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A Father's Fortune
By Shirley Hailstock
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Shirley Hailstock
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat was he doing here?
James "Digger" Clayton climbed down from the cab of his truck and stared at the building and yard. There had to be a mistake. A white picket fence, gleaming so brightly it rivaled the sunny afternoon, stood in front of him. Pushing the gate open, he clenched his teeth as he verified the number on the note in his hand against the scripted numbers on the Mexican tiles hanging above the center porch.
This was the right place, at least the place his dispatcher, Sarah, had sent him. And she knew better. Swinging his gaze up and down the street, he looked for another address. There were no other structures on this side of the street. The other side backed up against a development of contemporary cookie cutter houses, molded out of sand-colored stucco. This building at least had character. It was a big Victorian mansion with turret rooms. Cornflower blue with white gingerbread trim, he wouldn't have been surprised to see Hansel and Gretel running about the front yard.
Digger looked down at his dusty work boots then across the crowded yard. Sarah had screwed up royally. She knew better than to send him to a place like this. Squeals rang out in the clear warm air, the sound wracking through his insides like a rusty knife ripping raw flesh. He froze, unable to move. Pain's hand swelled around his heart - squeezing memory through his veins. His breath all but stopped. Sweat popped out on his neck, and his arms were suddenly leaden and heavy.
The yard was full of them - laughing, running, zigzagging in unpredictable patterns, spinning around like tops of boundless energy. Digger had to dodge as they scurried around him. He moved from side to side, trying to keep his balance as they rushed around without order or purpose.
His brain told him to run, get away from here, but his feet felt as if they were lodged in cement. He couldn't budge. He should never have gotten out of the truck, driven away the moment he saw them. He could have Sarah call and apologize for him. There was no way he could work here. He tried to force his legs to move, but they were weighted. Digger looked down. There was a weight holding him back - about forty pounds of brown eyes, braids and small even teeth.
A child, a little girl, clasped her arms around his right leg. Both her feet stood on one of his. She held onto him like a detachable doll. She smiled up at him, her eyes bright and happy in a face that would be hard not to love.
"Hi," she said.
Digger's heart accelerated. He closed his eyes and clamped his teeth down hard, forcing back the memories that tried to seep through. Shock waves rocketed through him. He locked his knees, his hands balling into fists. He hoped the tension in his body would stem the horror inside him. He stared down at the little girl. She smiled at him. He didn't return it, yet he was unable to take his eyes off her. If it weren't for the child, if it weren't for forty pounds of innocence clinging to his trouser leg, her eyes trusting him, her smile as big as the sky, he wouldn't be able to stand on his own.
"Sam, come here." Someone called to her. Digger shifted his gaze. The child's teacher pulled the small hands from his dusty, jean-clad leg. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "She's very friendly. She meant no harm."
"I'm Sam," the little girl said. "What's your name?"
Digger swung his attention between the child and the teacher. He wondered if the perceptive young woman saw his discomfort. She had blond hair and light brown eyes. He guessed she was about eighteen, and she looked like the poster-child for the clean cut American teenager.
"May I help you?" she asked, lifting the girl in her arms. Her action was obviously protective. She turned slightly away as if he might be a possible criminal and she was checking her escape routes.
"I'm Digger Clayton. I have an appointment with Erin Taylor."
"James Clayton, Clayton Construction." Most people knew him as Digger. He often forgot to use his given name.
"Oh." She smiled, a little embarrassed. He could see relief in her eyes. She'd obviously decided he wasn't there to do harm to her or any of the children.
"That's Ms. Taylor over there." She pointed to a door at the far end of the building. A woman wearing navy blue Bermuda shorts and a yellow T-shirt walked toward the door. She didn't just walk. She seemed to glide, her pace unhurried and graceful. Her hair was held in a ponytail, which she pulled free as she walked. The shirt stretched across her back as graceful arms moved right and her head moved left. Digger was reminded of a ballet. He hated ballet, but something stirred inside him. He liked what he was looking at. And that was a surprise.
"I believe she's expecting you," the young woman's voice pulled him out of his dream.
"Thank you," he said.
She brushed the little girl's hair and walked back toward a group of kids standing inside a circle and playing with a ball.
"Bye," the little girl said. She waved her fingers. Digger's tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.
He started to move toward the door where Erin Taylor had disappeared, but kids suddenly burst around him, through his legs, in front and behind him, hampering his movement. Digger jumped out of the way as they screamed with laughter. He waited a moment, more to compose himself than to allow the children to disperse. He hadn't been here five minutes and already he wanted to leave. He should head for his truck, he told himself. He should call Sarah on his cell phone from the comfortable security of the Bronco's cab. And after he reamed her out for sending him here, she could call the long-legged Erin Taylor and make his apologies. He wasn't interested, not in her job and not in her.
Her, he thought. He hadn't even seen her face. How could he be interested in a body wearing shorts and a tight T-shirt? Yet he didn't go to the Bronco. One unencumbered step followed the other on the path that led where he didn't want to go, shouldn't go.
Inside, it wasn't as bright as the yard had been. Digger stopped a moment to let his eyes adjust. The noise level inside was so different from outside that he shook his head to make sure there was nothing in his ears. He stood on a polished brown floor. Scuff marks were evidence of running, skidding children. Bins had been built into the walls. Most were closed, but a few stood open revealing redheaded dolls, tubs of Lego, board games, plastic bats and toys of all varieties. Small colorful chairs and tables were grouped on carpet circles, books lay askew in movable racks near the windows.
Get out of here, a voice whispered in his head. It had been a long time since he'd been around children. They scared him. But he knew this room. He could smell the chalk and crayons, almost hear the voices -
"Mr. Clayton?" Hearing his name stopped his train of thought. "Are you Mr. Clayton?"
Excerpted from A Father's Fortune by Shirley Hailstock Copyright © 2003 by Shirley Hailstock
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.