Loving Leahby Nikki Benjamin
A LOVE WORTH FIGHTING FOR
Years ago, Leah Hayes selflessly stepped aside when John Bennett fell for her vivacious stepsister. Now the man she still secretly cherished was ravaged by grief and struggling to raise his fragile little girl all alone. Unable to deny the lure of this fractured family, Leah returned to Montana over her summer break/p>/strong>
A LOVE WORTH FIGHTING FOR
Years ago, Leah Hayes selflessly stepped aside when John Bennett fell for her vivacious stepsister. Now the man she still secretly cherished was ravaged by grief and struggling to raise his fragile little girl all alone. Unable to deny the lure of this fractured family, Leah returned to Montana over her summer break to lend a helping hand.
Although the brooding widower didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for Leah, their close quarters ignited forbidden passions. And as the compassionate schoolteacher provided sweet solace to John's battered soul, she saw glimpses of the kindhearted man she'd always loved. Could they confront their deepest desires by summer's end or would their hopes and dreams be lost to them forever?
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By Nikki Benjamin
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn her modest sedan, Leah Hayes could have covered the distance from her father's spacious home to John Bennett's house in a matter of minutes. And on almost any other occasion, she would have done so without a second thought. Despite the eight years she had been away, the tree-lined streets of the neighborhood, within easy walking distance of the University of Montana campus in Missoula, were still familiar to her. But with her reception so uncertain, Leah chose to take her time.
"Are you lost, Aunt Leah?" her six-year-old niece asked, her soft, sweet voice edged with anxiety.
"No, Gracie," Leah assured her, smiling ruefully as she glanced in the rearview mirror. "I remember the way to your house."
Gracie's frown eased, though only just a bit.
The little girl looked like both her mother - Leah's stepsister, Caro - and her father, her features a perfect blend of the two. From Caro, Gracie had gotten her heart-shaped face and silky blond curls, and from her father, John, she had inherited the grave, pale gray eyes and determined tilt of chin that Leah had tried so hard, and so unsuccessfully, to forget in the years she'd been away.
"But you're driving really slow," the child pointed out.
"I'm admiring all the pretty flowers." True, but not the whole truth behind her dawdling. "Everyone seems to have worked really hard on their gardens this year."
"Not us." Gracie's disappointment sounded in her voice. "All we have in our flower beds are scraggly old weeds."
"Well, that's something we can fix while I'm here. Pulling weeds and planting flowers won't take us any time at all if we work together."
"Maybe my dad could help us, too," Gracie murmured wistfully. "Before my mom died he always used to make sure we had pretty flowers."
"Maybe so," Leah agreed, though she had no idea at all what John would or wouldn't be willing to do in the weeks ahead.
"He'll probably be too busy," the child said with an audible sigh of resignation. "He's always too busy to do things with me, or he's too sad. He really misses my mom, you know. But you're here now, Aunt Leah, and you'll do lots of things with me, won't you?"
"Oh, yes, Gracie. I'm here now, and we'll do lots and lots of things together this summer. I promise," Leah said, making yet another vow to someone she loved before she'd had a chance to consider what it might cost her.
"See all the weeds in our flower beds?" her niece said as they turned onto Cedar Street.
"Yes, I do," Leah replied, trying to hide her dismay at how run-down and abandoned the lovely, two-story house appeared compared to the photographs Caro had so proudly sent her a couple of years ago.
With the streetlights illuminating the house, she gave it a closer look. Though not totally weed-infested, the gardens were overgrown, the lawn could have used a good mowing, and the front windows were all dark despite the onset of evening.
She had hoped her father and stepmother had been exaggerating about John's mood and behavior. Surely he had begun to get over the worst of his grief and was now ready to move on with his life again. He had responsibilities that couldn't be ignored, Gracie being the most important among them. And he had agreed to let her help him take care of his daughter for the summer, hadn't he?
"Do you think my dad's home?" Gracie asked as Leah turned into the driveway, the uncertainty in her voice adding to Leah's own.
"That's his SUV, isn't it?"
"Yes," the little girl replied, then added by way of explanation, "but that doesn't mean he's home. He goes for long walks at night. Really, really long walks, and it's nighttime now."
Leah could understand John's avoidance if she'd been the only one showing up on his doorstep. But would he go for one of his long walks on an evening when he was supposedly expecting his daughter to come home, as well? The man she had known eight years ago wouldn't have, but John had changed after Caro's death in ways that Leah wouldn't have believed possible had anyone except her father told her.
"If your father isn't home, we can always go back to Grandpa's house and wait there until he returns," Leah said, hoping she sounded more decisive than she felt.
"Okay," Gracie readily agreed, her fears obviously eased by Leah's simple solution.
Deciding to leave her suitcase in the trunk of the car, Leah helped Gracie out of the back seat. The little girl had only a slight bit of trouble maneuvering her injured leg, encased in a metal brace, so that she could stand up, but she accepted Leah's assistance graciously. And though she was more than capable of walking up the brick path that led from the driveway to the front door of the house on her own, she also tucked her hand into Leah's. Leah held on gratefully, receiving her own measure of reassurance from the physical contact.
Pausing on the small covered porch, she took a deep breath, gave Gracie's hand an encouraging squeeze and rang the doorbell. A cool breeze stirred the tree branches and lifted her straight, shoulder-length brown hair as she listened to the faint echo of the chimes. Shivering slightly, she wished she had put on her sweater before leaving the car. It might be June, but in Montana the night air still held a definite chill that her jeans and denim shirt couldn't ward off.
"Oh, no ..." Gracie murmured as seconds ticked into a minute, then two, without the door opening.
Reaching out, Leah pressed her finger against the doorbell a second time, holding it there several seconds longer than she had the first time. Another minute or two passed and then, to her relief, she heard the sound of the bolt lock being drawn.
"He's here!" Gracie's voice was filled with an odd mix of excitement and uncertainty that Leah determined to be a consequence of her father's erratic behavior.
Choosing to ignore as best she could the quiver that stole along her own spine, Leah forced herself to smile. The simple words "Hi, stranger" formed in her mind, a perfectly acceptable greeting after eight years, especially if spoken in a cheerfully teasing tone.
The front door finally swung open, not smoothly but with a jerk that signaled impatience, even irritation, and in the semidarkness, the man looming on the threshold presented a frightening visage, at least to Leah's eyes. Had she not expected him to be John, she would have never recognized the person now standing before her.
With his dark, shaggy hair unkempt, his face unshaven, his eyes bleary, his navy T-shirt and faded jeans hanging much too loosely on his tall, lanky frame, John Bennett looked no more familiar to her than a total stranger would have. And a hostile stranger at that, she thought, her smile fading and her jaunty greeting left unspoken.
"Hi, Daddy," Gracie said.
The child's high, sweet, hopeful voice filled the gaping silence as she let go of Leah's hand and took a tentative step forward.
Excerpted from Loving Leah by Nikki Benjamin Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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