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As he took a deep breath and let the salt air fill his lungs, something hit him on the head. He opened his eyes and jumped up from the chair. A red, white and blue beach ball rolled across the gray tile patio. Adjusting his glasses, he bent over to retrieve the ball. When he straightened, three cherubic faces came into view. Eyes wide, three children were cowering behind the Indian hawthorn bushes growing next to the stucco wall that separated his patio from the town house next door.
Holding the ball under one arm, he approached the children, who wore shorts and T-shirts. They stood stair-step fashion from shortest to tallest. He expected them to run, but they remained fixed in the spot. Their eyes grew wider as he drew nearer.
He stopped on the small patch of grass at the edge of the patio and stared at the children. "Does this belong to you?"
A little girl with sun-lightened streaks in her shoulder-length dark-brown hair gazed at him with cocoa-colored eyes. Tiny freckles dotted her cheeks and nose. The tallest of the trio, she appeared to be the oldest. She pointed at the boy standing closest to the dunes. "Jack threwit."
Wade looked down at the boy. "You must be Jack."
"Yes, sir." The boy, who sported a buzz cut that made his blond hair nearly invisible, vigorously nodded his head. Hunching his shoulders, he took a step back. He pointed his finger at the middle child, a little girl with chin-length straight brown hair and eyes the color of coffee with cream. "It's her ball. It's her fault. She wouldn't share."
"What's goin' on here?" A female voice with a sugary southern accent—the same as the children's—made Wade look up.
A young woman with a toddler at her heels emerged from behind the wall. She wore a loosely fit aqua tunic that stopped just above her knees. A cascade of chestnut curls fell around her shoulders.Wade's heart nearly stopped, and his mouth went dry. All he could do was stare.
Before he could answer, the younger of the two girls spoke. "Jack threw my ball and hit that man."
The young woman scooped up the toddler in her arms. "I'm terribly sorry the kids are bothering you, sir." She extended her free hand. "I'm Cassie Rankin."
Wade continued to stare. He couldn't put together a coherent thought. His heart was hammering, and his brain refused to work. Still no words formed on his lips. He'd never been so dumbstruck.
"Are are you okay?" The young woman wrinkled her brow as her gray eyes studied him.
Nodding, he gathered his wits and shook her hand. He tried to laugh, but all he could manage was a sorry excuse for a chuckle. "Yeah. I'm Wade Dalton. Nice to meet you. I You took me by surprise. And the children "
"Well, they won't be bothering you anymore."
"Is he gonna whup us?" Jack asked, cowering behind the older girls.
Color rose in Cassie's cheeks as she glanced at the little boy. "No, Jack."
Wade wondered why the boy had asked a question like that. Did the woman abuse the children? And who was she, anyway—the babysitter, the nanny? Surely they weren't hers. She seemed much too young to have a child the age of the older girl. Still, the child did resemble her. Questions crashed through his mind like the breakers on the beach.
"Sorry about that," she put in, before Wade could say anything. Obviously still embarrassed, she peered at him through long, dark lashes. "Are you here on vacation?"
Wade shook his head, knowing he'd used a lot of vacation time during his treatments for Hodgkin's disease. "No. I'm renting the place while I'm working in the area. Are you on vacation?"
"No, sir, we're going to live here," the younger girl volunteered. Then she scurried behind Cassie, as if she'd suddenly remembered that she was talking with an unfriendly stranger.
"Where is everyone?" another woman's voice called from inside Cassie's town house.
"It's Miss Angie!" the younger girl yelled and went racing across the patio, her pink flip-flops slapping against her feet as she ran.
The little girl disappeared through the sliding patio door, then quickly reappeared, followed by a middle-aged woman with frosted-brown hair and a no-nonsense tan business suit. Cassie gave the woman a hug. The thought of her giving him a hug suddenly flitted through his mind. Amazed at his own foolish thinking, he pushed the idea away. He had to get his head on straight. He couldn't be having crazy thoughts about the beautiful young woman next door.
The older woman reached down and ruffled the smaller girl's hair. "How're you doing?"
"Good, ma'am. It's fun here." The little girl clapped her hands. "We went to the pool this morning."
"Did you go to the beach, too?"
The little girl nodded. "But only for a little walk. We get to go back there this afternoon to play. That's why we were practicing with the ball."
Wade took a step back, wondering if he could slip away quietly. But then the child pointed at him. "Jack hit that man with the ball."
All eyes turned in Wade's direction. He tried to smile, even though he felt like a specimen under a microscope.
The newcomer extended her hand. "Hello. I'm Angie Clark. I'm a friend of Cassie's."
"Wade Dalton." He shook her hand. "Nice to meet you. I live next door."
"I'm hungry!" Jack hollered, tugging on Cassie's tunic. "I wanna eat."
Cassie looked down at the boy, then up at Angie. "I was just fixin' to call the kids for lunch when all the commotion happened."
"Wonderful." Looking at Wade, Angie gestured toward him. "Since you're going to be Cassie's neighbor, why don't you join us for lunch, and we can all get to know each other?"
What could he say? He hadn't eaten yet, but he didn't really want to eat lunch with a bunch of noisy kids. Still, he'd appear rude if he turned down the invitation. Besides, didn't he want to figure out why Cassie Rankin was in charge of these four children? Finally, he nodded. "Sure."
The younger girl poked her head out from behind Cassie. "We're having macaroni and cheese. Miss Angie likes macaroni and cheese. Do you?"
He groaned inwardly. He hated macaroni and cheese. Why had he said yes to lunch? Because his mind was completely transfixed by a sweet southern drawl, that was why. And Cassie was going to think he didn't have a brain in his head if it took him forever to answer a simple question. "I don't know. I haven't had it in a long time."
"It's ready. Let's eat." Still holding the toddler, Cassie smiled at him. The older children jostled to get inside, and Angie followed them. Cassie lingered in the doorway, her gaze still on him. "You'll have to excuse the mess. We just arrived, and we haven't finished unpacking yet."
"No problem." Trying to unscramble his senses, he followed her through the door. After his eyes adjusted to the dimmer lighting inside, he noticed several beat-up hard-sided suitcases sitting at the foot of the stairs. A cardboard box overflowing with well-used toys occupied a space near the front door.
When he entered the eating area off the kitchen, the children were already seated at the table. Cassie put the toddler in a high chair and strapped him in. Angie put plates on the table, and Cassie proceeded to dish out the macaroni and cheese. She glanced up at him and pointed at the chair at the end of the table. "You can sit there."
After Wade and Angie joined the children at the table, Jack immediately grabbed his fork and started shoveling his lunch into his mouth.
"Jack, where are your manners?" Although she spoke with a soft voice, Cassie's stern tone made the little girls jump. "What do we do before we eat?"
"Pray," the little girls chorused, then immediately folded their hands and bowed their heads.
Jack did the same, and Cassie glanced at Wade. "I hope you don't mind."
"No." Wade shook his head. "I usually pray before meals myself."
"Good. Then you can say the blessing for us." Wade bowed his head and gave a short prayer of thanks for the food. When he looked up, Jack had resumed eating as though nothing had happened. Cassie sat at the other end of the table, and helped the youngest with his food. Wade examined his plate and noticed the pieces of hot dog mixed in with the macaroni and cheese. Tube steak. That was what his dad had jokingly called hot dogs when Wade was a kid. He took a bite. Not bad. He took another bite. Maybe that was what macaroni and cheese had needed all along—a little tube steak.
As Wade ate, he looked at the older girl. "I know your brother's name, but you never told me yours."
She gazed up at him with those big brown eyes and answered him in a voice barely above a whisper. "My name's Taylor."
"My name's Makayla, and I'm five," the other girl put in. "I get to go to kindergarten when school starts. And that's Danny." She pointed to the toddler in the high chair.
"And your name's Wade. I heard you tell Aunt Cassie."
Ah. An aunt. Were they just visiting? No, they'd said they were living here. Hoping for more answers, he looked toward Cassie.
She frowned at Makayla. "You must call him Mr. Dalton."
"Yes, ma'am." Makayla eyed Wade, appearing unconvinced. "Is that what you want me to call you?"
He glanced from the little girl to her aunt. "She can call me Mr. Wade if that's okay with you."
Cassie nodded. "As long as you don't mind, sir."
"I don't." There was that "sir" again. It didn't seem strange coming from the children, but when Cassie called him sir, it made him feel old. Did he look that old? He smiled at her, even though she was making him feel ancient. Then he turned his attention to the girls. "I'm glad to meet you young ladies. How old are you, Taylor?"
Trying to hide a smile, she lowered her gaze. "Seven."
"And Jack's three, and Danny's still one, but he'll be two soon." Makayla bounced in her chair as she spouted the information. "Would you like to marry my aunt so we can have a daddy? My mom and stepdaddy are in prison. Aunt Cassie is taking care of us. She's going to be our new mom."
Wade looked across the table at Cassie. Her tan couldn't hide the pink tinge creeping across her cheeks. Would she explain, or was she too embarrassed? He wondered whether the bad stuff had anything to do with Jack's question about getting whupped. Had their parents abused them? Was that why they were in prison?
"Makayla, Mr. Dalton can't be your daddy. We've only just met him." Shaking her head, Cassie looked at Angie and grimaced. Then she glanced his way and smiled wryly. "Sorry, sir. Makayla is good at revealing the family secrets."
"Aunt Cassie, he said we should call him Mr. Wade. You should call him that, too," Makayla instructed.
Trying to temper a smile, Wade marveled at this sprite of a girl, who was quite entertaining—though probably not to her aunt. The child was definitely a handful, he could tell. He gazed at Cassie, and his pulse beat a little faster.
Every time he looked at this beautiful young woman, his insides did crazy things. How was he going to deal with that, when they were going to be here permanently—not just on vacation? He didn't have any business being interested in a woman who was at least a dozen years his junior—especially one who kept calling him sir. Besides, his health issues would probably scare her away.
Cassie sighed. "Makayla, please mind your manners. Remember, you're not in charge here."
"Yes, ma'am." The little girl hung her head. "I'm sorry."
Makayla's sudden change in demeanor surprised Wade. She obviously wanted to please her aunt.
How had these children come to live with Cassie? She was so young. And how could she afford to live in an oceanfront town house? The suitcases in the front hall didn't testify to an abundance of money. And how did Angie fit into this scenario?
So many questions were rolling through his mind. Maybe if he hung around long enough, Makayla would give him all the answers.
He couldn't believe he was even thinking about staying. Usually children made him uncomfortable. He hadn't been around kids in a long time, and he wasn't used to a lot of commotion. Four lively kids didn't make for the calm atmosphere he was accustomed to.
"Have you been here long?" Angie asked, interrupting his thoughts.
Wade shook his head. "I just moved in. I have a consulting job here."
"What do you do?"
"I'm a forester."
Makayla tapped him on the arm. "What's a for ster?"
"It's forester." He enunciated very slowly. "A forester works to make trees healthy and strong."
"I have a book on trees." Her expression brimmed with excitement. "I also got lots of seashells.You wanna see?"
"Makayla, Mr. Wade doesn't have time to look at your book or your seashells." Cassie gave the little girl a stern look. "You probably don't even know where they are."
"I do. I can get them right now." She started for the stairway.
Cassie grabbed her arm. "Not so fast, young lady. You haven't finished eating."
"But I want to show Mr. Wade my shells!" Makayla wailed.
"You can show me after you finish eating," Wade said, then wondered why. He didn't know how to talk to children, and here he was accepting an invitation to look at a little girl's shell collection. The sight of her attractive aunt must have fried his brain.
Makayla hurried to the table and began to shovel food into her mouth.
"Slow down or you'll choke. You can only show him the shells if you eat politely." Cassie returned to the table and glared at Makayla. Then she glanced at Angie.
"I'm sorry about the commotion. You know how Makayla can get."
Smiling, Angie tousled Makayla's hair again. "You've got lots of enthusiasm, don't you?"
Makayla wrinkled her little brow. "What's 'thusiasm?" Angie chuckled. "Getting excited."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm excited to show Mr. Wade—"
"Eat or you won't be showing anyone anything." Cassie frowned.
"Yes, ma'am." Makayla resumed eating.
Cassie turned to Angie. "I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow." Cassie finished feeding the baby, then plucked him out of the high chair and balanced him on one hip.
"I know, but I showed a house early this morning in Yulee, so I decided to stop by and see how you're doing."
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