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The bride had just fed wedding cake to the groom. Now the photographer grouped the wedding party for one more set of pictures. "You're in this last one, Nicky. Come and join your parents. Everyone smile and keep smiling. I'm going to take several shots in succession. Say cheese."
Nicholas Darrow, the precocious six-year-old wearing a tux, didn't need any urging. Happiness radiated from his cute face and eyes. Nicky was now the adoptive son of his aunt Rachel Darrow Rossiter and his new adoptive father, Vance Rossiter, the chief ranger at Yosemite National Park in California.
A half-dozen rangers from Yosemite had gathered for the late September wedding and reception at Rachel's father's home in Miami, Florida. Chase Jarvis chuckled over Nicky. The boy was so crazy about his new daddy, all evening he'd been skipping around the flower-filled house and could hardly stop long enough to pause for a picture. Yet no one could be happier for the three of them than Chase, Vance's best friend and his best man for the church ceremony.
By this time, most of the guests had gone and the festivities were fast coming to an end. Chase, Vance's second in command, had been named acting head ranger while Vance was on his honeymoon for the next three weeks. As such, Chase and the others needed to head for the airport and fly home. First, however, he had to change out of his tux in the guest bedroom.
"Uncle Chase?" The boy came running after him.
"Hey, Nicky" They high-fived each other. Vance had taught his new son to call him Uncle Chase. Amazing what power the words I do could wield. In spite of no blood ties, Chase had become a part of the Rossiter family and loved it.
"Areyou leaving now?"
"I wish you didn't have to go yet."
This was progress. From the time Nicky and his aunt had first come to Yosemite, the boy hadn't wanted anyone around Rachel except Vance. Chase had been a pariah but no longer. Now that everything was legally signed and sealed and Vance and Nicky were now truly father and son in every sense of the word, the boy had finally accepted Chase. It was a great relief in more ways than one.
"Believe me, I'd like to stay longer. But somebody's got to run the Park until your daddy gets back."
"Mommy and I will be coming with him."
Chase laughed. "Don't I know it! We're all going to live right by each other. I can't wait!"
Nicky beamed. "Me neither." For the first time since Chase had met Rachel and her nephew in early June, Nicky threw his arms around Chase's legs. It brought a lump to his throat. He picked him up and gave him a long, hard hug. They'd all been through many painful moments together to get to this joyful place in time.
"Maybe you'll see the Queen while you're in London," Chase said. Nicky loved the Harry Potter story and wanted to see the train station where the children took off for Hogwarts wizard school.
"Yup. And castles and tall red buses and white owls."
"If you see a white owl, you have to be sure and tell me about it in a postcard."
"I will! Daddy says they're not as big as our great horned owls in the park. When we get back I want to watch the bears go to sleep."
More laughter rumbled out of Chase as he changed into trousers and a sport shirt. "It's pretty hard to catch them going to bed," he teased.
"Daddy can do it! We'll use our binoculars and sneak up on them!"
Yes, Vance could do anything in Nicky's eyes. In Rachel's, too. Vance was a lucky man to have that kind of love. For a moment, waves of longing for the happiness he'd once known with Annie Bower swept over him, catching him off guard.
Even after ten years, thoughts of her and the life they'd once planned together assailed him, but evil forces had had a way of destroying that dream, snatching away his heart's desire. By now his beautiful Annie was probably married with several children.
"Nicky?" a familiar voice called out. They both turned to see Vance in the doorway.
"Uncle Chase has to go back and run the park now," Nicky announced.
A broad smile broke out on Vance's face. "Yup. It's all on your more than capable shoulders. I leave its headaches to you with my blessing."
Nicky frowned "Headaches?"
Chase rubbed a hand over Nicky's latest marine haircut. "He means the problems that come up."
"You mean like the bear that climbed in that lady's car and wouldn't come out?"
"Yes, and a six-year-old boy named Nicky who hid from everyone because he didn't want to go back to Florida."
A giggle escaped. "Daddy found me!"
Vance laughed before looking to Chase. "Good luck on your first meeting with the new superintendent. Bill Telford's a recent widower with a son and daughter away at college. I understand he's a real go-getter, full of new ideas. Rumor has it he wants to turn the park on its ear. I'm glad you'll be breaking him in instead of me."
"Let's hope he's not as grumpy as the last one."
"Amen to that."
"So this is where everyone is!" Rachel swept into the room in her white wedding dress. She was a vision with her gold hair and lace veil. Rachel's charm and personality reminded Chase of Annie. With hindsight he realized those similarities had caused him to be drawn to Rachel when she'd first arrived at the park with Nicky. But she'd only had eyes for Vance. When she looked at her new husband like she was doing now, the love light in her jewel-green eyes was blinding.
Pain twisted his gut. Annie's smoky-blue eyes used to look at Chase like that He had no doubt that somewhere in the world she was getting ready to go to bed with her husband and love him the way she'd once loved Chase.
Did she ever think about him?
He wondered how long it was going to take him to get over her and fall in love with someone else. Heaven knows he'd tried. The thought that it would never happen frightened him.
On his flight back to California with the other rangers, he'd tell Ranger Baird to go ahead and set him up with his wife's cousin. For over a year the couple had been pushing to get Chase and her together. Why not relent this once? Seeing Vance and Rachel so happy brought on a terrible hunger for that same kind of fulfillment. He needed to try
Rachel rushed over to hug him. "Thank you for everything. We'll be back at the park before you know it. Take care, dear Chase."
He grasped her hands. "When is your father's operation?"
"The day after we get back from London. We're leaving tomorrow, but we'll only be in London a week. Then we'll spend the next two weeks in Miami to be with my parents. If all goes well with Dad's heart, we'll bring them to California with us."
"Everyone's pulling for him."
"I know. I can't thank you enough." She hugged him one more time.
Vance signaled to him. "Your taxi's here, Chase. I'll walk you out."
He grabbed his suitcase and followed Vance through the house to the driveway where a couple of cabs waited. One of the drivers put his suitcase in the trunk of the first car. Chase turned to Vance. "Enjoy your honeymoon. If you need a couple more weeks than you planned, you've got them."
"Thanks. We'll see how things go, but I appreciate it. Good luck. I'm going to miss you."
Chase grinned. "Sure you are." He climbed in the back with one of the other rangers and told the driver to head for the airport.
Though it was the second week of October, the days were still hot in Santa Rosa, California. Annie Bower turned on the air-conditioning and waited in her compact car outside Hillcrest elementary school. It was three-thirty. Any second now class would be over for the day. She had mixed emotions about the news she had to tell her ten-year-old daughter, Roberta.
While she pondered the unexpected job offer that had come in the mail, students poured out the doors of the school. Five minutes later she saw her slender daughter walking toward the car with her dark ponytail swinging. Debbie, her outgoing best friend ran to catch up with her.
Debbie's mother, Julie, a single mom like Annie, drove the girls to school in the mornings. Annie picked them up afterward and kept Debbie at their condo until Julie came for her daughter. The system had been working well for the past two years.
To imagine Roberta having to make new friends in a new environment was troubling to say the least, especially since she was a quiet child who didn't have a large group of friends. However, this new job was something Annie had been hoping to get for a long time. In fact while she'd worked for the California Department of Forestry as an archaeologist for the last five years, there'd never been this kind of opening until now.
The pay wasn't that great, but if she didn't grab it, she could lose out on an unprecedented opportunity to do fieldwork on the Sierra Indians, her particular expertise.
Ten years ago Annie's parents, who lived a hectic social life in San Francisco, had welcomed her back from the Middle East with open arms. They'd tried to comfort her over the loss of Robert and his family. No two people could have been more kind and understanding when they'd learned she was pregnant with his child, but they'd expected her to live with them and couldn't countenance the kind of work she wanted to do, certainly not with a baby on the way.
Her goals were so different from those of her parents'. She'd rented a small apartment, taken out a loan to finish her education and had put her daughter in day care after she was born. When Annie received her anthropology degree, she moved to a condo in Santa Rosa where she'd gone to work for the CDF. Slowly she worked her way up the scale while being the best mother she could be to her daughter.
Every month she spent a weekend in San Francisco so Roberta could visit her grandparents, but they continued to complain about Annie's choices and this created more tension, something she knew Roberta could feel.
If Annie took this new position, her parents would throw up their hands in dismay, indicating their disappointment over her doing something so unorthodox while she had a child to take care of. It was either their way, or no way. Since there was no use discussing it with them, she and Roberta were on their own.
So far they'd been doing fine. Other people had to move where their jobs took them if it meant doing the work they wanted to do. Her father's pharmaceutical corporation meant many thousands of people had to relocate to work for him, but that argument didn't fly when discussing his only daughter and granddaughter's future.
What the decision really came down to for Annie had everything to do with Roberta and how she took the news.
"Hi!" Debbie answered, and got in the car first.
Roberta climbed in the back seat with her, both of them lugging their backpacks.
Annie waited until the school crossing guard allowed her to pull out of the drive and onto the street before asking, "How was school today?"
"We had a substitute," Debbie offered.
"Did you like her?"
"She was okay, but she made two of the boys stay in for recess."
"What did they do?"
"They laughed at her because she limps."
"Jason and Carlos are mean," Roberta explained.
Annie stared at her daughter through the rearview mirror. "That was mean."
"I'm going to tell Mrs. Darger when she gets back."
"Good for you." The school had a no-bully policy. That went for teachers who were targets, too. Everyone needed to be on the watch for it.
"You might get in trouble if they find out."
"I don't care," Roberta told Debbie.
And her daughter didn't. Roberta stood up for injustice no matter the situation. How Annie loved her!
A few minutes later she pulled into the carport of their unit in the eightplex. "I'll make dinner while you two get started on your homework." They always ate an early meal because that was when Roberta was the hungriest.
Annie's daughter was a funny little thing. So far this year the lunches she'd made for her remained in her backpack virtually untouched. Roberta's only explanation was that bullying extended to the lunchroom. If you didn't bring a juice box and packaged snacks of a certain brand, some of the popular kids made fun of you. When she finally admitted what was wrong, Annie was disgusted, but she took her to the store and let her pick out some items that would keep the negative comments down.
If Annie sent a check with her for school lunch, she later found it in Robert's her pack, uncashed. Apparently Roberta was too embarrassed to go through the cashier line. Her shyness might have come from not having grown up with a father. Deprived of a father, as Annie was of a husband. The thought of him came into Annie's mind, and she put it away again because of the pain of that ghastly day in Kabul.
Annie had been walking to the dig site from the hotel when an explosion rocked the whole area. In the aftermath there was chaos. She soon learned that Robert and all those with him, including his parents, had been killed. Even the thought of it was still too excruciating to contemplate.
"The substitute didn't give us any work, Mom. Mrs. Darger will be back tomorrow."
Since Roberta didn't lie, Annie had no reason to disbelieve her. "Then you two can help me make tacos."
"Can I grate the cheese?"
Debbie asked the question first, but Roberta loved to do it and her friend knew it.
"Of course." Again Annie looked through the mirror to see her daughter having a private talk with herself. Her rigid idea of fairness won out and she didn't say anything. A trait that had probably come from Roberta's father. An admirable one.
If Roberta were a boy, she would look exactly like a young Robert. She had his straight nose. It gave both of them character. She also had his wide mouth and dark brown hair. The parts of her features belonging to Annie were a softly rounded chin and blue eyes.
Robert's had been gray with flecks of silver that lit up when he looked at her. During their passionate interludes they turned iridescent, letting her know she brought him as much pleasure as he brought her.
"Be sure you guys wash your hands first," she admonished before opening the front door of the condo.
"Why do you always say that, Mom? We're not babies."