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Clayton McClintock pressed his cell phone to his ear. "I'm going to be late," he told his date, as he studied the flight schedule posted in the terminal. All the flights were on time but one. Hers. It figured. Conversation swirled around him as people rushed through the arrival gates and met those waiting for them in the lounge area.
On his phone there was dead silence. He pulled the cell from his ear to study its small screen, but his call hadn't been lost. "Ellen, are you there?" he asked.
"Yes," was the reply, in a tone of long-suffering patience, followed by a sigh reminiscent of the dramatic ones his sisters had subjected him to in their teens. "This isn't working, Clayton. You stand me up more often than you see me."
He sighed, toowith frustration. "Things have been crazy with my sister's wedding stuff." Writing checks, that had been his primary duty. And then he'd been pressed into playing chauffeur. Everyone else was busy with the rehearsal this afternoon.
He glanced at his watch. If Abby's flight was any later, they'd miss dinner as well as the activities at the church.
His plan had been to pick up his date after the rehearsal and bring her with him to the dinner. This wasn't the first time he'd had to set aside his own plans for the sake of his family, though.
"Things have been crazy," Ellen agreed. "And your brother "
Rory, who was in his teens, was going through a difficult time right now, also reminding Clayton of her. But she was hardly a teenager anymore. People grew up and maturedprobably even Abby Hamilton. Clayton had to believe that Rory would do the same, provided his big brother didn't kill him first.
"It's always something with your family, Clayton," Ellen said. "You never have time for me."
He couldn't argue with her. He didn't have time for himself, either. Not with his job and his brother and sisters and his mom. How had his dad managed everything? Clayton had taken over family responsibilities eight years ago, and he had yet to figure out how to handle everything his father had managed so effortlessly. He lifted a hand and wiped it over his eyes. He was tired.
"I've known for some time that it wasn't going to work out, Clayton. So don't bother calling me anymore."
"My sister's getting married tomorrow." That would take care of one responsibility. "Things will get better then."
"How? Is she taking your mom and sister and brother with her? You don't have room in your life for me or for any woman, Clayton. I'm sorry."
The phone clicked and the call ended, not because of a faulty connection but because of a lack of a romantic connection. And except for going stag to the rehearsal dinner and the wedding, he wasn't even too upset. Clayton hadn't dated anyone long enough to say that he'd ever had a serious relationship. He blew out a ragged breath of relief. He didn't want a serious relationship because it was just one more responsibility he didn't need.
Waiting in an airport for Abby was bad enough. How like her to fly in at the last moment. Some bridesmaid she'd turned out to be. Fortunately Molly had asked her longtime friend, Brenna Kelly, to be maid of honor. Clayton couldn't imagine Abby handling the responsibilities.
He headed over to the airport coffee shop and filled a disposable cup with strong black brew. When he passed his money to the clerk, he ignored her flirty smile and bright eyes. Maybe he'd stop dating for a whileit wasn't as if he ever intended to get married, anyway. He'd leave that to Molly, Colleen and Rory. Heck, he wouldn't even mind if his mom got married again. It was already eight years since his dad had died.
The same length of time Abby Hamilton had been gone. She'd taken off right after the funeral, even skipping her high school graduation. Not that she'd have been able to graduate with her class, since she'd just been expelled. If Clayton didn't get a handle on Rory soon, the youngest McClintock would probably be heading down that same dead end.
What was she doing now? His sisters and mom kept in touch with her, but they didn't tell him much. They knew how he felt. The last he'd heard, she was moving around, working temp jobs, which didn't surprise him. Nothing had ever seemed to hold her interest for long.
"Flight 3459 is arriving at Gate B4."
The announcement startled him and his hand jerked, spilling coffee over his fingers and burning them. Abby was back. Clayton's stomach lurched, maybe from the bitter liquid, or maybe because he knew that Abby Hamilton had always been nothing but trouble. She might be older now, and maybe even wiser, but he doubted she had changed that much.
He stared over the heads of other people gathered who waited to meet the late arrivals. They greeted each other with exuberant hugs and voices full of excitement. Somehow he doubted Abby would be that happy to see himshe had no idea he'd been called into service as her chauffeur.
He glanced in the direction of the approaching passengers. Where was she? Everyone moved toward the luggage carousel, its gears grinding as it began a slow rotation. Then metal clunked and the bags began to drop onto the carousel. Clayton ran his hand, which still stung from the coffee burn, across his face. Somehow the ground crew had gotten the luggage off the plane before she'd disembarked. Now, there was no hope of their making the rehearsal. He'd have to push her, in order to make the dinner.
So she hadn't changed. He caught sight of her, finally, first spotting her fair hair as she strolled into view behind a group of stragglers pushing strollers. Until the others moved toward their luggage, he could barely see her. She probably wasn't much over five feet tall. As she got closer, he studied her face, which was framed by a wild mass of curls. Her eyes shone a bright, clear blue between thick fringes of black lashes.
Clayton's gaze traveled down her body, clad in a ribbed white tank top and tight faded jeans. His stomach lurched again. Abby was still going to be trouble; probably much more trouble as a woman than she'd been as a kid.
Then he noticed that her right hand was wrapped around another smaller hand. At her side walked a little girl of about four or five. With her own blond curls and those same bright eyes, she was the spitting image of her mother. His breath left his lungs as the shock slammed through him.
No one had told him that Abby Hamilton had a child. Abby glanced around the airport, looking for Molly or Colleen or Brenna, and then her gaze collided with Clayton McClintock's. His chocolate-brown eyes were wide with surprise. He rubbed a hand over his eyes as if he didn't believe what he was seeing. Then the hand skimmed down his face, over sharp cheekbones and a square jaw. He didn't look much different at thirty than he had at twenty-two, except that he wasn't boyishly thin anymore. His black knit polo shirt strained across his chest and upper arms, and stone-colored khakis encased his long legs. Clayton McClintock was all man now.
Abby exhaled deeply, stirring her bangs so that strands of hair tangled in her lashes. "Oh, no "
"What's wrong, Mommy?" her daughter asked as she gave her mother a tug.
Abby's feet stopped movingshe didn't want to get any closer to Clayton. No one had told him about Lara. While Abby appreciated her friends' loyalty, she wouldn't have minded if they'd broken their promise not to tell anyone in Cloverville about her daughter. Why had she made them pledge their silence in the first place? She wasn't ashamed of being a single mom. But a part of her was still eighteen, hurting from the disapproval of the townspeople.And no one in Cloverville had disapproved of her more than Clayton.
If only she'd worn one of her tailored business suits instead of her most casual outfit, but now it was too late to change either her clothes or Clayton's opinion of her.
He walked toward them, eating up the short distance with just a couple of strides. "Abby."
She drew in a breath and then pasted on a smile. "Clayton."
"It's been a long time," he said, his gaze hard as he stared at her.
Not long enough. He obviously didn't want her back in Cloverville any more than she wanted to be back.
Then his head dipped, and his gaze softened on her little girl. His throat moved as he swallowed, and then he asked, "So who's this pretty young lady?"
"I can tell," he said, his lips curving into a warm smile that etched creases into his cheeks.
Abby's pulse quickened. She couldn't remember if she'd ever seen him smile before. Lara, however, was more frightened than charmed and ducked behind her mother's legs, grasping Abby's hand tightly with one hand as she clutched a well-loved teddy bear with the other.
"You don't have to be scared," she assured her daughter, even though she'd spent much of her childhood fearing her friends'older brother. But she'd grown up many, many years agoshe'd had no choice. "Clayton isn't a stranger. I've known him a long time. Well, I knew him a long time ago."
"I knew your mother when she was your age," Clayton said as he dropped to his haunches, his slacks pulled taut across muscular thighs. "You look exactly like she did the first time she followed my sister Molly home."
Like a stray dog. That was how he'd always seen her. But then he hadn't been all that wrong. She used to come to the McClintock house with her clothes dirty, her knees scraped and her stomach growling with hunger. And his mom had always cleaned her up and fed her. Mrs. Mick, as Abby had always called her, had been more of a mother to Abby than her own sad excuse for a mother had been.
Mom had spent more time in the bar than at home, and Abby's dad had always been gone because he drove a semitruck for a living.
"What's your name?" he asked the child.
The small girl whispered her response. "Lara."
"Lara?" Clayton glanced up at Abby.
She nodded, then confirmed what he had to be thinking.
He straightened up. "So you're not married."
"Nope. The closest I'm getting to an altar is Molly's wedding tomorrow." The one reason she had come back to Cloverville: she was going to watch her friend make the biggest mistake of her life, unless somehow she could manage to talk Molly out of it. If not for all the projectsAbby had had going on in the past couple of months, she would have come back to Cloverville much sooner. She hoped she had enough time to talk Molly out of the wedding. "I'm sorry you were sent to get me, Clayton. I thought one of the others "
"They're already at the rehearsal."
She glanced at her watch, then closed her eyes.
He probably held her responsible for the computer problems at O'Hare that had delayed their flight. She blamed herself, too, for not coming in earlier. But Clayton was one of the reasons she hadn't wanted to come back to Cloverville at all. No matter what she'd accomplished since she'd left, everyone hereand especially Claytonwould always see her as the poor, screwed-up Hamilton kid who'd been failing high school even before she'd been expelled for malicious mischief and vandalism.
"Is it too late for me to be the flower girl, Mommy?" Lara asked.
Abby's lids lifted, her gaze on her daughter's concerned expression. Lara had been looking forward to her "job" in Molly's wedding, and she'd be disappointed if Abby convinced her friend to cancel.
Clayton turned back to Lara, too, offering reassurance before her mother had a chance to speak. "No, honey, the wedding is tomorrow, and you're going to be the most beautiful flower girl Cloverville has ever seen." He closed one dark eye in a wink, his lashes brushing his cheek.
Abby's heart fluttered. It had to be an aftereffect of flying. Not that she was an anxious flyer. Nope, the nerves were because she was here, less than an hour away from the Cloverville city limits.
"But we do need to get to the rehearsal," Clayton continued. "So we know what to do tomorrow. And after the rehearsal, we're having dinner at Mr. and Mrs. Kelly's. They own the bakery and they always have lots of goodies around, including the best cookies in the world."
Lara tugged on Abby's hand. "Can I have a cookie, Mommy?"
Abby nodded. Even though it would be awfully close to Lara's bedtime when the rehearsal concluded, if it wasn't finished already, sugar didn't affect Lara as it did her mother.
"I'll get your bags and we'll be on our way," Clayton said as he headed toward the carousel.
Abby rushed after him, pulling Lara along with her. She didn't want to accept his help. She really should have rented a car, but Brenna Kelly, the maid of honor and one of Abby's oldest and closest friends, had insisted that it would be easier and faster for someone to pick her up from the airport. "I'll get my own bags, Clayton. You don't know what my suitcases look like."
"I imagine they're the only ones that are left," he said with a smug smile, turning toward the conveyor.
Abby clenched her free hand into a fist and wished she had something to whip at the back of his head. Clayton McClintock had always irritated the heck out of her, with his smug I-have-everything-under-control personality. Why had her friends sent him to get the two of them? Just how crazy had this wedding made everyone?
"He's nice, Mommy."
Clayton McClintock was a lot of things. Judgmental, humorless and uptight. But he was not nice. While all the other McClintocks had always accepted her as one of the family, Clayton made her feel as if she didn't belong.
Then again, she really hadn't. But most of the time when she was growing up, she'd had no place else to go.
She blinked, then gazed down at Lara. "What, honey?"
"Don't you like Clayton?"
She turned to watch him lift their suitcases from the carousel, his impressive biceps straining his shirtsleeves. Then she lied to her daughter for the first time in her life.
"Sure I do."
Clayton stood only a few feet away. Despite the grinding of the conveyor belt, he heard her and smothered a laugh. Abby had never liked him, which was fine with him. She'd been such a brat in her day. Her daughter might look exactly like her, but apparently she acted nothing like the wild child her mother had been.
"I wouldn't let them leave again," a male voice commented near Clayton's shoulder.
He glanced over at a gray-haired man who was standing beside him. "Excuse me?"
"Your wife and daughter," the older man said, gesturing towardAbby and Lara. "I flew in from Chicago with them."
Clayton's mouth went dry, too dry for him to respond and correct the misconception. His wife and daughter? He'd never take a wife, never have children of his own. That was one plan he didn't intend to let his family change.
"Despite the computer problems at the airport, they stayed so sweet and patient. They're beautiful," the stranger continued. "You're a lucky man."
Clayton simply nodded, not wasting any time with explanations. They were already late. After the rehearsal dinner he would dump Abby, her daughter and suitcases at his mother's house, and his responsibilities to her would be over.
"SLOW DOWN, CLAYTON," Abby said. Sun-streaked fields and dappled woods whipped past the windows of the hybrid SUV. She turned toward the backseat, where Lara's head bobbed in her sleep with each bump in the road. Less than a foot of console separated Abby from Clayton's broad shoulder. His jaw was rigidly set as he stared straight ahead at the road leading into Cloverville.
He hadn't even heard her request. She reached over and touched his thigh. Muscles flexed beneath her fingers and the SUV surged forward as his foot pressed harder on the accelerator.
"Clayton, slow down!" she whispered, not wanting to wake her daughter, even though Lara could sleep anywhere and through anything.
"Grabbing my leg isn't going to slow me down," he said tersly, as he eased off the gas. "It's actually a good way to wind up in the ditch."