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Kate Wydell's nervous fingertips rattled the pages of The Claremont News, the sound echoing through her car and magnifying her jitters. The Help Wanted section encompassed less than a column, the short list ending with the sole position for which she was qualified. Gillespie Insurance Agency needed an office assistant, no previous insurance experience required. Good people skills, a knowledge of word processing and an ability to remain calm in a crisis were the only criteria for the job.
She had all of those office skills and then some, and over the past year she'd perfected the ability to remain calm during a crisis. Her own personal crisis had led her back to this tiny North Alabama town, a place she'd left behind three years ago without a care in the world and without regard for her baby girl.
Two blinks and a thick swallow warred against the tears that sought freedom. She would not allow herself to cry. Mascara streaks would only showcase the paleness of her face and the cheekbones that seemed much more prominent with the loss of fifteen pounds.
She'd stopped at Hydrangea Park while she gathered her courage and searched the classifieds. Flipping the visor, she checked her makeup in the tiny mirror. She was healthy now; the doctor said so. But did she look sick? Had she used too much blush to compensate for her pallor? Those questions ricocheted through her head, but the biggest and most pressing question now was
Would Mitch Gillespie recognize her?
She tugged at a rogue black curl dangling precariously near her right eye. The inky corkscrew locks only drew more attention to her ridiculously fair skin. The last time she'd been in Claremont she'd had her trademark tan, an athletic build and blond wavy hair. And the last time she'd been in Claremont, she'd been married to one of Mitch's best friends.
Another look in the mirror. Even her family hadn't recognized her when she'd visited. Why would Mitch?
She took a deep breath, huffed it out. This would be so much easier if Chad were in town. Then she could tell her ex what she wanted in person and then deal with the consequences of a town that probably still hated her for hurting their golden boy. She hadn't considered that mid-May meant the end of the school year and his break from teaching at the college, when he'd naturally head out of town on vacation. But maybe this was better. She'd get settled in while he was away and have time to prepare for the fireworks when he returned and learned she was back.
God, don't let anyone remember me until I get a chance to talk to Chad.
Praying still felt new for Kate, even though she'd pleaded and begged God aplenty over the past year. Probably enough for a lifetime. And now she'd see if
He would truly have mercy on her, and if Chad would have mercy on her, too. But first she needed a job.
Mitch Gillespie unbuckled Dee's car seat and helped the three-year-old out, while Emmie whimpered from the other side of the car. "I'm coming, sweetie," he said, taking Dee's hand and leading her around the car so he could free her sister.
"Why is her face so red?" Dee asked, peering in as Mitch worked with the abundance of fasteners holding Emmie in place. "'Cause she's sick?" Dee was at an age where she questioned everything, and he tried his best to always provide an answer. "Her eyes look funny, too, like she's sad. Is that 'cause she's sick, too?" she continued.
Mitch's stomach knotted. He hated that his baby was ill, and he hated even more that he had to bring the two of them back to his office because he'd forgotten his laptop. But in the flurry following the call from the day care about Emmie's fever and the need for her to be picked up quickly, he'd forgotten all about the fact that he had several policies that had to be updated today.
"I'm sure it's because of her fever," he said, as Emmie pushed the last strap away and reached tiny hands toward her daddy. Heat radiated from her cheek as Mitch pulled her against him. Eighteen months old, Emmie had experienced a fever only a couple of times, following her immunizations, and she'd never had one due to sickness.
"But you gave her medicine," Dee said, ever the voice of preschooler reason.
"Right, but that was only-" he glanced at his watch
"-ten minutes ago. It'll take a little longer for it to kick in."
Dee's strawberry brows furrowed and she frowned. "Everybody's sick. I don't like it when everybody's sick. There's nobody to play with."
Carrying Emmie, Mitch led Dee toward the front door of Gillespie Insurance. Based on what Emmie's teacher said, Dee's statement wasn't that far off the mark. Apparently, a virus was passing through the day care like wildfire, with fever and vomiting taking their toll on the victims. If the lady were right, Dee would probably have it by tomorrow. Which meant he'd be away from the office for at least two days, and that was if he didn't catch the bug, too. "Come on," he urged. "Daddy is going to get his computer and then we'll head home and rest." He attempted to sound positive.
"I don't want to rest," Dee said. "I want to play, but there's nobody to play with."
Emmie dropped her head to his shoulder, mumbled, "Daddy," and then closed her eyes.
Mitch eased her downy curls aside and kissed her warm forehead then found a little relief that it didn't seem as hot as it had when he picked her up from the day care. Maybe the children's Tylenol had already kicked in. "I'm getting you home soon, sweetie," he whispered, and then to Dee, "I'll play a game with you at home, okay?" He wasn't sure how he'd pull that off with so much work to do. Plus he'd planned to get a few groceries this afternoon before he picked them up. Now he had to take them home when there was virtually no food in the house. And he couldn't very well drag them through the grocery store.
God, please, help me.
Any other time he could call Bo and Maura, his in-laws, and they'd help with the girls. Or Hannah and Matt, his sister-in-law and her husband. But the remainder of his wife's family had headed out of town for a week at the beach following the end of the school year like many Claremont families determined to enjoy the kids' first weeks of freedom. Naturally, they'd invited Mitch to come, but he did have a lot of work and going on vacations with Jana's family had seemed odd ever since her death.
It wasn't as if the family didn't want to include him, but Mitch found himself miserably lonely and spending his entire vacation thinking about what might have been. Or wondering what life would be like now if he were a normal twenty-nine-year-old, with two beautiful little girls and a loving wife who'd help him with the day-to-day activities of raising them. And at times like this, when they were sick.
"Daddy, I think she's going to " Dee's warning came at the same time that the door opened and a petite dark-haired woman stepped inside his office.
"Oh, hello, I wanted to see if the position was still-" she started, but Mitch didn't hear anything else. Emmie's tummy started convulsing, her wail piercing as she attempted to get sick, dry heaves causing her little body to shake while Dee shouted, "Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!
Mitch grabbed his jacket from the back of his desk chair and held it beneath his baby's mouth as he darted to the bathroom at the rear of the office.
Kate watched as Mitch took the crying baby toward the back of the small building and then disappeared into what she assumed was the restroom. She could hear his soothing words echoing down the short hallway.
"It's okay, Emmie. Daddy's here."
He'd hardly acknowledged Kate before rushing the sick child away, but she hadn't detected any recognition in the brief glance. Then again, she'd only been introduced to him once three years ago. Typically, a girl would know her husband's friends well. But Kate's relationship with Chad hadn't been typical, and that was entirely her fault. Their Vegas wedding, which she'd urged him to have, had happened without the attendance of any friends. And when he'd moved her from Atlanta to Claremont in an effort to save their marriage, she'd blurted the news that nearly destroyed him and then hightailed it back to the city in a matter of days.
The only other person remaining in the front office turned wide blue eyes to Kate and shrugged small shoulders. "Emmie's sick."
Kate hadn't been around many children, so she wasn't all that certain how to respond. "I'm sorry," she said, figuring an apology wouldn't hurt.
"Yeah." Red pigtails bobbed up and down as she released an exaggerated sigh of disappointment. "Everybody's sick, and I don't have anyone to play with."
"I'm sorry," Kate repeated, and wished she had something intelligent-or at least somewhat motherly-to say.
Mitch's words were suddenly muted by the sound of running water in the bathroom. Kate could no longer understand him, but the little girl apparently did.
"Daddy's trying to get her to stop crying, but Emmie is sad. It makes you sad to be sick."
Kate couldn't agree more. "Yes, it does."
Seeing that they now agreed on something, the girl lifted one corner of her mouth and asked, "Are you Snow White? You look like Snow White." She squinted a little as though trying to reconcile Kate as the beloved character. "Yep, you look like her a lot."
Kate's smile lifted her cheeks. Jet-black hair, fair white skin-why hadn't she thought of the resemblance before?
Because in my mind, I'm still blonde and tan. The little girl's brows lifted while she waited for an answer.
"No, I'm not," Kate said, though she didn't mind the child relating her to someone she obviously liked. "I'm.. " She felt odd merely saying Kate, so she pulled from her own youth and added the Southern salutation.
"I'm Miss Kate."
The little girl wrinkled her nose, sending a tiny spray of freckles dancing. "That's okay, I guess. But I like Snow White better."
Kate laughed. "Me, too." She was glad for the chance to chat with this little princess while waiting to talk to her dad. Her nerves had almost disappeared with the interaction, and the fact that Mitch didn't seem to remember her didn't hurt, either. "So, what's your name?" she asked.
"Dee." She moved to the smaller of the two desks in the office, put her back against the front wooden panel and then slid down to sit on the floor. She wore a yellow shirt with tiny pink flowers, matching yellow shorts and brown buckled sandals. Pink bows capped her strawberry pigtails. "Dee Ellen Gillespie," she added, her s coming out with an adorable lisp that made the name sound like Gillethpie.
As soon as Kate heard the name, she remembered even more about the time she'd met Mitch. He was with his wife, and she held their baby, a little girl only a couple of months older than Kate's daughter. Was this that little girl? Kate took a nearby seat and asked, "How old are you, Dee?"
Concentrating, she put her thumb and pinkie together and held up the middle three fingers. "This many." Then she released her pinkie finger. "But I'm almost this many. That's four."
Kate's heart tugged in her chest. Three, and almost four. This was the baby she remembered, almost exactly the same age as Lainey, who would be four on August 30.
Wow. Kate's daughter would be like this little girl, full of ideas and opinions and able to express herself and carry on a conversation with her mom.
But the only mom Lainey knew wasn't Kate.
The door to the restroom opened, and Mitch came out carrying Emmie, her head on his shoulder and her eyes closed, thumb stuck in her mouth. He looked exactly like Kate remembered, with reddish hair and a ruddy complexion, bright blue eyes and broad shoulders. A strong resemblance to Prince Harry, in Kate's opinion, and the exact type of look she'd never take an interest in for herself. She'd always gone for the Bradley Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, good-lookingenough-to-stop-traffic kind of guy. But that didn't matter now anyway, because Mitch was married, and Kate wasn't here for any romantic interest. She'd chased after what she thought was love in Atlanta, and when the going got tough, Dr. Harrison Tinsdale had checked his bedside manner at the door. Then again, as a world-renowned plastic surgeon, he dealt with "pretty" on a regular basis; he had no concept of how to deal with "sick."
Mitch's eyes glanced right past Kate and zeroed in on the little girl still sitting against the desk. "Dee, you okay?"
"Yep." She bobbed her head. "She's not Snow White, though. She's just Miss Kate."
His eyes warmed toward the little girl, and then he turned his attention to Kate. "I'm afraid it isn't always this eventful in my office, but I was called to get Emmie-" he tilted his head toward the little girl now sleeping on his shoulder "-at day care because she's sick." A lift of his mouth. "I guess you figured that out."
"She going to be okay?" Kate asked.
"I'll get her home so she can rest, and then hopefully she will be. The teacher said there's a twenty-four-hour bug going around." He looked toward the bigger desk. "I'm afraid I was just stopping by to get my computer so I could work from home while I'm taking care of her. I wasn't prepared for customers, but if you want to write down your name and number, I can call you later to answer any insurance questions you may have. Are you looking for coverage? You must be new to Claremont."
"I am," Kate said. In fact, she'd crossed the city line only an hour ago. "My name is Kate Wydell. But I'm not here for insurance. I'm actually here for the position you advertised in the paper. I have a résumé." She'd nearly forgotten that she still clutched it in her hand. She lifted the résumé.
He winced. "You said that earlier, didn't you? That you were here for the job."
"Yeah, she did," Dee said, fiddling with one of the buckles on her sandals.
He gave Dee a grin, then to Kate said, "Sorry about that. My mind was on taking care of Emmie."
"That's fine." She admired the fact that he was so dedicated to his little girls. Obviously they took priority over the potential employee. Kate wished she'd have put her own little girl as a priority three years ago, but she'd attempt to rectify that now, starting with a move to Claremont and a place in Lainey's world. "Is the job still available?"
"It is," he said. "And to be honest, I've never needed help more than I do right now. I'm behind on, well, pretty much everything and-" he patted Emmie's back "-it looks like I may be taking a couple of days to work from home. Let me get my things, and I'll take your résumé with me." He turned toward the larger desk, which Kate now noticed had his nameplate perched at one corner, balanced Emmie a little more solidly in his arm and then used his opposite hand to close his laptop. Then he lifted a black computer bag from the back of the desk and started trying to put the laptop in one-handed.
Kate wasn't certain whether the feat could be accomplished while holding his baby, and she could tell he wasn't about to put the sleeping child down, so she quickly moved to stand beside him. "Here, let me help."
He already had the computer in his grasp, and her hands brushed against his as she opened the case and guided the computer inside.
She zipped the bag and then realized that she was standing closer to him than she'd intended, his height catching her off guard as she looked up into blue eyes framed with reddish-blond lashes. The contrasting color only emphasized the brightness of his eyes, as well as the compassion of a daddy holding his little girl. Kate swallowed and felt another tug of her heart. This was a real parent, what she desperately wanted to be.