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A suitcase in each hand, Nick Barry shoved open the front door to the fourplex on Yellow Rose Lane. The residential North Dallas neighborhood was exactly what he needed. A tree-lined street, freshly mowed grass and peace and quiet.
No wonder his aunt had loved this place. Too bad she had to leave it, he thought, but at least she'd sublet it to him. Between the low rent and the amenities, it was a sweet deal.
He was in the lobby, having used the key Aunt Grace had sent to get in the front door. Now he was trying to figure out which key unlocked his new apartment when he heard someone behind him. He looked over his shoulder but not seeing anyone, he turned back to his task.
Simultaneously he felt something around his ankle and heard a tiny voice yelling, "I found him! I found our daddy!"
Shock filled him as he stared at the little girl sitting on the floor with her short, thin arms wrapped around his left leg.
He'd been a little forgetful lately, what with the change in his life, but he was pretty sure he hadn't forgotten a child.
"Missy? Missy, where are you?" This time it wasn't a child's voice, but a woman's. And if the woman herself matched her tone, she was a beauty. The sound came from afar so he decided to encourage her to come closer.
"Um, I think Missy is with me in the entry hall," he yelled. He looked down at the towheaded preschooler staring up at him. "You are Missy, aren't you?"
She nodded brightly, not appearing at all scared. "Missy?"
The woman was getting closer, but Nick called again. "She's here with me in the lobby!"
When the door across from his aunt's apartment swung open, Nick knew he'd beenright: the flesh and blood woman matched her voice. The blond beauty rushed out. "Missy! I told you not to come out here without me! Get back inside at once."
"But I found him!" Missy said indignantly, hugging his leg even tighter.
"Who did you find?" the blonde demanded.
Nick was finding the situation amusing until two other little girls appeared behind the adult. He'd forgotten three daughters? "Uh, I don't think--"
"Missy, let go of--of whoever you are!" The blonde looked at him for the first time.
"Okay. Missy, let go of Nick Barry. He is not your daddy!"
"Whew! That's a relief," Nick said, grinning.
"This is not a laughing matter!" the young woman said sternly.
"Why can't he be our daddy?" Missy asked, still not letting him go.
"Because I don't even know who he is!"
"But we need a daddy!" Missy protested, her tone getting more indignant.
Nick looked down at the charmer hanging on to his ankle. He set down the two suitcases he'd been carrying and then bent down and picked her up. "Sweetheart, I'm sure wherever your daddy is, he'll come soon. I can't believe he'd ever forget you."
Suddenly one of the older girls burst into tears and, sobbing, ran back into the apartment across from him.
"Was it something I said?" Nick asked, frowning. The woman stepped forward and took Missy into her arms. "Why are you here?" she asked him, looking around. "And how did you get in?"
Ah. She'd finally started asking important questions. "I'm subletting this apartment."
"Grace's apartment? She can only sublet it to a relative and what happened to her? The last time I saw her she was doing fine!"
"She's moved into an assisted-living facility. And I'm her nephew."
"Okay, fine. I'll deal with you later. Now I have to--"
"Jennifer, the stove is exploding!" another young voice called out from inside the woman's apartment.
"What? Get out of the kitchen! I'm coming!" Seemingly without thinking, she set Missy down and ran back into the apartment, frantic.
Missy grinned up at him. "Won't you be our daddy?"
"Uh, no, but I will see if I can help your mommy. Come on." He scooped up the little girl and entered the apartment. Missy showed him the way to the kitchen.
The blonde was on her way out of the room. "What are you doing in here?"
"You forgot something." He nodded toward the child in his arms.
"Just put her down. I've got to see about Steffi!" Then, like a whirlwind, she moved on to another room.
"Who is Steffi?" he asked Missy once he'd set her on her feet.
"She's my big sister," Missy said solemnly. "You made her cry."
"I did? How did I do that?"
Missy's big brown eyes sobered. "She remembers our real daddy. And he's dead."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"What's dead mean?"
Nick stared at the precocious child. "Um, I think you need to ask your mommy."
"She's dead, too." The little girl was beginning to tear up and Nick felt his heart breaking for her and her sisters. He tried to think of something to distract her.
"What was exploding in the kitchen?" he asked.
"I don't know. Jennifer was making sketti for us."
"Sketti? What's that?"
"You know, long, skinny things with red stuff on it. It's my favorite!"
With Missy's description and from what he could see in the kitchen, he figured out their mother was making them spaghetti. The stove was turned off under the big pan of water and pasta. Nick was an expert on spaghetti, by virtue of the hundreds of pounds he'd eaten just in his adult life. He checked the spaghetti and determined it still needed to cook awhile. The sauce, in a smaller pot, was already getting cold. He put Missy in a chair at a nearby table and told her not to get down.
"Because I don't want you to get burned."
"Oh." The little girl seemed satisfied with that logic. He turned on the burners and stirred the sauce as he watched the water begin to boil.
"I didn't know daddies could cook," Missy commented from the table.
"Some daddies can," he muttered, concentrating on what he was doing.
"Jennifer says we don't need no daddy."
"Who is Jennifer?" he asked, expecting to be told Jennifer was one of her sisters. "She's our new mommy," Missy said with satisfaction.
"Your new mommy?"
"Yes. She's our new mommy today."
"You've only lived with her today?"
"Yes. Steffi said she skewed us," Missy said carefully.
"She skewed you? I don't understand what that means."
"You know, like when Superman skews a baby. He saves her."
Ah, rescue, he reasoned. But how had Jennifer rescued these precious children? Treading carefully so as not to bring a second child to tears, he decided to back into his questions.
"So you watch Superman?" he asked.
"Yes, my last mommy played it on the television a lot. Superman skewed somebody every time--"
"So you're saying your new mommy rescued you?" he asked, sparing Missy a glance.
"Yeah, that's what Steffi said."
He stirred the sauce as he watched the spaghetti boil. When he checked the spaghetti again, it appeared to be ready. He found a metal colander sitting in the sink, ready for him to pour the spaghetti and boiling water in it, so he did so. Steam rose in the air.
"Is that smoke?" Missy asked casually. "Jennifer says smoke is dangerous."
"No, it's steam. That's a little different, but it can also hurt you if you're not careful." He wondered what he should do now.
Hearing a noise in the hallway, he turned in that direction. The blonde reappeared in the doorway. The adult blonde, that is. Jennifer. All three little girls were also blond. But then he'd originally thought Jennifer was their birth mother. Not according to Missy.
"Why are you still here?" Her demand wasn't exactly welcoming, but he realized she was under a little stress.
"I thought I could lend a hand. Especially since it appears I caused part of the problem."
"Part?" she said, giving him a direct look.
For the first time he noticed she had gorgeous blue eyes to go with the blond hair.
"I didn't volunteer to be anyone's daddy by just coming in the door, did I?"
"I guess not," she said, not sounding happy about having to admit it.
"How's Steffi?" he asked, afraid she was about to tell him to leave. He was strangely reluctant to do so.
Steffi peeked at him from behind her new mommy. "She's fine."
"I'm glad. I didn't mean to upset you," he said to the little girl.
She nodded, then hid behind the woman. "Well, the spaghetti is ready, and the sauce, too. And, hey, you've got hamburger meat in your sauce, you lucky girls!" he joked. During college, he hadn't been able to afford meat for his spaghetti.
"You finished cooking it?" Jennifer asked in consternation. "I didn't intend--That's very kind of you. Uh, would you like to join us?"
Missy perked up at that invitation. "Yeah! You can have the daddy seat!"
"Missy, no, Mr. Barry is not the daddy. He's a guest. We'll welcome him to his new apartment and thank him for his assistance. Well?" she asked, looking at him again.
"Only if you'll promise to call me Nick. I don't like formality."
She took a deep breath and he feared she was going to refuse, leaving him no option but to decline her invitation. And he didn't want to do that.
"Of course, Nick. Steffi, can you and Annie get everyone a knife, fork and spoon?"
"Yes, Jennifer," the oldest girl said.
"Is there anything I can do?" Nick asked.
"No, we'll manage. You can entertain Missy." Nick grinned. He'd already entertained the little girl, but he settled in at the table beside her. "Looks like it's you and me, Missy."
"You and me what?"
"You and me who don't have a job. We just get to watch."
"Oh, yeah. I'm too little. But you're old. How come you don't have a job?"
Nick stifled a laugh. "Because I'm your guest."
"Oh." Missy rested her chin on her hands and seemed deep in thought.
"Is iced tea okay, Nick?" his hostess asked.