Read an Excerpt
Lamont had never felt more alone in his life.
Strange, since the church bulged with longtime friends, family and neighbors, here by invitation to witness his youngest daughter's wedding.
They stood at the back of the church, just the two of them, waiting arm in arm for their cue to march toward the altar. Lily smiled up at him through the gauzy mist of her veil. "I love Max like crazy, Daddy," she said, tears shimmering in her big green eyes, "but you'll always be my best guy."
He wanted to tell her how beautiful she looked, that he was proud of the woman she'd become, that her mama would have been proud of her, too, but a sob caught in his throat. He patted her tiny, white-gloved hand and ground his molars together as those first strains of "The Wedding March" came through the closed chapel doors.
The roses and lilies of the valley in her bouquet began to quake, and he tried again to come up with something, anything that might calm and comfort her. But now the choking sob had made its way to his brain, making him feel just plain stupid as he continued patting her hand.
Then the doors opened, and a couple hundred parishioners turned simultaneously in their pews, smiling and craning their necks to get that first glimpse of the bride and her dad. Evidently, his hearing was pretty good for a guy in his fifties, because despite the window-rattling crescendo of the music, he could make out "Isn't she pretty?" and "He's so handsome in a tux," rushing down the aisle like an ocean wave.
Next thing he knew, Lamont found himself at the altar, lifting her veil, kissing her forehead and handing her over to the young man who'd take care of his Lily from this day forth.
"Who gives this woman?" the preacher asked.
They'd practiced this, just last night, but Lamont didn't want to spout the two simple, one-syllable words they had assigned him. "She's not a woman," he wanted to shout instead, "She's my baby girl!"
But after his mechanical "I do," he walked wood-enly to his seat, and sat tugging at the stiff collar of the tuxedo's white shirt, trying to pay attention as Lily recited her vows and exchanged rings with Max, trying not to blubber like a toddler when the bride and groom shared their first kiss as man and wife.
When they faced the congregation, Lily looked at him and sent a silent reminder: "You'll always be my best guy, Daddy "
It put a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes, and Lamont tried to hide it by lifting his chin. But Lily saw and knowing what it meant, blew him a little kiss, the way she had since she was a toddler. And, as always, he pretended to catch it and tuck it into his pocket.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the pastor droned, "I give you Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell Sheridan."
All in attendance stood and applauded, including Lamontthough his heart wasn't in it. Because this was it. The end. Tonight, he'd go home to that big house, empty save the constant companionship of his ever-faithful mutt, Obnoxious.
An usher led Lily's mother-in-law to the back of the church. Georgia looked gorgeous, more content than he'd ever seen her. And why wouldn't she be, when Max had come home to Amarillothis time to stayand brought with him his formerly motherless little boy, Nate, and given her a daughter named Lily to love. Lamont supposed Georgia's new husband deserved some of the credit, and it made him wonder if his new son-in-law's rough-around-the-edges mom could find a second chance at love, was there hope for him, too?
He took his place in the receiving line as the pastor's wife locked him in a grandmotherly hug. "Beautiful ceremony."
Behind her, his housekeeper, Peggy, said, "Beautiful bride!"
"Thanks," he told them. "Good to see you."
But not nearly as good as it was to see the pretty widow who owned the ranch next to his.
"Hey, good-lookin'," Nadine said. "I declare, you're more gorgeous than the groom." She looked down the receiving line where Max stood smiling at Lily. "And that's saying something!"
"You clean up pretty good, yourself." An understatement, he thought, admiring the knee-length azure sheath that accented her womanly curves and brought out the pale, glittering blue of her long-lashed eyes.
"This old thing?" Clucking her tongue, she fluffed the ends of her shoulder-length blond hair. "Why, I've had it for" laughing, she stood on tiptoe to adjust the knot of his bow tie "for exactly one day. Big sale down at Gizmo's," she added conspiratorially.
Nadine was nothing if not honest. Just one more reason to like her. Plus, she was one of the few people in his life who, by her very presence, could lift his spirits.
When she finished with the tie, she straightened the shiny black button-toppers that had come with his tuxedo, then tidied the pocket square in his breast pocket. It made him feel cared for and pampered, the way he had when Rose was still
"See you at the reception hall," Nadine said. "Save a square dance for me, y'hear?" And with a flirty little wave, she disappeared into the crowd to wait her turn, blowing bubbles at the departing bride and groom.
His arms felt empty when she stepped away. Empty, and despite the dry Texas heat, a little bit cold.
Lily and Max, still in full wedding garb, joined the line of celebrants who made wings of their arms and beaks of their hands as the band played "The Chicken Polka."
"I need a break," Nadine said, plopping onto the chair beside Lamont. And waving a dinner napkin near her face, she laughed. "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse and I'm sweating like a pig." She stopped waving to add, "And don't you look like the cat that swallowed the canary. What's up your sleeve?"
"Not much, O Mistress of Cliches," he teased.
She gazed toward the dance floor. "They make a good-looking couple."
Lamont shrugged. "They'd look a whole better if they were somebody else's kids, two-stepping at somebody else's wedding."
She responded with a playful shove to his shoulder. "Take heart, Dad. I know what you're going through, 'cause I've been there, too. 'No one is good enough for my kid,'" she said, drawing quotation marks in the air.
She had it all wrong. Lamont liked his newest son-in-law just as much as he liked Reid, his oldest daughter's husband. "He's okay. I guess." His twins, Ivy and Violet, were living on their own, but Lamont felt fairly certain that when they chose life mates, he'd feel the same way about those young men, too.
"Yeah, 'okay,' but still not quite who you'd have chosen for her, right?"
She'd cocked her head to say it, and looked at him from the corner of her eye. He hadn't slept much last night, or the night before, for that matter. Maybe exhaustion explained why it seemed that Nadine was flirting with him.
The dance floor emptied as laughing, red-faced dancers returned to their seats. As the band eased into a waltz, Lamont frowned. He'd never much cottoned to ballads, especially if the lyrics spoke of lonely, broken hearts. Then Nadine started singing, and suddenly, he didn't mind as much. She had a soft, sultry voice that simultaneously soothed him and quickened his heartbeat. He wanted to hear more, up close and personal. So he bowed slightly and held out one hand. "May I have this dance?"
She followed his every step as though they'd been dancing together for years, when, in truth, he didn't think they'd shaken hands or shared a hello hug, let alone
"Do you realize this is a first?"
He grinned. "Great minds think alike?"
"Beats the alternative."
"To quote my grandpa, 'Fools seldom differ.'" And when she laughed, the invigorating sound showered over him like warm spring rain. "So how's it feel ?"
He almost admitted that holding her this close felt so good that he wanted to kick himself for not asking her to dance before. Thankfully, he didn't get the chance, because she said, " knowing you're finally on your own."
Lamont harrumphed. He'd just as soon forget that he'd gone a little nutty after Rose's death, escorting pretty young things around town two or three nights a week. A few years of that wore his patience thin, and since not a one of them came close to filling Rose's shoes, anyway, he hung up his eligible bachelor hat for good. "Please. Don't remind me."
Nadine patted his shoulder. "Now, now. Look on the bright side."
What bright side? He'd didn't like the dating scene and he didn't like the prospect of living alone. Especially not if it meant rattling around that big house, all
"Think about it total control of the TV remote, football 24/7, network news during supper " She laughed again. "You'll probably turn into a couch potato or a hermit or something, and we'll probably never see you again!"
Oh, you'll see me, he thought. You can count on it. Resting her head on his shoulder, Nadine sighed. "I'm only teasing. I remember how absolutely awful it was, going home alone that night when Adam married Julie. It took me weeks and weeks to get used to how quiet and empty the house felt."
"Hey, now there's a way to lift a guy's spirits," he said, chuckling.
One hand over her mouth, she cringed. "Oh, wow. Sorry. Guess I got my empathy and sympathy pills mixed up this morning."
The song ended and, for the second time that day, he regretted having to let her go. His gaze followed her to the table where her son, granddaughter and daughter-in-law sat, and tried to figure out what to make of the feelings she'd stirred inside him.
Fingers, snapping near his ear, brought him back to attention.
"Earth to Dad, Earth to Dad "
"Man," his eldest son-in-law said, "were you off in Never-Neverland!" He grinned. "Or should I say 'Nadine-Nadineland?'"
Lamont laughed good-naturedly. "Is it my fault if I have a good eye?"
"You can fool some of the people some of the time, but I'm not fallin' for that line of malarkey." Reid leaned closer. "Don't worryyour secret's safe with me."
Frowning, Lamont stiffened and glanced at the gaudy gold clock above the door. Two hours before the reception ended. Officially. Then there'd be gifts to pack into the car, and bills of lading to sign, checks to write and
"Lily looks great today."
Reid was right about that. "I hate to sound like a braggart, but all four of my girls are knockouts." He found each one in the crowd. "Their mama would've been proud."
"Rose would have every right to be proud. Of them, and of you, too, because you did a bang-up job, raising them all by yourself." He shook his head. "Don't think I could've handled it."
Lamont met his eyes. "Sure you would have. What choice would you have?"
Cammi walked up to them, linked arms with both men. "So, what are my two best guys gossiping about?"
"I was just telling your dad what a great job he did, bringing up you girls."
She stood on tiptoe to kiss Lamont's cheek. "He's the best dad in Texas."
"In all of the Southwest," Ivy added.
"In the whole country!" Violet said.
"You're forgetting the universe," the bride put in.
"Knock it off," Lamont said, grinning. "You want somebody to snap a picture of me blushing like a schoolgirl?"
"Oh, I doubt anyone would confuse you with a schoolgirl."
Weird, Lamont thought as Nadine stepped up beside him, how natural and normal it felt, sharing this warm family moment with her.
When she smiled up at him, big eyes glittering like blue diamonds under the enormous crystal chandelier, Lamont had to control the urge to kiss her, right there in front of his girls. "So," he said to Lily, "what's next on the schedule? Cake cutting? Tossing of the bouquet?"
"Father-Daughter dance." Lily waved at the bandleader, who signaled the other musicians to end their song. The dance floor cleared, and in the ensuing hush, guests gathered at the edge of the parquet tiles. "Ladies and gentlemen," the emcee said into his microphone, "gather 'round as our host takes his best girl for a whirl around the floor."
Leave it to Lily to choose a song guaranteed to pluck his fatherly heartstrings. In the hope that banal conversation would distract him from the meaningful lyrics, Lamont told her again how pretty she looked. Talked about the wedding-perfect weather. Asked if she'd packed for the honeymoon, and if she'd remembered plenty of sunscreen and antiseasickness pills. "Careful not to stray too far from the beaten path," he warned, "because the news is full of stories about what happens when tourists end up on island backstreets." It seemed to be working, because he almost didn't see the huge circle of friends and relatives, standing all around the dance floor.
As they two-stepped from one side of the room to the other, Lamont and Lily passed Nadine. Was he seeing things, or were those tears in her eyes? He would have turned to get a second look, if Lily hadn't chosen that moment to plant a loving kiss on his chin.
"Thanks, Daddy," she said, "for everything. You've made this the most special day of my life."
"Love you, Lilypad." The use of his pet name for her put a hitch in his voice, and he hoped she hadn't heard it. "Love you, too."
The song ended, and the guests applauded, and his little girl ran offto do whatever came next on her list of bridal obligations.
"Hey, sailor," Nadine said, taking his arm, "goin' my way?"
He shot her a grateful half grin and led her into the lobby. "Did I see you crying back there?" he asked when the doors closed behind them.
"Maybe," she said, blushing. "I guess. But only a little." And rolling her eyes, she playfully smacked his shoulder. "So what if I was?"
"Yeah, well, I saw a tear shining in your eye, too."
"Yeah, well," he echoed, "I'm footin' the bill for this fancy shindig. I have every right to bawl like a baby!"
Had her laughter always been so melodious? And why hadn't he noticed before that hearing it turned his ears hot and his palms damp?
She didn't look a day over thirty, though he knew for a fact that she'd turned fifty on her last birthday. Hard to believe this woman's a grandma! he thought, smirking.
"There you go again," she said, one well-arched brow high on her forehead, "looking like a cat with a mouthful of bird."
"A cat with a a what?"
"Well, unless I wanted you to call me the Mistress of Cliches again, I figured I'd better come up with something original."
"Oh, trust me, you're original, all right."