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Lily Marstow and Alyssa Cane think they have the perfect plan. After all, helping their single parents fall in love shouldn't be that hard. But Silas Marstow wants nothing to do with the woman who lost track of his child for precious minutes in the aftermath of the High Plains tornado. And Josie Cane is busy caring for her ailing grandmother and rebuilding her life. The girls' matchmaking pact is in jeopardy unless they can make their parents ...
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Lily Marstow and Alyssa Cane think they have the perfect plan. After all, helping their single parents fall in love shouldn't be that hard. But Silas Marstow wants nothing to do with the woman who lost track of his child for precious minutes in the aftermath of the High Plains tornado. And Josie Cane is busy caring for her ailing grandmother and rebuilding her life. The girls' matchmaking pact is in jeopardy unless they can make their parents see the love that's right in in front of them.
"Lily. Time for school," Silas called up the stairs, waiting for a response from his daughter.
He heard a thump, then the sound of feet hurrying down the hallway. What in the world was that kid doing? Curious, he took a step up the stairs just as his cell phone rang.
He pulled it off his hip and flipped it open. A modern-day gunslinger, he thought with a touch of irony as he said hello.
"Silas. Orville Cummins here. Not the best news. I've got to delay shipping that lumber to you."
"What do you mean? I ordered it back in June for delivery this month."
"Yeah. That was before that tornado took your town apart couple months back. I tried to get what I could, but Garrison has been buying up what he can for his lumberyard the last while. You could try to get some from him."
Silas rubbed his forehead. "He's only selling it for reconstruction or building new homes."
"If you can wait two weeks, I'll get you what you need from Manhattan."
"I guess that'll have to do."
As he was talking, Lily came downstairs, dragging her backpack behind her, a brightly colored gift bag swinging from her other hand.
While he talked he wiped a spot of toothpaste from the corner of Lily's mouth, then patted her on the head.
"Thanks again, Orville. I gotta run." He snapped the phone shut and slipped it into his belt holster. "Did you really brush your teeth this morning or only rinse with toothpaste again?"
Silas frowned at her ponytail, hanging askew from the back of her head.
Kelly would have put their daughter's copper-colored hair into tight, fat braids, finished offwith ribbons.
But Kelly wasn't here and his clumsy fingers couldn't recreate the intricate twists that had come so easily to his wife's slender fingers. So Lily did her own hair. Today it looked as if she hadn't even brushed it.
"We gotta get going." He glanced at the festive bag she was carrying. "What you got there?"
Lily gave him a secretive smile. "You'll find out."
"Okay. Secrets. Very intriguing."
The drive into town was quiet. Silas was lost in his thoughts, the only sound in the truck the ticking of gravel on the undercarriage and the nasally twang of the announcer from the early-morning stock market report on the radio. He had a lot to do in the next few weeks and the time was slipping through his fingers.
"Dad, can we have a puppy?" Lily's voice broke into the quiet.
"A puppy?" Where in the world had that come from? "I've got enough trouble keeping you groomed and fed." He tossed Lily a grin, just to show he was kidding.
"But a puppy would keep me company. When you're busy."
"I'm not that busy, honey."
"You're outside all the time and when you're not, you're on the computer. And I hate watching television."
That sent a shot of guilt through him. Kelly had hated television, too, and had limited how much Lily watched. But television kept Lily occupied and out of his hair while he worked.
"Why can't I go to the after-school program instead? With my friend Alyssa?" Lily clutched the shiny bag that Silas suspected held a present for that same friend.
"Because, honey" was all he would say.
He couldn't explain to her the sheer terror he had felt when he'd seen the funnel cloud touch down in High Plains, knowing she was there instead of on the farm where she'd have been safe.
A thousand images of Lily hurt, or worse, had sliced through his head on that panicked trip into town. He'd even been tempted to pray.
Which was foolishness, of course. God hadn't heard the countless prayers he and Lily had sent up for Kelly during her battle with cancer. When he and his sobbing daughter had stood by her graveside, Silas had promised himself he wouldn't waste God's time anymore.
"I miss seeing Ms. Josie," Lily put in, still campaigning.
"Miss Cane let you and Alyssa take off after the tornado. She's not responsible."
That Lily had been found safe was no thanks to Miss Cane, who had let her and her friend slip out in the first place.
Lily sighed again. "I hate sitting by myself at home, Daddy."
More guilt piled onto his shoulders.
"It was Alyssa's idea to sneak out when we had that tornado, you know."
"Which is another reason you shouldn't be hanging around with Alyssa." This conversation was well-tilled ground. But his daughter was persistent and each time approached it from another angle as if hoping to unearth some new argument to convince him.
"But she's my twin friend. And she has a really pretty aunt."
Silas wasn't about to dispute the pretty-aunt part of her statement. Josie Cane was the kind of woman who would make any man look twice and then again. Tall with blond hair rivalling ripe Kansas grain and a smile inviting a response.
And a reputation that preceded her.
It was a good thing he wasn't looking and he wasn't interested. The long, slow loss of his wife, Kelly, had squeezed his heart to nothing. When the first clumps of dirt were dropped on her coffin, his heart had closed like a fist on his memories and his pain. He hadn't talked about Kelly nor encouraged Lily to do the same. He was tired of hurt and pain.
"Doesn't matter how pretty she is." Silas made his voice gruff to show Lily he was serious. "I want you home."
Where I can make sure you're safe, he added to himself.
"But Alyssa told me that Ms. Josie is doing baking at the church. For the workers who are building the town again. Ms. Josie said we all have to do our part and I want to help, too. I want to learn how to bake, then I can make cupcakes and muffins, like Mommy used to."
In spite of the sadness the memories brought, Silas had to smile. Kelly was wonder and joy and love, but she was no baker. Each attempt created a potential health hazard.
"And I won't be so lonely after school when you're doing all your work," she continued, her voice growing earnest. "And you won't have to keep checking on me. Ms. Josie said she'd gladly take me back again."
Silas was wavering. He had a ton of work to do today and he had already been juggling his timelines, trying to figure out how he was supposed to stop what he was doing in time to pick Lily up from school every day. Since the tornado, he'd been driving her back and forth instead of letting her take the school bus.
"Oh, look, someone is working on the roof of the Old Town Hall." Lily pointed out her window as they turned onto Main Street. "Ms. Josie said people want it ready for Christmas. For Founders' Day. Ms. Josie said it will be a healing celebration."
"Ms. Josie obviously says a lot of things," Silas muttered, glancing in the direction Lily pointed. The sight of the half-finished building sent the same pang through him that he had felt when he first saw the destruction of the Old Town Hall. He and Kelly had been married there.
He pushed the memory back. Rebuilding the Old Town Hall seemed a waste of time. The old could never be replaced. It wouldn't be the same. All those memories were best left gone with the building when it was destroyed.
"What is Founders' Day?" Lily asked, suddenly animated. "Is that when people who lost things find them again? Like the place they set up for people who lost stuff after the tornado?"
Silas chuckled at her description. "No, honey. I heard it has something to do with the friendship of the two men who started this town, a Mr. Logan and a Mr. Garrison."
"Like Reverend Garrison? Who works at the church?"
"He's a relative."
"Reverend Garrison is a nice man." Lily sighed. "Alyssa always goes to church on Sunday to hear him preach. I wish we could go again."
Silas made no comment to that as he turned the truck in to the school parking lot. Since Kelly died, he had stayed away from church and God. Just keeping the boundaries marked off. God: up there and silent. Him: down here and busy. Never the two shall meet.
Silas parked the truck, pulled off his seat belt and turned off the truck.
"Don't get out of the truck yet, Daddy," Lily said, grabbing his arm.
Silas, his hand already on the handle, stopped, shooting his daughter a frown. "Why not?"
"I have something for you." She scooted across the seat and threw her arms around her father's neck. "Happy birthday, Daddy," she said, adding a noisy kiss. Then she gave him the bag she'd carried into the truck.
As he took the bag he felt a jolt of all-too-familiar guilt. She had remembered his birthday. Had planned for it.
He remembered how he had completely forgotten hers.
"Why, honey—" He swallowed down a surprising knot of pain. "Thank you. What is it?"
"You're supposed to open it and find out." Lily sat back with a self-satisfied grin.
Puzzled, Silas pulled out the package wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. When he unwrapped the framed picture, he did a double take.
Why had his daughter given him a picture of Josie Cane?
He masked his confusion and gave Lily a careful smile. "Thanks, honey. This is an interesting present."
"I got the picture from Alyssa for my birthday. And I think you need to have a picture of someone in your bedroom again. Like you used to have of Mommy."
The woman smiling back at Silas from the picture looked as if she was laughing at a secret joke, her long blond hair blowing away from her face. Her eyes held a hint of mischief, which made Silas think the stories about Josie's wild past held some truth.
"That's very nice. Thank you, Lily." He put the picture back in the bag, but didn't tell his daughter there was no way he was filling the spot that once held a picture of his beloved wife with a picture of this woman.
Lily sat back in her seat, her arms hugging her backpack, obviously not ready to leave yet. "Do you think she's pretty?"
"As pretty as she needs to be."
"I like Ms. Josie."
He gathered that. "I'm sure she's very nice."
"And she's a good teacher."
She gave him a sweet smile, which immediately made him suspicious. "I want to go to the after-school program again, Daddy. Can I? Please?"
Bingo. Silas heaved a sigh, marveling at her persistence. "We're not talking about that now, Lily."
Lily glanced over her shoulder again. "Can you please walk me to the school?"
Where did that come from? She was usually out the door and down the sidewalk before the truck rolled completely to a stop. Now she wanted him to walk her to the door?
"Of course." He got out, still puzzled.
The banging of hammers from various parts of town competed with the whine of saws as he walked around the truck to where Lily waited. Work was going on all over town, still repairing the damage from the tornado.
Thankfully the school had been spared the worst of the damage and classes hadn't been interrupted.
"Lily. Hi." A little girl's voice called out over the noise in the town just as Silas caught up with his daughter.
He turned and came face-to-face with a young girl holding the hand of the woman whose framed photo lay faceup on the seat of his truck. He shot a quick glance at his truck, wondering if Josie would have seen it as she walked past.
"Good morning, Mr. Marstow," Josie said.
Her smile wasn't nearly as friendly and open as the one in his picture and he was surprised at the touch of disappointment this created. But he tipped his hat all polite and gentlemanly, then smiled at Alyssa.
As he always was when he saw her, he was surprised how much Alyssa and Lily were alike. Same red hair. Same tip-tilted nose. Same slight build. Even Alyssa's sparkling green eyes held the same hint of mischief that Lily's could, which was probably why they were so close.
But the resemblance ended with their clothing. Where his daughter wore a faded Hannah Montana T-shirt, Alyssa wore a white button-up shirt so bright it hurt his eyes. Lily's pants had grass stains on the knees while Alyssa wore a cute, ruffled pink skirt and striped white, pink and green knee socks.
And Alyssa's shining red hair was done up in neat, fat braids tied with green-and-pink ribbons.
The girls looked like "before" and "after" pictures for laundry detergent.
"Did you start baking yet?" Lily asked, catching Ms. Josie by the hand. "'Cause I asked my dad if I could come to learn how to bake, and he said maybe."
"We would love to have you come back to the class," Josie said, shooting a puzzled glance his way.
He knew exactly what the question in her eyes was about. Once the phones were up and running in High Plains, he had called her and told her Lily wouldn't be attending the class anymore.
He had been diplomatic enough not to accuse her of carelessness, but she seemed to have drawn that conclusion. She had offered more apologies, but he was firm. He had said he wasn't going to compromise the safety of his daughter. Which made her mad. Which, in turn, made him mad.
They hadn't talked or seen each other since then.
"What are you making today?" Lily asked, swinging Ms. Josie's hand, her wide, happy smile creating a surprising spurt of jealousy in Silas. She never smiled like that at him.
"We're making cupcakes," Alyssa, holding Ms. Josie's other hand, put in.
"I want to learn how to make birthday cupcakes. For my dad. It's his birthday today, Ms. Josie."
"Is it, now?" Josie glanced back again at Silas. "Happy birthday, Mr. Marstow."
"Thank you, Ms. Cane," he said, stepping aside to let a group of laughing children slip past him.
"He's not very old yet, you know?" Lily said. "Do you think he's old?"
"I think he's exactly as old as he needs to be," Josie said, tilting her head to one side as she looked at him as if making sure.
"You sound like my dad," Lily said with a grin. "He said that you're as pretty as you need to be."
"Really?" Thankfully Josie didn't look at him.
"Do you want to come over to my house for a birthday party?" Lily asked. "Daddy, can we have a birthday party for you at our house? Can Ms. Josie and Alyssa come?"
A gust of wind picked up Josie's hair and tossed it away from her face and, as she smiled, she looked even prettier than her picture.
And for a moment he couldn't look away.
Silas yanked his attention back to his daughter, frustrated with the vague reaction Josie had created in him. He had no intention of going down that road again.
"We're not having a birthday party," Silas quickly added.
"I don't mind if she comes to the class," Josie put in. "There's enough room for her."
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