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And Then There Were Three
Chapter OneSam Lowery sat, sprawl-legged and guilt-ridden, in the nondescript waiting room of Portland General. He glowered with disinterest at the talking heads on the pole-mounted television in the corner, all the while obsessing over the fact that he was officially the worst father in the history of parenthood.
How could he have thought for a single moment that the mobile home offices of a construction work-site would be a safe place for his two-year-old daughter to hang out while he worked? His rationalization seemed weak at this point: he hadn't wanted to put Jessica in daycare when she was so young and still so traumatized. But he had to wonder if his aversion to daycare said more about him than it did about her.
He shoved his fingers through his hair. The knowledge that he'd placed Jessica in the very type of danger he sought to avoid made his gut clench with pain. He never should've held on so tightly, never should've expected his secretary to watch his daughter. He never should've worked overtime that fateful night six months ago, but hey, that was a whole 'nuther guilt trip, now wasn't it? He had a plethora of them from which to choose.
The musical tones of his cell phone yanked him back to the present. Had to be the job; it wasn't like he had a pack of buddies who rang him up on a regular basis. He pulled the small phone off his belt clip and checked caller ID on the LED screen before answering. The number popped up: Mia, his secretary. Flipping open the face, he lifted it to his ear. "Hey, Mia."
"Oh, Sam." Mia, a married mother of four herself, had been more than amenable to watching Jessica in the offices while Sam was out on the site, but they both should've realized Mia had her own work to do. A curious two-year-old was more than a full-time job.
"How is the poor little darling? Did she need stitches?"
Sam ran a hand slowly down his face, feeling sick and trying not to recall the disturbing picture of the deep cut in his baby girl's pudgy little hand. His heart squeezed. "Yeah, they're stitching her up right now."
"I'm so sorry."
"Don't be. It wasn't your fault."
"Well, listen. I just wanted to check in, but I'll let you go comfort her while she goes through this ordeal."
"No need," Sam said, wryly, lifting one ankle to rest it over the opposite knee. "To tell you the truth, Doc kicked me out of the suture room."
"What?" Mia's disbelief came across loud and clear. "How can he kick that darling girl's parent out of the room."
He shook his head. "Seems I was 'hovering," and making it worse for Jessica. Agitating her, Doc said."
Mia laughed, sadly. "Well, hon, no offense intended, but I can certainly see that."
Sam straightened. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're not the typical father, is all."
Sam grew immediately defensive, all the while knowing he didn't need to be. Not with Mia. But, still.
"I repeat, what's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, don't get your back up. I meant it as a compliment. You do have a tendency to ... well, to hover. Nothing wrong with that. Mothers do it all the time, believe me, and you care for that little girl like a mother would is all I'm saying." Mia's breath hitched, and for a moment, that old familiar tension hung between them. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it that way."
Sam closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly. It had been six months since the fire, and people still walked on eggshells around him as though he could snap at any moment. He couldn't blame them, though. It wasn't like he shared his emotions freely, or let anyone know where he was coming from. To be honest, he preferred it that way. He didn't want anyone too close to him or his world. "Don't apologize. It's a fact, Mia. I have to be both father and mother to her now."
"Well ... you don't have to." Mia's tone took on a subtle change. "I happen to know there are a lot of women out there who would jump at the chance to be Jessica's new mommy." Her voice took on a softer tone. "Not to mention your new love."
Sam stiffened. He chose to ignore the "new love" half of Mia's preposterous proposition. When he spoke, his words came out ultra-controlled, through a clenched jaw. "Mia, I've told you before, Jessica had a mother -"
"God rest her soul."
And fry his. "You can't just replace a parent." He knew that all too well, but held back a scoff of derision.
"Well, I know. But, Jessica was so young when her mama -" Mia sighed. "She could come to love another mother figure. I know you don't believe that, but it's true nonetheless." A beat passed, and in typical Mia form, she decided to push the other issue.
"Plus, if you had someone for yourself -"
"Don't even go there." Love? Ha. He hadn't even managed to pull that farce off the first time, when he'd really wanted it to work out.
Mia's exasperated sigh carried over the line. Her desire to see Sam remarried - happily this time - was an ongoing point of contention, but it was an argument the woman would lose. In the stubbornness department, no one rivaled Sam Lowery. He had stuck his neck out once in the love arena and been sadly disappointed. Oh, he respected Jenny as the mother of his child and always would, but it had quickly become clear theirs wasn't the love match he'd dreamed about. Still, he'd said "I do," to the "for better or worse" part that day in the Justice of the Peace's offices, and he'd meant it, even if the worse outweighed the better - which it had, by a long shot. Real men didn't leave their families, no matter how dissatisfying the arrangement.
He certainly hadn't wanted Jenny dead and buried.
A shudder moved through him at the flashback image.
Excerpted from And Then There Were Three by Lynda Sandoval Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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