaning back against the counter, his arms folded over his chest.

Renee carefully set the plates in the open dishwasher as she shrugged. “What else could it be? I mean, first it was the lunch at Mug Shots. Now this. I’ve caught him looking at her a couple times and
like a friend.”

Zach scratched his temple with his index finger, feeling suddenly awkward, then figured he may as well stop dithering. “Actually, I thought he was trying to get

Renee’s hands paused, her flush deepening on her face, but she kept her attention on what she was doing.

“He’s told me plenty of times what a wonderful person you are.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Zach wished he could pull them back, especially after she had made it perfectly clear that she was leaving Hartley Creek soon.

“Your father has a convenient memory,” she muttered.

He wondered what she meant by that.

“At any rate, I think my father is trying to play matchmaker,” Zach said.

Renee looked at him, and when their eyes met, it was as if an electrical current hummed between them.

Yesterday she had shown a side of herself that, he suspected, no one else had ever seen. A bond between them had been created that couldn’t be easily ignored or swept aside.

“And here I thought he was making a move on my mother,” Renee said, her voice breathless. She laughed, and Zach felt the awareness between them as real as a touch.

“For all I know, he might be doing that, too,” Zach said. “Like any lawyer worth his salary, he does know how to multitask.”

“I hope not,” Renee said quietly.

“I understand your objections given your other plans, but at the same time I’m glad you and your mother came over today,” Zach said quietly. “It’s good to spend more time with you.”

Renee exhaled. “About yesterday—”

Zach stopped her by holding up his hand. “I don’t think we need to talk about yesterday.” He didn’t want to hear her regrets or analyze the reasons he shouldn’t have done what he did.

BOOK: A Father's Promise
3.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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