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Snowflakes, plump as a cherub's cheeks, spewed and spat in the wind-soaked air, where they whirled in a mad, frenetic dance before they dropped to the ground and coated the worldthis part of the world, anywayin a thick, icy canopy of pure white.
Why wouldn't Steamboat Springs, Colorado, be in the middle of a roaring winter storm on the night of the runaway bride's return? Nothing else would've made any sense.
Gritting her teeth in concentration, Daisy attempted to see through the blinding snow as she navigated the last several miles to her brother's house. Truth be told, she should've stayed overnight in Grand Junction when she heard the weather report. She hadn't for the simple reason that she'd wanted to complete the last leg of her journey without delay.
She'd left her home in Los Angeles at the crack of dawn, and barring the intermittent stops to walk her dog, had made excellent time. Another four hours of drivingeven with a winter storm warning in placehad seemed preferable to putting off the inevitable for another day. So, with the hope that she'd beat the worst of the storm, she'd pushed onward.
Well, four hours had turned into six-plus hours, and if what brewed outside her car wasn't the worst of the storm, then Daisy figured it was soon to come. Her only goal at this point was to be safely ensconced inside Parker's home when that moment arrived.
Sighing, she slid to a halt at a stop sign and tried to set aside the ridiculous notion that this storm was Mother Nature's way of warning her off, of reminding Daisy that she wouldn't be welcomed in her hometown after close to an eight-year absence.
And really, the thought was absurd.
It was the end of February, for crying out loud, so snowstorms in Colorado were far from unheard of. They were, in fact, more the norm than not. This bit of logic, however, didn't stop the anxiety from roiling in her stomach. Gripping the steering wheel tighter, she made a careful right-hand turn, just as the GPS instructed. How many folks would even remember her name, let alone her hotfooted retreat from the wedding altar and the man she was supposed to marry?
Couldn't be too many, she assured herself. Out of those who happened to remember both Daisy and the details of that long-ago May morning? The majority of that group would likely be a great deal more curious about her reappearance than they would be unwelcoming.
Unfortunately, she knew what rested at the center of her unease, and it wasn't the weather or the general population of Steamboat Springs. Nope, the reason for her pumped-up nerves and racing heart could be found in one man and one man only: Reid Foster.
The man she'd left behind.
Just the thought of seeing Reid again brought forth a slew of shivers and complicated, complex emotions. They hadn't spoken even once since the day she'd ended their relationship and had discarded their future in favor of a quickly packed suitcase and a bus out of town.
She'd wanted to. Had damn well yearned to speak with him, to fully explain why she'd behaved so cowardly and left him with a letter, instead of an honest conversation. Months had passed before she gathered enough courage to call.
When she finally did, Parker had answered Reid's phone. Unexpected, as Parker had lived in Boston then, but alsodue to her brother's friendship with Reidnot terribly surprising. And he'd stated that she'd caused enough damage. That the best thing she could do for everyone was to leave well enough alone and forget about Reid.
If her brother had been unkind, she might not have listened. But in truth, he'd sounded sad and serious, rather than rude and blaming. She heard his deep concern, and in a flood of self-awareness, Daisy had understoodcompletelythe pain she'd caused.
So, because Parker's stance made sense and the last thing she wanted was to create any additional pain, she chose to live with her guilt and heed his advice. Good advice, as it turned out, since Reid hadn't attempted to contact her in all of these years, either.
But now, by the sole virtue of being back in Steamboat Springs, they'd bump into each other eventually. If not in some strange, random occurrencesuch as at the grocery storethen either at the hospital, where Parker was recovering from a serious skiing accident, or at the house, where Daisy would be caring for her two young nieces, Erin and Megan, in the interim.
Regardless of the specifics, Daisy felt sure she'd find Reid in her line of vision sooner rather than later. Fate would demand nothing less. And she couldn't imagine what that scene would look like, sound like, feel like. And that meant she couldn't prepare.
Strange, really, how in some ways, the past eight years seemed as if an entire lifetime had elapsed, but in other ways, those exact same years were no more than a few seconds of a ticking clock. Or, perhaps more accurate in this scenario, a ticking bomb.
Over those years, she'd created a life. Had made friends and figured out how to work for herself, and now made a decent living. She'd even found her biological father, had spent a little time getting to know him, only to realize that he did not hold any answers for her. Only she could provide those. And, for the most part, she had.
She understood who she was. How she needed to live in order to survive, to remain true to herself, and seeing Reid again could potentially undo all of that.
So, yes, a ticking bomb was a fair and accurate comparison.
A strong gust of wind yanked the car to the side, catapulting Daisy to renewed awareness of her surroundings. Muttering a curse, she eased off the gas pedal and breathed in relief when the car returned to the road. None of what might or might not happen in the coming days mattered right now. All that did was getting off the road and to her brother's house.
Parker hadn't phoned her until almost a full week after his accident. Again, not unexpected. Her relationship with her entire family had remained distant and uncomfortable. If anything, she was surprised to be notified at all. By anyone.
But he'd been half-loopy from pain medications, and it had taken a while for Daisy to understand how serious his injuries were. Learning how close he had come to dying scared her, had made her realize how much time they had wasted. She'd already decided to return to her hometown when Parker asked if she would look after his daughters while he recovered.
Her sister-in-lawParker's wife, Bridgethad died three years earlier from cancer, and Daisy and Parker's parents now lived in Florida. She had no doubt that if Charles Lennox weren't recovering from hip-replacement surgery, it would be her parents caring for the girls. So she supposed she was the obvious choice, but she'd still been surprised by Parker's request.
Naturally, she'd said yes.
But she hadn't considered that she barely knew her nieces, having only met them twice before. Once when Parker had brought his family to California, and then, at his wife's funeral in Boston, where the couple had met and made their home. Just short of a year after becoming a widower, Parker had returned to Steamboat Springs to raise his daughters.
And, other than the customary phone calls on birthdays and holidays, Daisy and Parker rarely spoke. So, no. She didn't know her nieces. She didn't know their likes or dislikes, what made them happy or sad, or any of the other myriad details that made up their lives.
A new rush of fear hit Daisy. How was she supposed to provide the security her nieces were sure to need when she'd spent so little time with them?
One way or another, she'd have to figure it out.
She also hadn't thought about what it would be like to breathe in the same air as Reid Foster, to look into his sinfully dark eyes or to listen to the slow, deep, evocative cadence of his voice again after so freaking long. Any of those occurences might prove to be her undoing.
"Everything will be fine," she said, forcing firmness into her tone. "Parker will make a full recovery. The girls and I will get to know each other. I'm their aunt, so they'll love me. Of course they will! And seeing Reid again won't be easy, but I'll survive."
Her dog, a rescue whippet whose brindle coat held varying shades of white, fawn and gray, whined plaintively from the backseat in a definite plea to get out of the car.
"Soon, Jinx," Daisy said in a soothing voice. "We're almost there."
Due to her shock at Parker's accident and her hurried departure, Daisy had forgotten to mention that she was bringing Jinx with her. Hopefully, neither of the girls was afraid of dogs, because she refused to kennel Jinx for however long her stay might last.
Whippetsa medium-size breed that originated from greyhoundswere intensely devoted to their owners, and since Jinx was a rescue dog, building the trust between them had taken close to six months. Not bringing her along was out of the question.
The GPS announced that Daisy had arrived at her destination. Slowing to a crawl, she located the proper house and parked the car as close to the side of the road as she could. She pulled in a fortifying breath and gave herself a few minutes to gather her bearings while staring at her brother's home. Between the darkness and the blowing snow, she couldn't see much, but the outside light was on, casting a friendly glow. A safe haven.
For now, at least.
Parker had stated that a few of his neighbors were pitching in until Daisy could take over, so she guessed the girls were safely tucked in for the night at one of the other houses dotting the street. She'd see them tomorrow. Her brother had also promised to have someone leave a key under the porch mat, so Daisy would have access to the house. She prayed he hadn't overlooked this not-so-small detail, otherwise, she'd be back on the road, searching for shelter.
"Well, Jinx," she said. "I guess we're here."
And, because there was nothing left to do other than go inside, Daisy leashed and picked up her dog, grabbed her overnight bagthe rest of her luggage could wait until morningand pushed her way through the whipping snow toward the welcoming light.
"Ready or not," she whispered into the howling wind, "here I come."
Exhaustion, pure and complete, seeped through Reid Foster's body. He leaned against the wall in the Lennoxes' upstairs hallway, let out a bone-weary sigh and hoped the girls were as sound asleep as they'd appeared. The prior week and a half had taught him that one or the othersometimes bothwould fall victim to unquenchable thirst within minutes of their bedroom light going out. Sometimes, they just wanted another hug.
Either way, he figured he'd wait right here for a bit. Just in case.
Erin and Megan were scared, and rightly so. They'd already lost their mother, had already learned that even parents can get hurt, or sick, and go away forever. His heart wouldn't allow him to do anything other than care for them the best he could. Most days, that meant rushing from work to pick them up and bring them home, so they could exist in familiar surroundings, with their toys and their own beds to sleep in.
But Lord, he was tired.
During the winter months, his job as a ski patroller often demanded extended hours filled with physically draining, challenging work. Toss in the care and well-being of two frightened children, along with visiting Parker whenever he could, and Reid was running fairly scarce on energy. Especially tonight.
With forewarning of the storm, which was now raging outside, and completing the necessary preparations, work had started early and ended late. When he'd arrived at the next-door neighbor's house to collect the girls, he noticed they were more high-strung than normal. Soon enough, Reid discovered that they'd watched some tearjerker of a family movie about several children who were unexpectedly orphaned.
The neighbor had clued in to Reid's disapproval and had apologized, stating she hadn't realized the plot of the movie until the girls were engrossed. At that point, she felt she would've done more damage by not allowing them to finish watching it. Reid didn't know about that, but the next hour of the evening had then been filled with one question after another.
Seven-year-old Erin, the elder of the two, who looked to be growing into a near replica of her aunt Daisyboth in personality and, other than the color of her eyes, appearancehad asked who would take care of her and Megan if their daddy died like their mommy had?
Initially, Reid was at a loss. Honesty, he decided, was the best route, so he'donce againexplained that all indications stated that Parker was out of danger and on the road to a full recovery. And he was, though from what Reid understood, Parker had another surgery facing him, followed by months of physical therapy.
Five-year-old Megan hadn't said a word, just sat there and watched Reid with her sad, fearful brown eyes. She'd looked so lonely that he'd picked her up and put her on his lap, where she snuggled against his chest and gripped his shirtsleeve as if it were a life preserver.
Refusing to let the rest of her question go, Erin had jutted out her china mannerism that, again, had Daisy written all over itand asked, "But if something happened to Daddy, who would take care of us? I don't want to be in a f-foster home."
Damn that movie. "Sweet pea, that would never happen," Reid had said, and he'd meant it, but the truth was that he had no idea what Parker's plans were if such a crisis ever occurred. He could, however, guess at the likeliest candidates.
He started with Parker's parents, Charles and Clara Lennox, who had retired to Florida several years earlier, and then moved on to the girls' maternal grandparents, who lived in Boston. While he knew Erin and Megan had a good relationship with both sets of their grandparents, neither answer fully satisfied the elder Lennox daughter.
With a quietly contemplative expression, she'd asked, "What if they can't? Who then?"
Reid had fumbled for a second before naming their aunt Daisy, not fully believing that Parker would trust the care of his daughters to someone who was a virtual stranger, but unable to latch on to another person that would make sense.
Saying Daisy's name aloudsomething he rarely didcaused him a fleeting spasm of pain, of loss a little bewilderment, along with a good, solid dose of anger.
At Daisy, for not giving them a chance before taking off. At himself, too, for keeping silent on the very same news that had sent her running. He should've told her the truth about her paternity when he learned of it, and not decided to wait until after they were married.
Perhaps if he had, she would've leaned on him, trusted in him and their relationship, instead of bolting and never looking back. To this day, she had no idea that he could have saved her from her mother's ill-timed confession. No one, not even Parker, knew about the argument he'd overheard between Clara and Charles Lennox the week before the wedding.
That was a secret he still kept.
So, yeah, he'd kicked himself over his misguided actions. But he couldn't undo them. And Daisy had made the decision to leave him and their future without so much as a conversation. In his estimation, that made both of them wrong and neither of them blameless.
But Reid was a practical man, and as the years had piled up on one another, he'd learned to keep the past where it belonged. Mostly, this mindset had proven successful.
Mostly wasn't always, though, so mentioning Daisy as a possible guardian for the girls evoked the same mixed bag of reactions he'd become resigned to dealing with. As usualat least for the last long whilethose feelings dissipated as abruptly as they'd appeared, and Reid had returned his focus to the little girl on his lap and the one standing directly in front of him.
"Listen to me, angel," he'd said, purposely speaking in a slow and authoritative voice. "I will never let you live in a foster home. I will always be here for you and your sister."
Erin's pinched expression softened slightly. "Do you promise?"