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Gabe Reynolds paced the photo-lined hallway, back and forth past baby and childhood pictures of his daughter, past the door where that same daughter did whatever preteen girls did behind closed doors. Considering the amount of time he spent coaxing her out of there these days, he figured he'd wear a path in the finish of the hardwood floor by the time his only child was grown and gonesomething he intended to delay as long as possible.
He finally stopped and banged on the bathroom door. "Hurry up, Chels. You'll be late."
His dear, sweet daughter growled at him. Growled.
With a badge on his chest and weapon at his hip, he should be prepared to deal with anything. But give him a drunk or a thief any day over this soon-to-be-teenage-girl business.
He pounded the door again. "I've gotta get back to the station. What are you doing in there?"
"For the thousandth time, I'm coming."
He knew without a doubt that she was in there rolling her eyes at him. "What's taking so long?"
"A work of art takes time," she said in her best theatrical voice. Then she giggled, more like her normal, little girl self.
This switching from girl to young woman then back to girl
in the blink of an eye was making his head spin. "You better not be putting on makeup."
"I'm a teenager. All my friends wear makeup."
"You're not thirteen yet. And if all your friends jumped off"
She yanked the door open so fast it banged into the wall. She glared at him. "No. If all my friends jumped off a bridge, I would not jump, too. This is totally different and you know it."
Her cheeks glowed with a too-bright pink that matched her tinted lips. Her mascaraed eyelashes, clumped into several uneven spikes, seemed a mile longer than usual. She looked grown-up. Too grown-upthe kind that would attract the attention of guys. "All I know is I forbade you to wear makeup and and " He jabbed his finger at the pile of containers on the bathroom counter. "That looks an awful lot like makeup. Where'd you get it?"
She huffed and tossed her dark curls over her shoulder. "I bought it with my allowance. And I'm learning to put it on so it accentuates my best features."
She was accentuated, all right. And sounded like she was spouting something she'd seen on an infomercial. He squinted as he checked out her face, so much like her mother's it made it hard to look sometimes. And even though he had the urge to drop the subject and run the other direction, it was his job to deal with this kind of situation now. "You've got on lipstick. Wipe it off."
"I want to look nice for our youth group meeting at the church tonight."
She shrugged. "No reason." She fingered a small picture frame on the counter, then quickly placed it facedown before he could see whose photo it held. "Now, please let me finish. I'll be out in five minutes."
A boy. It had to be because of a boy. "Who is he?"
"The boy. The one you're putting makeup on for." She rubbed a finger with brown sparkly goop over her eyelid. "No one. I'm doing it for myself."
"Hand it over."
She sighed and slapped a little compact into his hand. "There, are you happy? No more eye shadow."
"No. Hand over the photo. Of the boy." He reached toward the picture frame.
"No!" She stopped him by grabbing hold of his hand. She looked terrified.
Which terrified him. If the guy was some high school punk, Gabe would be out the door and into the squad car in five seconds flat.
He shook Chelsea's hand off and grabbed the gold frame. But he didn't find some guy. All the frustration and fear whooshed out of him along with his breath when he found his wife. His sweet, beautiful wife.
Once he recovered his equilibrium, he said, "Chels, why do you have your mom's picture in here?"
She gave a little shrug, this time not so rebellious. "I told you. I'm learning to put on makeup."
Pain steamrolled him flat to the floor as he remembered Chelsea watching her mom put on lipstick on Sunday mornings before church and often asking if she could have some. Tina would smile, kiss a pink lip print on Chelsea's cheek and promise to show her when she got older.
Now here their daughter was, studying Tina's face, learning to apply lipstick by herself. Gabe ached for Chels. Ached period.
It had been five years since the accident, and just when he was making headway and felt like he might finally be able to breathe again, this had to happen.
"Please, Dad?" She took the frame from his hand and held the photo up beside her face. "See? I tried to do just what she did."
He wanted to hug her. To protect her from any more pain in her young life. She needed her mom, especially for moments like this. But no, all she had was a cop dad who didn't have a guess at how to handle his daughter growing up. He swallowed, then cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. But you're just not old enough. You'll have to wash that stuff off your face."
She heaved a sigh that seemed to start at her toenails. "Okay." She stared at the photo for a second. "Do I look pretty?" She'd said it so softly he wasn't sure he heard her right. But then she turned to him and waited, looking everywhere but directly at him.
Oh, boy. "Well, now, I guess you better let me get a good look at you."
She smiled shyly as she looked up, but then the smile went crooked as she gnawed on her lip. He had a feeling she wasn't quite as comfortable being in makeup as she thought she would be.
"You look beautiful. Always."
"I do look a little like Mom, don't I?"
He breathed in through his nose, then forced a smile. "Even prettier."
"Thanks." She threw her arms around his waist, and for a split second, all was as it should be. Or at least it was back to the norm of the last few years. It would never again be as it should be.
He gave her a quick pat on the back before stepping away.
A horn honked outside. Chelsea's ride to church. "Hurry. You know Gary and Audra have other kids to pick up."
"Go tell 'em I've got to wash my face and to wait up."
"Okay. Hey, I'm making your favorite dinner this evening. Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches."
She splashed water on her face. "Daaad. You know we eat at church. And I guess I forgot to tell you a bunch of us are hanging out tonight after the meeting."
All he could do was groan as he walked away. Why couldn't everything just stay simple? Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Watch a little TV. Go to bed. But Chelsea had insisted on staying involved in the church.
The youth counselors had been kind to offer to drive her every week. Of course, they volunteered for everything at the church while he, on the other hand, didn't even make it to Sunday-morning worship on the rare Sundays he was off.
The services didn't feel right with that empty seat beside him.
When he stepped outside, the hot, humid air slapped him in the face. Another stifling July evening in Corinthia, Georgia, that made him long for winter. A blue Ford sat in his driveway with the engine running. It looked like the one that belonged to his next-door neighbor, Faith Hagin.
She rolled down her window and waved. "I'm filling in for Audra and Gary tonight."
"She'll just be a minute," he hollered.
Faith had bought the local coffee shop and moved to town about a year ago. Though she tended to keep to herself, he'd gotten to know her a little as they worked in their yards and through his daily visits to her cafe for coffee and homemade pastries. They mainly talked about work, but he'd found out bits and pieces about her family.
He'd learned she was divorced and had a teenage son. For some reasonand Gabe hadn't priedthe boy lived with his dad. Gabe hadn't pushed Faith on the topic as they'd gradually formed a sort-of friendship. He figured it wasn't his business. But if she was going to be helping with the church youth
Chelsea barreled outside. As she spotted the car, she came to a stop. "Is that Faith?"
"Yes. Looks like she's driving tonight."
"Cool." Chelsea went around to the passenger side of the car as Gabe ambled to Faith's open window. Air-conditioning blasted him in the face.
"I'll bring her home by nine," she said.
"Why so late?"
Chelsea rolled her eyes and shook her head, exasperated. "I told you. We're hanging out."
He wasn't positive, but it looked as if Chelsea had reapplied the pink lipstick. He squinted, trying to see better, while worrying about her "hanging out" with a group that included high school-age youth. Ignoring the possible makeup infraction for the moment, he asked Faith, "Where are they hanging out?"
Faith gave him a sympathetic smile and he once again wondered about her relationship with her son. It seemed she understood his worry. "At the cafe tonight for some decaf and live music."
He'd heard her coffee shop was turning into a regular teen hangout. But Chelsea, too? "As long as you're there with them."
"Of course." She pointed at the seat belt to remind Chelsea to buckle. "She'll be fine."
"Thanks." He leaned inside the window and couldn't help but notice how good it smelled inside. He filled his lungs and wondered if his daughter was wearing perfume. But he hadn't smelled it in the house.
He glanced at Faith and, for the first time, wondered if she wore makeup. He couldn't really tell for sure. She was a natural beauty, with light brown hair she pulled into a pony-tail and gorgeous greenish-blue eyes. He'd never noticed her wearing that particular flowery fragrance.
She shifted the car into Reverse. "You know, if you're worried about her, I hear they're always looking for more volunteers to help with the youth."
Why did someone bring that up every single week? It was all he could manage to drop off Chelsea on Sunday mornings.
Time for a subject change. "New perfume?"
She seemed surprised, but then she raised her eyebrows as if impressed. "Ah, so you're a master of avoidance."
His sweet daughter snorted a laugh. "Yep. Avoiding me growing up."
He snapped his mouth closed on his automatic rebuttal and decided he wasn't going to get drawn into that trap. Though, surely Faith would see his view on the subject. "See you at nine." As he patted the car door to let them leave, Chels smiled at Faith, and a sheen of forbidden gloss on her pink lips flickered in the evening sun.
They honked and waved. As they drove away, toward the church, he realized just how empty his world was whenever Chelsea left. Eventually, he'd have to "get a life" as Chels always told him. But for now, he had to focus on herand on figuring out how in the world she had managed to pull one over on him yet again.
Faith wasn't sure how the youth counselors, Gary and Audra, had roped her into driving the group of kids. She planned to help this once, then get back to service more in line with her giftscooking, cleaning, volunteering in the church office.
After picking up the last child who needed a ride to the Sunday-evening youth group meeting, Faith observed the four middle schoolers in her vehicle, the two girls giggling and the two boys jostling each other around. Her son, Ben, had moved in with his dad five years ago, during seventh grade. Watching the seventh and eighth graders interact made her ache for what she'd missed. Of course, Ben hadn't been in a good place in seventh grade. He'd hooked up with a bad crowd and hadn't taken part in the joyful laughter and harmless teasing this bunch of kids enjoyed.
Like the oppressive humid air, guilt settled over her, pressing her into the contours of the car seat, making it difficult to breathe.reminding her what a failure she'd been.
She forced air into her lungs and tried not to think of the past. Ben was doing great now and that's what mattered.
"We're here." Faith dropped the noisy middle school youth at the back of the church where they found the others outside throwing a fluorescent-green Frisbee. "I'll see you for coffee later."
"Thanks!" they called as they piled out of her SUV.
Her pastor, Phil, flagged her down as he pulled a cloth hanky out of his pocket and swiped it across his brow and into his graying temples. "As you may have heard, Audra and Gary are moving, so I could really use your help with the youth."
Teens dealing with peer pressure, sex, drugs. Dealing with crises of faith. Asking my advice
It pained her to tell anyone no when they needed her. Especially Phil, who had been kind and tried to make her feel welcome from the day she moved to town. But as much as she loved kids and would like to help, there was no way she was prepared for a youth leadership position. If Phil knew her track record with Ben, he probably wouldn't even ask.
Besides, her work schedule wouldn't permit it. "Phil, you know I'd do anythingclean the church, produce the bulletin, cook the meals. But with my cafe to run I can't make such a big weekly commitment."
"Think about it. They'd really like you."
"I'm sure I'd love them. But this summer is crazy enough with getting ready for Ben's visit."
"Maybe in the fall." He waved goodbye as he headed toward the air-conditioned building. "Hey, I look forward to meeting Ben."
Yes, Ben. Her number one priority continued to be her relationship with her son. Soon to be a senior, he would graduate and move off to college before she knew it. Since he lived forty-five minutes away with his dadand lived and breathed baseball year-roundtime with him was scarce. He'd be coming soon to stay for two weeks. She couldn't wait, especially since he'd canceled his visit the previous summer. After having to settle for quick trips to ball games or his dad's house for the past year, she looked forward to uninterrupted time together and wanted it to be perfect.
First on her to-do list was to train Natalie to run the cafe while Faith was on vacation with her son so she could give him undivided attention.
It was her last chance to heal their relationship.
"I need a life," Chelsea said later that night as Faith drove toward home, the last orange and pink rays of the sunset fading on the horizon.